According to cinema, being an undercover cop is invariably rough work. Law enforcers masquerading as crooks, we’re repeatedly told, are forced to question their loyalties and pick sides. Developing an open-world action game also poses a question of allegiance: should developers serve their narrative, or player autonomy within a big-budget sandbox? With Sleeping Dogs, United Front Games has erred towards the former, delivering a game about Triads and detectives that’s at its best when funnelling you through the set-pieces of its story, and becomes more scattershot when offering distractions from it.
Playing as undercover policeman Wei Shen, your job is to work your way into the Sun On Yee gang. It’s a task built on four core pillars: running, shooting, hand-to-hand combat and driving. There are overlaps, too, having you fire from car windows or motorcycles, and you’ll shift quickly from one gameplay style to another as you hunt rival gangs across Sleeping Dogs’ sprawling Hong Kong cityscape. Indeed, in its fusion of running and scrapping with a martial arts movie flavour, Sleeping Dogs calls to mind 2004’s Jet Li: Rise To Honour. Both aim to place you in a Chinese action classic and both fail to fully suspend your disbelief, their ambitions betrayed by occasionally ropey production values as well as scripts that can’t come close to even the most clichéd of Golden Harvest or Shaw Brothers releases.
Like some of the shady denizens of its story, Sleeping Dogs is also a thief with ambitions above its station. The influences on its component parts are clear: the one-button parkour chases are informed by Assassin’s Creed, the counter-based brawling is lifted from Rocksteady’s Batman titles and the driving feels like a descendant of United Front’s own arcade-flavoured ModNation Racers (with a similarly choppy framerate) in the clothing of Rockstar’s zippy Midnight Club. Nearly inevitably for such a mix of influences, the resulting package lacks the polish of the games it draws on. Driving is hampered throughout by lightweight vehicle physics; character animations can look robotic, whether you’re in the midst of a firefight, the heat of a punch-up or leaping and bounding across town in pursuit of a felon; and the parkour has neither the same freeflowing depth nor the potential of Ezio’s world of seemingly infinite ledges and handholds.
So there’s never a sense of grace to Wei Shen, but otherwise he’s an engaging lead. He comes off as a mash-up of Tony Jaa and Bruce Lee who walks tall, speaks softly and delivers one hell of a roundhouse kick. Wei Shen’s charm is largely down to his voicework, which is provided by film and videogame actor Will Yun Lee. He’s backed up by a solid ensemble of character actors, including Lucy Liu and Tom Wilkinson. They add a heavyweight presence to characters that might otherwise have been forgettable bit-parts.
Shen’s story missions come in two flavours: Cop and Triad, with each earning new abilities for two distinct progress trees. Cop missions unlock firearm-based skills, such as extending your slow-motion powers, while Triad tasks grant you with greater melee skills and open up more fearsome kills. A Face meter, a measure of your level of respect, also brings new perks, such as a valet who’ll deliver you a car at any time. Between them, both mission types offer an at times gripping 12-hour romp of face-smashing, roof-hopping entertainment, regardless of the technical shortcomings.
A bloody shootout at a wedding ceremony and a battle through a hospital (a nod to the climactic scene of John Woo’s Hard Boiled) offer up some of the game’s high points, interspersing punchy cutscenes with sharp bursts of action. The short attention span of such missions, ushering you from car chases to shootouts and getaways, prevents you from scrutinising any one element for too long. It’s a cunning way of playing to the game’s strengths, but at times its flaws can be all too obvious. Bugs range from inconsistent police behaviour (blowing a lone cop car to smithereens can be enough to remove your wanted status) to railings that send your vehicle flying. At times, the AI can be comically inept, too, perhaps leading to you duelling with a drug dealer who refuses to turn around and face you as punch him in the back of the head.
Peripheral missions and sidequests are plentiful by Sleeping Dogs’ midway point, but they never provide the character or originality you’d hope for from a game with characters that have names like Johnny The Ratface and Old Salty Crab. Mundane dating missions pale in comparison to the likes of Yakuza’s hostess bar frolics, while street races play out like pale last-gen imitations of Need For Speed: Underground’s drag races. Collectibles, meanwhile, are in disappointingly easy-to-find, ground-level places – why bother to create a protagonist who is so athletically gifted if all the goodies are on the floor
There is, at least, the opportunity to listen to Flock Of Seagulls in the karaoke minigame, and the scavenger hunt for stolen dojo statues is a consistent pleasure throughout, unlocking extra moves. This also offers up some neat little close-quarters brawls with students who will no doubt have their mothers filing complaints with the teacher when they arrive home with rearranged faces.
Throughout it all, cinematic influences can be felt in every frame of Sleeping Dogs. Offering a view of Asia through the filter of its action film industry, this is a depiction of Hong Kong that could have come straight from the reel. As you cruise around the slums, docks and neon-soaked streets in the game’s first few hours, you’re reminded of some of contemporary Hong Kong cinema’s most iconic scenes. Warehouse shootouts and motorbike chases, complete with slow-mo dives, evoke John Woo’s oeuvre of trenchcoat mafia action films. Sessions of bug planting and window-watching reconnaissance call to mind the espionage cat-and-mouse of Andrew Lau and Alan Mak’s Infernal Affairs trilogy. Meanwhile, the eccentric and self-destructive street thugs and gangsters of the narrative echo Johnny To’s canon of pacy thrillers. The game’s bloodlust, however, brings to mind South Korean cinema’s most brutal flicks, with the ability to make stylishly vicious use of the scenery. Simply grab foes and position them near highlighted objects and you can unleash a world of scripted pain. A hunt through the city for the city for a serial killer also nods to the slick and gory procedural thrillers that the region has produced in the last decade.
Despite the high-profile bill of acting talent attached to the game, the city in Sleeping Dogs is among its best defined characters. It’s varied and vast, leading to the sense of a real place full of intricacies. It’s a particular shame, therefore, that the fixed vehicle camera can feel so cruelly restrictive. Though your view can be tilted up and rotated as you roam around, the medium close-up does little to showcase the better environments and the game’s sweeping scale. Coming from a studio clearly heaving with cineastes, Sleeping Dogs doesn’t do enough to exploit its dense and detailed mise en scène.
With such a range of eastern influences, it’s also disappointing that United Front seemingly lacks the confidence to fully immerse you in its Asian setting. You’re never far from a western touchstone, whether it’s the pop music blaring out of the radio, Wei Shen’s New York twang, or the burly, steroidal villains of the piece, who speak mostly in English with the occasional Chinese swear word thrown in for authenticity. That said, the ambient audio of the streets deserves special praise, having been recorded during reconnaissance trips to Hong Kong by the development team.
Kane & Lynch 2 proved how the sense of alienation and disorientation westerners feel in an eastern setting can enhance a game about paranoia, but Sleeping Dogs, a game specifically about identity, doesn’t use its setting to emotive effect. The script falls flat in trying to keep you both invested and on edge, giving in to cheap cliché and racial stereotyping. One particular womanising rapper stands out painfully in the final third.
When Activision axed production on what was planned to be the third entry in the True Crime series, CEO Eric Hirshberg said the title wasn’t “good enough” to compete in the fierce market of open-world games. The question, then, is whether new publisher Square Enix should have let this sleeping dog lie, and the answer is hazy. You’ll find well-executed entertainment here, some moments worth fighting for, but without the glue of a good script or the polish of a blockbuster to hold its disparate parts together, Sleeping Dogs feels as trapped as its hero. It’s incapable of committing fully to the action movie thrills it seems so enamoured of, perhaps due to the resources that have been siphoned away to fuel its open-world obligations and scale. Like an early Bruce Lee flick, Sleeping Dogs contains flashes of brilliance that stand out amidst an uneven whole. But, unlike Lee himself, it’s likely few will remember Sleeping Dogs as either an innovator or master, but merely a student of greater games.
Version tested: PS3