Releasing Sleeping Dogs at the tail end of the summer gaming doldrums was an absolutely stellar marketing move on behalf of Square Enix. Any later and it may’ve been washed away under a sea of established AAA franchises, it satisfies the itch for something new to play that isn’t another beige Spider-Man, or an indier-than-thou XBLA or Steam title. An open-world True Crime title fit the bill perfectly, satiating the desire for something fresh and exciting. Odd then that Sleeping Dogs, whilst a solid foray into the world of the Chinese organised crime, is one of the least original games in recent memory, but boy does it do it well.
Development limbo very rarely spells good news for a game, especially if a publisher with the clout of Activision drops a title allegedly 80% complete. Sleeping Dogs feels all the more refined and polished for its troubles. The fact that in over 10 hours of play, a game of this size hasn’t so much as produced a mosquito, let along any gnarly, radioactive bugs, is a welcome change for fans of Bethesda-made open world titles; the oligarchs of the sandbox game.
Sleeping Dogs’ strengths are largely down to its spectacularly unambitious nature; it’s a high-budget, star-spangled open world game that balances weighty-combat, slick gunplay with a largely unremarkable world save for the 15 drive-by shootings per day, with equally unremarkable characters. Hong Kong feels far more like an expansive, sprawling Chinatown than a living city in its own right, which may be down to Wei Shen sounding remarkably similar to Nolan North and Jackie being played by Ziggy from The Wire. This sounds like criticism, but it isn’t.
The characters and setting are lifted straight from the Hollywood boulevards, simply serving the basic function of providing a modicum of context without ever overstepping their boundaries, the dialogue and character development may be stock but it’s delivered well enough to still be fairly engaging; to some extent Sleeping Dogs seems fully aware these elements exist to facilitate the action and combat. Thankfully it never reaches Soul Calibur levels of for-the-sakery. Not a single element of plot isn’t predictable from the off –unless United Front pull something bloody spectacular out of the bag for the last act- but it never really seems tedious in the slightest. It doesn’t aim to shock, scare or evoke any sensation other than thrill, all Sleeping Dogs wants is to entertain.
Hand-to-hand combat is taken directly from the Batman: Arkham games, tweaked slightly to add grapples, weapons and environmental kills into the mix, providing a thoroughly fluid and enjoyable, occasionally teetering on the precipice of disbelief, before delivering a gorgeous slow-motion roundhouse kick to the chin. It builds upon the Arkham formula well, adapting for its own ends, the result being an equally robust system and experience.
Vanquish, and to some extent Max Payne, offer up the gunplay; ludicrous slow-motion pieces which are, more like a side-dish, breaking up the meaty hand-to-hand of the main course. It’s not quite as solid as the core combat, but some of the fire-fights and rail-shooter sections are completely and utterly mental. In a single sequence, escaping the 18k, no less than 20 enemy vehicles are dispatched in glorious monochromatic slow-motion explosions, with more than a passing resemblance to the pile-up scene in The Blues Brothers.
The most obvious point of inspiration for Sleeping Dogs is the indomitable Grand Theft Auto series, becoming less a game and more an institution. Taking that winning formula and instilling such a vast world with close, the simplistic beauty of Arkham hand-to-hand combat takes that GTA experience arguably makes it an overall more visceral experience. It’ll never reach the same levels of overarching brilliance in creating a believe but utterly ridiculous world, but nor is it attempting to.
Sleeping Dogs isn’t the biggest, smartest, the best looking game or even the most fun game of recent years but it simply doesn’t need to be. It takes key elements of games and films, trims some of the fat and delivers a solid, enthralling sandbox experience. It’s a game, nor more and no less. It’s high time more games like this were produced, not from a creative standpoint but in order to give the games industry the same sort of self-sufficiency and stability the film industry has. The ability to create solid, sure-fire but high-budget hits in genres beyond the first-person shooter is a must and Sleeping Dogs epitomises something which needs to be done far more industry-wide.