There have been numerous pretenders to the Grand Theft Auto throne, clone games that produce some half-assed version of the GTA experience, leaving gamers wanting the real thing. Square Enix's Sleeping Dogs would accurately be called a GTA copycat; however, while the game certainly has its share of flaws, an engaging story and fun action sequences make Sleeping Dogs one of the most pleasant surprises of 2012.
Sleeping Dogs stars Wei Shen, an undercover cop moving his way up the ranks of the infamous Triad, a powerful crime syndicate centered in Hong Kong. Wei battles personal vendettas, legal obligations, and new found loyalties in a complex story that is both deep and rewarding. Selling the narrative is an excellent list of Hollywood stars, including Emma Stone and Lucy Liu, all of whom lend their talents to what really would make a fantastic movie script.
Even the members of the cast who aren't A-list actors do a commendable job, thanks in part to some surprisingly smart dialogue. Having the characters mix English and Cantonese when speaking adds an amount of realism to interactions that I didn't expect going in. The story has moments where it seems to drag out, but in general Sleeping Dogs is an intriguing crime drama, with the perfect amount of graphic violence and comic relief.
The voice acting isn't the only aspect of the sound design worth praising. The ambient sounds of Hong Kong make this city feel alive in ways that even Grand Theft Auto failed to achieve. Sound effects during shootouts, car chases, and other action sequences are all very crisp and clear, perfectly mixed with suitable background music. You'll find radio stations similar to those in Grand Theft Auto IV, with a nice mix of music genres to choose from.
Regrettably Sleeping Dogs has some flaws that detract from what is otherwise a solid experience. There are numerous glitches and strange spawn points, some of which forced me to reload the game. These elements don't generally render Sleeping Dogs unplayable, but the technical hiccups are just bad enough to take your brain out of the action. The most egregious example I encountered was during a high speed chase where enemy cars kept spawning behind me. You could actually see the vehicles fall magically from the sky, as if wished into existence by some unseen force.
The other big complaint I have with Sleeping Dogs is the camera. While driving through tight areas, the camera locks into some ridiculous angles, making for some Austin Powers style moments when trying to back out of small spaces. The camera caused me to fail more than one mission and can be very frustrating, especially when trying to drive and shoot at the same time.
If you can get past the technical speed bumps, you're looking at about a 15-20 hour single player game, depending on how many of the dozens of side missions you want to take on. Your main missions are split between police cases and gang responsibilities, with a separate experience meter for each. There are some light RPG elements present here, though you'll likely finish the game before you really get to utilize new skills to their full potential.
Sleeping Dogs has no online multiplayer, but there is an online element that brings about some competition amongst fellow players. The game records stats, gives challenges, and ranks various player actions, all of which are shared with the gamers on your friends list. While certainly not all that original, showing off in front of your friends does add a much needed level of replay value.
The on-screen action is essentially split into three types: driving, shooting, and melee combat. There's a strong focus on hand-to-hand Kung Fu fighting, and every mission seems to involve some sort of fist-to-cuff brawl. The combat system is fairly simple, with the usual combos and counter attacks. One interesting thing is the game's environmental attacks, which allow the player to perform brutal finishers using certain objects. They look great and are really fun to do.
For the most part Sleeping Dogs is a decent looking game. The city is vibrant, with fantastic looking backdrops and lighting effects. The character models are well detailed, with only an occasional reduction in quality when there are too many objects screen. You'll see the occasional low res texture that just won't pop in, objects will sometimes appear out of nowhere, and there's some screen tearing -- overall, it's nothing major. This isn't the best looking game out there, but you'll find very little to complain about with the graphics.
One of the things that really surprised me is how well the frame rates hold up when driving at top speed. Grabbing a fast car and putting the pedal to the floor is a real adrenaline rush; there's a whole lot of fun that comes with weaving in and out of traffic so smoothly.
The controls here are tight. Vehicles respond surprisingly well, and most of the combat is mapped out to the usual button presses seen in so many other games. There are some useless elements, such as a lock-on feature that, in my opinion, should be removed from the game entirely. I don't think I ever used it once, and I had no problem completing any of the combat sequences.
Oh, and who had the brilliant idea to make hiring a cab and jacking a car the same button press? More than once I found myself on the wrong side of the law, just because the controller didn't want to agree with me -- It’s unbelievably frustrating.
Overall I have a lot of good things to say about Sleeping Dogs, and not a whole lot to complain about. It's hard to believe that this game was once an abandoned project known as True Crime: Hong Kong. There are numerous issues that exist as a harsh reminder of why this project may have been dropped in the first place, but Square Enix still deserves a lot of praise for turning this into a damn good game.
If you're looking for a title to help you pass the slow summer gaming season, pick up Sleeping Dogs. If you aren't a big fan of the GTA series, then this game may not be for you. However, anyone who enjoys sandbox style gameplay will probably love what Square Enix has done to Hong Kong. Sleeping Dogs is a solid game that is both smart and fun to play -- you won't be disappointed.
This review is based on a retail copy of the 360 version of Sleeping Dogs.