Sleeping Dogs will keep you up at night


— 8:52 PM on September 13, 2012

Night falls in Hong Kong. Technicolor neon lights illuminate the darkness, their vibrant hue reflecting off the rain-slick streets. Scooters weave through the traffic, and soon, so will I. But first, a pork bun. I try to think of what Anthony Bourdain might say as I chow down on street food, but I'm distracted. There's a clothing store down the street, and my duds have seen better days. Time for a new outfit—and an, ahem, massage. When in Hong Kong...

The truth is, I've done far more objectionable things than pay for the touch of a woman. In just the last few nights, I've stolen several cars, caused multiple accidents, and leveled enough lampposts to light a small town. I beat a man senseless for not paying his debts. Another, I slammed face-first into an air conditioner for having the nerve to take a swing at me. Then there's the group of unarmed thugs I savaged with an angle grinder. They didn't have a chance.

I've spared some, including one guy I stuffed into my trunk after leaving his crew in a broken, bloody heap. He didn't last, though. Mrs. Chu, a dear old lady barely 4' tall, butchered the poor guy with a meat cleaver. I watched in silence from the corner of her kitchen; he had it coming. That's not even the worst of it. No, I've also been frequenting karaoke bars—and singing. What have I become?

A Triad gangster, apparently. Except I'm also an undercover cop. My name is Wei Shen, and this is Sleeping Dogs.

The premise for United Front's open-world GTAlternative is intriguing. In reality, the narrative isn't nearly as dynamic as one might hope. Through more than two thirds of the missions that appear to make up the single-player story, a smattering of in-game cutscenes has told me that Shen is conflicted and sinking deeper into the gang he's supposed to bring to justice. However, at no point have I made any decisions affecting my fate. The story hasn't been particularly gripping thus far, either. Feels like a Hong Kong action movie I've seen many times before.

I'll reserve final judgment on the story until I reach the final climax. Apart from side quests, the odds of completion are good. That's sort of a big deal, since I haven't finished an open-world game since Crackdown. The last few Grand Theft Autos, I grew tired of within a few sessions. Sleeping Dogs is literally keeping me up at night. Just one more mission, I tell myself.

While the storyline follows a predictable path, the missions offer a fair bit of variety. As a gangster, I've spent plenty of time unleashing all manner of violence on groups of baddies. The melee combat is reminiscent of the recent Batman games, complete with counter-attacks against opponents who shimmer red when they're on the offensive. In addition to bladed weapons, power tools, and the tire iron lurking inside most trunks, the environment can be used as a weapon. Meat hooks hang from certain ceilings, garbage bins are distributed liberally, and an enemy's head can be smashed into just about anything. There are combos, too, from takedowns that would make Georges St. Pierre proud to spinning kicks that send bodies flying. You'll need to be strategic about using the various combat elements, since attackers have different weaknesses and a tendency to swarm in groups.

When playing with a gamepad, the violence is engaging and satisfying. Still, the controls don't seem as tight as Arkham City; either there's some sort of latency, or I'm just not getting the timing down right. I do have a tendency to button mash, which may be affecting my ability to counter mid-combo. The action feels much better than anything else I've played in the genre, though.

Dual analog sticks may be ideal for hand-to-hand brawling, but they're not as good for gunplay. Sleeping Dogs has a little shooting, too. The game employs what the developers call aggressive cover, which means the player can slow time by vaulting over obstacles that also provide cover from gunfire. It's much easier to pick off opponents when everything is moving at Max Payne speed. Playing with a keyboard and mouse is an option, of course.

Thing is, that combo doesn't as feel as good for the game's driving elements. There's lots of cruising around town, plus races and chase sequences that involve hanging out the window, automatic weapon in hand. Bullet time is invoked easily, and watching flaming cars flip in slow motion always leaves a smile on my face.

Driving in open-world games has always bugged me. The physics are usually awful, and players are typically asked to traverse epic distances to the starting point of the next mission. Why can't someone come and meet me for a change?

In Sleeping Dogs, the driving feel is better than expected. It's not on the level of an arcadey Need for Speed game, and cars feel unnaturally glued to the ground unless the handbrake is yanked. That said, the handling seems a little more natural than in most games of this ilk. Driving from mission to mission doesn't take too long, at least.

Chase sequences are sprinkled throughout Sleeping Dogs, whether it's behind the wheel or on foot. There are brief flashes of parkour to spice up the running, but the camera is a little too slow to keep up around corners. At least there's an opportunity for a beatdown at the end of each chase.

The undercover missions are considerably less violent overall. They're also less memorable. Snapping pictures of crime scenes just isn't as much fun as snapping limbs. I haven't had to do any stealthy sneaking thus far, although I have mastered the handful of mini-games for lock picking, terminal hacking, and bug calibrating. The mini-games are simple, so they won't bog you down.

While Sleeping Dogs' rendition of Hong Kong doesn't feel as big as some other open worlds I've roamed, the scale is still impressive. There's an authenticity to the environment that's almost convincing, save for the lack of massive crowds and gridlock traffic. The city feels sparsely populated overall, even if what's there looks good. United Front has included some PC-specific eye candy, and a high-res texture pack was released on day one. The characters are particularly detailed, which works well with the in-game cutscenes.

As I write this post, I'm trying to figure out exactly what it is about Sleeping Dogs that keeps me coming back when most other open-world titles have failed to hold my attention. It's not one thing, I don't think, but a combination of slick graphics, entertaining combat, and a sense that the action isn't too encumbered by awkward mechanics. Rather than trying to explain why Sleeping Dogs is fun, I should take a cue from the title and simply enjoy the fact that it is. Something to contemplate over another massage, perhaps.

While I do that, consider checking out Sleeping Dogs yourself. The game's favorable MetaCritic rating suggests I'm not the only one having a good time on the streets of Hong Kong, and there's a demo on Steam that's free to try.

   
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