If you’re sick of playing games in the same old settings doing the same old things, then you might want to pay attention to United Front Game’s Sleeping Dogs. The story follows an undercover cop named Wei Shen, who is your typical expert martial arts master that can fight twelve guys at once and win. His assignment involves infiltrating one of the Triad gangs, which he does fairly easily since he knows many of the guys in charge from his childhood. The setting is in exotic downtown Hong Kong, where you get to drive on the wrong side of the road (if you live in the U.S.)! The characters are memorable and entertaining, and the voice acting is top notch. Both the on foot and in vehicle controls are well done, and the extra bells and whistles (graphics-wise) for the PC version are a nice touch.
Although Sleeping Dogs is an open world game with a lot of content to explore, at its heart is a melee combat system that ties the whole game together. Every mission and almost every side quest involves hand-to-hand combat against a group of rival gangsters, and ultimately, this is what kept me playing. Don’t get me wrong, Sleeping Dogs has a lot of other great qualities that make it a worthwhile game to pick up, but melee combat is what it does so much better than any other open world game.
As an example, there are side missions scattered across the city called drug busts. They involve going to a gang hangout, hacking the camera, and then going all the way back to your apartment to bust a drug dealer. Initially, this sounds like an awful and boring part of the game that you might just want to skip. But at each location, you have to clear out the gang members with your legendary martial arts prowess. Thus, what was once a useless side mission becomes an awesome fight scene that might as well have come straight from a kung fu movie!
At first glance, the melee combat is pretty simple. Hit a button to attack, and hit it a bunch of times to attack more. You can hold the attack button down to do a heavy attack, and Wei will do something awesome depending on how many times you hit the attack button before holding it down. This is how the combat becomes more interesting. Different enemies have different weaknesses. Some may be more vulnerable to a roundhouse kick, while others require a swift knee to the groin (that never gets old!). Wei can also grapple enemies, and this opens up great opportunities to immediately take an enemy out of the fight. My absolute favorite part of the melee combat is the environmental takedowns. When Wei has an opponent grappled, certain objects in the environment flash red, which means they can be used to kill the enemy. These takedowns range from fairly mild (stuffing a guy into a dumpster) to horrifically violent (impaling a guy on a giant hook hanging from the ceiling).
The most intriguing thing about the melee is how grounded Wei’s fighting style is. Yes, he is a master of countering enemy attacks and impaling people on swordfish, but it’s fairly believable. He can’t magically leap across the room from one enemy to another, and if he misses an enemy or does a bad counter, it leaves him vulnerable. And believe me, enemies will take advantage of that. These guys may be slightly terrified of Wei, but they’ll do their best to keep him off balance (less so if you choose the easy difficulty).
Although the melee combat is one of the best implementations I’ve seen, the gunplay falls well short of the mark. Aiming feels sluggish when trying to sweep the crosshairs across the screen but twitchy when trying to dial in on an enemy. You do get some help with slow motion, which can kick in when Wei vaults over a wall or falls over a tall ledge. This does help to get shots in before the enemies, but it only lasts long enough to squeeze rounds into two or three guys. Fortunately, I have no interest in shooting enemies when I can roundhouse kick them in the face, so this doesn’t bother me all that much.
But what would an open world be with lots of vehicles to drive? You might expect Sleeping Dogs to have the same driving mechanics of similar open world games, but it doesn’t. See, United Front Games developed ModNation Racers a few years back, so they’re no strangers to driving games. This experience shows in Sleeping Dogs. Each type of vehicle handles exactly how you’d expect to. Motorcycles can’t go careening around turns and somehow manage to stay upright the whole time, and cars can’t just turn on a dime. Although Sleeping Dogs is not by any stretch of the imagination a driving simulator, it manages to feel better than a simple arcade driving game. There is one caveat to this, though. In an effort to make car chases more manageable and exciting, Wei can somehow quickly move his car sideways to ram other vehicles. Sure, it’s not even remotely realistic, but it’s a pretty efficient method of taking out the cops that are giving you a hard time.
If you don’t get enough driving through the missions, there are also races scattered around the map. They’re a nice diversion if you want to do something other than beat the crap out of thugs, and they even tie in to the main storyline (kind of). Other side diversions include the drug busts I mentioned earlier, collecting briefcases stashed all around the city, and finding health shrines that increase Wei’s maximum health (what else would you expect from a health shrine?). Ultimately, though, what keeps you coming back is the story.
United Front has weaved an awesome tale that feels like you’re playing through a martial arts movie. All of the characters are integral to the story, and they all seem believable. The voice acting is key in making this happen. Actors like Will Yun Lee and Tom Wilkinson bring wonderful performances to the cut scenes, and really make the story come together. If you’re bored with side missions like drug busts and racing, you’ll still want to stick around to see the story through. Trust me, it’s worth it. It’s not very often a game comes along that can weave a story together this well.
To make things even more interesting, over the course of the game, Wei gains access to various upgrades for his combat skills. By finding statues scattered across the city, he unlocks exciting new melee moves, and by completing missions and side quests, he unlocks various upgrades in the Triad and Cop skill trees. If that wasn’t enough, he also has a Face meter, which is basically a measure of his reputation. Wei gains Face by helping citizens with their problems (although it doesn’t always go that well). Each time you fill the Face meter, a new perk is unlocked. This is just a little extra motivation to go and do some of the content off the beaten path, and it is well worth the effort.
As with Darksiders 2, I decided to get the PC version of Sleeping Dogs because it was $45 on Steam. This, however, is more than just a simple port. PC gamers will be pleased to know that all the graphics options you expect are available, and there’s even an HD texture pack that is free to download on Steam. The game looks and runs absolutely wonderful, and has full controller support (even the correct button prompts for the 360 controller) if you’d rather sit back on the couch and play on a TV. August is normally a time when not much is being released, so I fully recommend grabbing this title. United Front Games did an excellent job with this, and I know that I’ll be playing through a second time.