Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Sleeping Dogs Review

I was initially going to make this article a 30 Minute Playtest and give my first impressions of this new open world adventure from Square Enix. Problem is, once I'd loaded the disc and started to venture into the murky underworld of Hong Kong, I quickly lost track of time. Before I knew it, several hours had passed and it seemed pretty pointless to try and restrict myself to waxing lyrical about only the first half hour of gameplay!
It's been a long time coming - and it nearly didn't come at all - but thankfully, Square Enix seems to have pulled this one out of the bag. Sleeping Dogs is here, and while it's not exactly a GTA beater and suffers from a comparatively short play time, there are plenty of good ideas that should make those guys at Rockstar sit up and take notice.

After news emerged that Activision had dropped True Crime: Hong Kong, the publishing rights were snapped up and this latest open world Hong Kong-based thriller is the result. And it's a fantastic romp.

As soon as you boot up, atmospheric music and sound effects fill your ears and transport you to a whole new world. This third person adventure takes place in a vibrant Hong Kong setting, with a myriad of colours and the excitable chatter of the locals that teases the senses. Visually, it's sublime (occasional popup/slowdown etc... aside) and looks far better than the likes of GTA IV and Saints Row 3. Colourful and vivid, the environments are detailed and attractive, while the character models and animations really look the part. Lip synching is spot on and the voice acting (with the likes of Tom Wilkinson, Emma Stone and Lucy Liu) is superb. And it's not a case of style over substance...

The game starts with our stereotypical protagonist Wei Shen conducting a secretive drug deal at the harbour. The police are monitoring his shady rendezvous when all hell breaks loose after a passing security guard is killed. Cue a thrilling escape sequence/tutorial with Wei running from the scene and bounding over obstacles and scaling walls in a bid to escape. The police finally get their man and Wei is arrested. But he's not one to rest on his laurels and is quite busy while in custody. He not only catches up with an old friend who invites him to join the Triads but also meets with the hard-nosed police inspector - who reveals that Wei is actually an undercover cop. We're already hooked...

You're then released into the city, able to explore to your heart's content and participate in the various missions as, and when, you please. Some see you working for the police - catching criminals or gleaning vital information, whereas other tasks have you entering the criminal underworld of the Triads. When not picking locks, planting bugs or smashing someone's head, Wei can take part in road races, help troubled locals, sing a little Karaoke or get some valuable R&R at a massage parlour(!). Vehicles can be bought too, as can clothing - some of which helps to boost your XP. Upgrades are unlocked by filling three power bars: one for the police, another for the Triads and a third, called Face - symbolising your reputation and how you're perceived in the city. This is filled by completing side missions, racing cars and fighting.

There's a real emphasis on combat in Sleeping Dogs. Shooting from cover is part and parcel of games nowadays but it works rather well, and the melee combat is smooth, thanks to input from UFC champion Georges St-Pierre (see video below). Using only a few button presses, there's an impressive variation of punches, kicks and counters at Wei's disposal. Then there are the grapples that allow you to perform some impressive environmental kills. Grab an opponent and parts of the environment flash red. A simple button press near one of these and you interact with it, resulting in the most gruesome of deaths for your unsuspecting enemy. There's something really satisfying about impaling an opponent on a swordfish or forcing his head into an air conditioning unit - it's guaranteed to bring a smile to your face!

The simple but effective fighting mechanic really makes you feel in control and the fact it's upgradable with new moves as you earn XP helps it to outshine other games in the genre. Fighting never feels boring. The only real downside is the fact that a failed move sees you temporary freeze for a few seconds, leaving you vulnerable to attack. When you're surrounded by a group of meat cleaver-wielding bad guys, it can mean your health bar will take a beating. 

Don't worry too much though, Sleeping Dogs is very forgiving. Take a few too many bullets or fail one of the many missions and you can restart from the last autosave - which means you rarely have to retread much ground. The downside of this, however, is that it really is a very easy game to complete, with nothing that should prove particularly taxing.

Granted, Sleeping Dogs borrows a lot from other games of recent years. Besides the aforementioned Gear of War cover mechanic and the Batman: Arkham Asylum-style combat, there's also the free-running of Assassin's Creed and slo-mo bullet time of Max Payne. Then there are other familiar elements: the clothing stores, radio stations that blast from the car stereos, romantic dates, lock picking mini games and street races. What the hell though, right? It doesn't really matter that you've seen many of these ideas before because - much like a well-placed headshot - they're executed really well.

Along the way, you'll increase your coffers by completing missions and favors (tasks) for the locals - disproving the old adage that crime doesn't pay. Within a short time you'll have a small fortune burning a hole in your pocket. The downside is that there's not a whole lot to spend it all on... Sure, you can populate your garage with cars or buy some cool treads and accessories but otherwise, the only way of spending money is by consuming copious quantities of chicken in a bun and slurping energy drinks from local vendors, or by hopping in a cab to fast travel around the city. For some reason, everywhere I went - no matter how far - seemed to result in a $310 fare!!!

You could argue that everything's a little one dimensional too. There are no decisions to be made along the way and it's all very linear despite the large open world play space. But it doesn't matter. When you're tired of pandering to Uncle Po's every whim or having to carry out your official obligations for the police, there are plenty of other activities to keep you busy. Why not polish your melee skills with the underground fight clubs dotted about the city, stop for a spot of Karaoke, or partake in a little gambling with some cock fighting?

There are no multiplayer options to speak of - the only online element is the leaderboard, which allows you to compare mission times and accomplishments with friends. You really won't care though - the solo campaign (although not particularly long) will keep you hooked throughout and is the perfect tonic for us open world fans awaiting the release of GTA V. Don't let Sleeping Dogs lie... grab a copy instead! Highly recommended.

Reviewed on Xbox 360