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Sleeping Dogs (Xbox 360) artwork

Sleeping Dogs (Xbox 360) review

"Sleeping Dogs wouldn't have even existed without Square Enix and that could only have been bad thing. Activision didn’t want to give it a chance, but that most certainly doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t either. Delve into the seedy and brutal criminal underworld of a dense and vibrant Hong Kong... "

Grand Theft Auto V is stirring in the shadows. It’s a sleeping giant, a slumbering colossus. But having grown restless from a frustrating lack of information we’ve taken it upon ourselves to try and piece the clues together. Every morsel dripfed from Rockstar HQ is obsessively scrutinised. The trailer has been played, paused, rewound and dissected. Each screenshot (an earth shattering ten in total) is pored over in forensic detail. We want story, we want gameplay, we want a release date, we want GTA V for god's sake! Grand Theft Auto is also one of very few elite franchises that ‘non-gamers’ will pick up a controller for. Alongside the CODs and the FIFAs of this world, GTA reaches beyond the more dedicated player base and into the homes of those whose machines rarely see any action beyond football and modern warfare.

So maybe Rockstar’s magnum opus is partly to blame for Activision pulling the plug on True Crime: Hong Kong? They were terrified that it would wilt and die in the foreboding shadow of GTA V; an underdog so vastly outmatched that it clearly wasn’t worth rooting for. They’d rather take the safe route and focus on their own established money-spinners instead.

Developer United Front Games was left in limbo, with a near finished project on their hands and no publisher to back it. As Activision had all but thrown in the towel on United Front’s behalf, True Crime: Hong Kong seemed destined for premature retirement. But where Activision saw an imminent pummeling, Square Enix saw dogged (no pun intended) potential. Square snapped up the publishing rights but not the True Crime naming rights, instead, opting to rebrand the project ‘Sleeping Dogs’. It was canny move. Not only did it breathe new life into a struggling franchise, the game has since drummed up a swell of support from those keen to stick it to the the evil overlords at Activision towers. And while it won’t be prizing GTA’s iron grip from the open world/criminal underworld title, Sleeping Dogs does more than enough to decry Activision’s lack of faith and warrant Square’s backing.

“You must be a very dangerous man, Wei Shen....That is exactly what we want people to think” says Superintendent Pendrew in a sly, untrustworthy tone. But he’s right. Wei Shen is a very dangerous man and it’s just as well. Going undercover and bringing the infamous Sun on Yee Triad branch down from the inside is not a task for someone who’s afraid to get a little dirt on his hands. And although Wei is doing his job as a police officer first and foremost, he also has his own personal agenda that will often leave him at odds with his superiors. Internal and external conflict is a prevalent theme throughout his 15-20 hour story, as he falsely (and genuinely) befriends gangsters, struggles to keep a lid on his emotions and satisfy hierarchies operating on both sides of the law. As you can imagine, risks are taken, tempers fray and lines become decidedly blurred.

Granted, Sleeping Dogs isn’t bursting with original ideas and it makes no secret of its heavy Hong Kong cinema and gangster flick influences. Expect betrayal, revenge and brutal lessons on the value of loyalty. But it’s distinguishable enough from the American Dreams, rags-to-riches tales and hackneyed underdog stories to feel relevant in videogame circles. Sleeping Dogs accomplishes the rare feat of feeling familiar, yet fresh. Without sticking its neck on the line or making any high stakes gambles, it still confidently manages to affirm its own identity. As GTA strolls around in a fine tailored suit and Saints Row rocks up to the party in a novelty clown costume, Sleeping Dogs swaggers through the door in designer threads and dark shades. Considering that the title was perilously close to being panned altogether, this degree of panache is more than welcome.

Much is owed to the choice of setting and United Front has a firm grasp on what makes a convincing and entertaining sandbox. Gamers have traveled to countless fictional and nonfictional western cities, explored forests, wastelands, caverns, castles, deserts and dungeons. We’ve scoured the nooks and crannies of Tolkienesque fantasy worlds and the outer reaches of sci-fi universes. But urban Asia - particularly in the interests of a western audience - seems somewhat underrepresented. Arguably, not since Shenmue II (though fans of the cult Yakuza series may beg to differ) has the chaotic nature of an Asian city been authentically replicated. Sleeping Dogs goes a long way to rectifying that, and in doing so, offers a little respite from more tried and tested territories.

Although not a like-for-like reconstruction of its real life counterpart, Sleeping Dogs’ Hong Kong has been designed with authenticity in mind. United Front’s field trips to the Pearl of the Orient have clearly paid off. The city itself is split into four distinct districts. North Point - home to slums, trash filled back alleys and a thriving market; Central - the skyscraper laden financial centre; Kennedy Town - an affluent hive of activity, and Aberdeen Island - a bustling area of dockland. Each has its own unique style, but importantly, they all feel part of the same populous city. Traffic is highly congested (meaning that if your driving skills are as woeful as mine the roads will be teeming with angry motorists) and the weather system delivers lashing rain and beautiful sunsets as swarms of NPCs buzz about their daily business.

But it’s at night time when Hong Kong really comes to life. The streets turn into a neon haze of pinks, blues and greens, creating a vibrancy that really conveys that ‘city that never sleeps’ feel. Sleeping Dogs’ Hong Kong has a presence, a legitimate sense of place that makes it work so well. After all, surely the best sandbox games demand a well crafted world as a prerequisite. It’s all well and good having a sack full of shiny new toys but you also need a decent place to play with them. Look at Saints Row 3 and Steelport. On the one hand you have some of the most outlandish inclusions ever seen in a videogame, and on the other, a city that often seems empty and lifeless.

Luckily Sleeping Dogs already has its environmental bases covered. But what’s inside its box of tricks? Well, in truth, nothing that will drastically surprise, as it opts to implement a series of familiar traits from other titles. So having nailed the setting Sleeping Dogs does choose to play it fairly safe, but everything it does, it pulls off to a decent standard.

Guns are far less of a focal point than in other crime orientated games. Instead, the onus is on kung fu. Hand to hand combat takes its cue from Rocksteady’s masterful Arkham series, but fails to pull it off with the quite same pitch-perfect freeflow elegance. It’s slightly clumsier, yet still manages to convey a similar sense of brute force when a string of blows connect. Countering is all important. As enemies flash red a swift jab of Y will allow Wei to reverse his assailant’s move and deal out some punishment of his own. Bones crunch, limbs snap and claret flies as Wei learns increasingly more deadly and dextrous martial arts moves - roundhouse kicks, knee smashes, grapples and uppercuts are among his extensive repertoire. But the real joy comes in the form of environmental takedowns. These turn the current combat zone into a twisted playground. After grappling a foe you can drag him over to a highlighted object: dumpsters, fans, phone booths, meat hooks and all manner of other sharp, spiky things to deliver a wince worthy coup de grace. Impaling a goon on an upturned swordfish? That’s rough justice right there.

Gunplay is usually limited to specific missions and works via a serviceable cover mechanic. Vaulting over cover triggers a brief burst of slow motion bullet time. Think diet Max Payne and you’re on the right lines. Its mildly entertaining stuff but the novelty value has been milked to death elsewhere. In truth, many of Sleeping Dogs’ components are typical of the GTAisms that are ingrained in such games. Drive to mission markers indicated by blips on your radar, hijack cars, flee from the cops (you have to keep your undercover guise believable after all), earn money, gain respect etc, etc... But the game’s stylish personality, the vibrant atmosphere it generates, means that these familiar mechanics all have their place and work efficiently within it.

Importantly, the game remains fun and doesn’t overstay its welcome. While many open world games demand countless hours of stat grinding or rely on thinly spread content to bulk up, Sleeping Dogs clocks off at just about the right time. It should take around thirty hours to reach 100% completion. That’s thirty action packed hours spent delving into the seedy and brutal criminal underworld of a dense and vibrant Hong Kong. And while its gameplay and plot may not be winning any prizes for originality, Sleeping Dogs does remind and reiterate how important a well crafted game world can be. Put it this way, if Sleeping Dogs was set in Steelport, the review score would have been knocked down a couple of notches...

So no, it’s not GTA but it seems comfortable with that. Grand Theft Auto revolutionised the urban sandbox. It pioneered and popularised the concept to such an extent that anything in vaguely the same vein will always struggle to step out of its shadow. Simply, without GTA, there would be no Sleeping Dogs. Hell, it wouldn't have even existed without Square Enix and that would only have been a bad thing. Activision didn’t want to give Sleeping Dogs a chance, but that most certainly doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t either.


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Community review by Ally_Doig (September 14, 2012)

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ryan posted September 16, 2012:

good review
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Ally_Doig posted September 16, 2012:

Cheers mate, thanks for reading.

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