Triads and Tribulations
Sleeping Dogs proves that a great concept is always worth saving. It may not have the sheen of other open world games, but United Front has made something truly unique.
Published: August 24, 2012
Similarly, instead of protracted shootouts, much of the early combat experience is centered exclusively around using Wei's fists and feet. He's got some training (and he can learn even more by finding special statues in the world), allowing for unarmed combat against multiple enemies simultaneously. If this sounds familiar (Batman, anyone?), that's probably because superficially, the combat is similar. In stark contrast to Rocksteady's work with the Arkham games, though, the animation here is noticeably more clunky. The responses are usually pretty close, but Wei is by no means a seamlessly transitioning ass kicker. He does however kick plenty of ass, including tackles, breaking limbs, reversals, finishing moves and simple combos. What starts as something clunky and disconnected slowly morphs over the next few hours into a wide palette of pain from which to pick and choose your tools of decimation. In the same way those Batman games made you eager to find a crowd to pummel, Sleeping Dogs makes it a joy to quickly dispatch enemies that include simple fist fodder and ramp up to grappler-type enemies, ones that can counter and dodge your attacks and more.
Complicating the driving aspect of things is the fact that when Wei is on a mission -- any mission -- he's judged by two different scoring criteria. Sticking to the law (read: don't create damage to the city, don't shoot innocents and avoid obvious stuff like carjacking) keeps the Cop XP meter from dropping. Executing long combo strings, avoiding getting hit and varying moves (or just killing dudes in general) raises the Triad XP meter while accomplishing side quests and taking down crime rings boosts the Face XP meter. All three feed directly into separate upgrade levels that will unlock more abilities and discounts at vendors.
Face activities in particular can be fairly varied: helping pedestrians, discovering random events, singing karaoke, going on brief dates with a few special girls, gambling, and so on. There's enough variety here that very rarely does an action feel like it's worn out its welcome, and combined with the creative and varied story missions, there's a ton to keep you entertained. They also have huge benefits; the dates, for instance, show all collectibles on the map once finished, which is a godsend for an open world game.
Even the game's driving model, which seems entirely unwieldy at first, slowly starts to make more and more sense as the game goes on. There's a kind of adherence to the idea of letting all vehicles rip on the e-brake and do donuts in place, and once it's understood how braking works, burnouts are both useful and awesome looking. Being a modern game, it's also a joy to find out that these vehicles are fast for the most part -- much faster than most open world games, and it makes getting around quite a bit easier (though there are cabs that can be hailed to go to a limited number of places). Bikes become something to be feared, but they're also twitch-level agile, which quickly becomes invaluable at snaking through the claustrophobic traffic and back alleys of Hong Kong.
Back alleys get quite a bit more use in Sleeping Dogs, a nod to just how densely packed the city is, I suppose, but really it just helps the game feel more rife with areas to explore (they aren't just shortcuts; alleys house massage parlors, gang activity, and more). It's one more ingredient that ties the whole look and feel of the game -- a wash of night-time rain storms throwing neon color across street and sidewalk and building alike -- that really gives everything an identity. From the sampans lashed together near the docks to the glittering, clean streets of the Central district to the more rural, mountainous areas housing drift-friendly hairpins and shrines to the run-down junkyards and extensive freeway system, there are certainly recognizable "parts" to this version of Hong Kong, but they fit together with a kind of haphazard charm that escapes proper description (or at least I can't articulate it properly).