Sleeping Dogs is one of the most underrated games of the last decade. Not only did it rival Rockstar, the king of open-world games, but it also surpassed the developer’s most recent instalment at the time in almost every respect. Despite receiving critical acclaim from critics and gamers alike, the game remains on its own, never graced with a sequel. I want to explore why this game was so enjoyable and why it’s still worth playing today.
True Crime & The Genesis Of Sleeping Dogs
When open-world games crashed onto the gaming scene, everyone wanted to snatch the crown away from Rockstar. This period saw old franchises like Driver and new ones like True Crime, vying for dominance and ultimately failing, sometimes spectacularly. Driver 3 induced an almost ten-year coma for the series, but True Crime: Streets of LA showed promise. Sure, it was an ugly game and glitches abounded, but it told an impressively compelling story. You play Nicholas Chang, a troubled cop, scarred by the death of his father, twenty years earlier. When he’s recruited for a particular case, he finds that a series of bombings in Chinatown may have something to do with his father’s death.
True Crime: Streets of LA wasn’t just a rip-off. Developer Luxoflux used emerging GPS location technology to recreate an accurate map of Los Angeles, spanning 300 square miles. Impressive also was the list of voice actors who breathed life into these rough early 2000s character models. Actors from Garry Oldman to James Hong lent their talents and raised the game above similar games of the time. Sadly, the sequel, True Crime: Streets of New York was so woefully bad; it essentially killed the franchise. Mumblings of a possible reviving of the series suggested a move away from an American setting. This game, True Crime: Hong Kong began development in 2009, but, due to the negativity surrounding the franchise, the developer dropped the name and replaced it with Sleeping Dogs.
Let Sleeping Dogs Lie
Sleeping Dogs has a “prodigal son returns” theme. Wei Shen is a San Franciscan detective who has gone undercover to infiltrate and dismantle Hong Kong’s most dangerous Triad family, the Sun On Yee. As a child of diaspora, Wei’s mission isn’t without personal risk. Wei uses an old friend, Jackie, to gain a lowly position within the family. There is a power struggle within the Sun On Yee that threatens to rip the family apart. To make matters worse, rival Triads are encroaching on their territories, throwing the city into an all-out gang war.
The game’s story spends much of its time in a morally grey area. Wei is a cop and helps gather intel for the Hong Kong police. But, when working with his fellow gangsters, who are ignorant of his real occupation, he will commit tremendously violent crimes; living such a duality must and does have a troubling effect. Indeed, as the story progresses, Wei finds it hard to pull himself away from his darker side, finding the secrecy and political red-tape stifling and counter-intuitive. This mental conflict between the life he chose and the one he may have had remains gripping throughout.
Part of what makes Sleeping Dog’s story so captivating are the cutscenes. These scenes are always tense because you’re distinctly aware that Wei is lying to survive, making the relationship that the player forms with the protagonist, one of complicity. There are people on both sides that you come to trust, regardless of the horrific acts you’ve witnessed them commit, making Wei’s ability to remove himself from the situation even more difficult. As far as depth goes, I can think only of Mafia II as a rival in terms of a criminal narrative. I loved every minute of it.
Kung Fu Fun
One gameplay mechanic which differentiates Sleeping Dogs from most third-person, open-world games, is martial arts. Guns do exist in the game and are necessary for some later missions, but, for the majority of your time, you’ll be grappling with your enemies in a rigorous melee system. Your environment is as much of a weapon as your hands, combining hard-hitting melee combat, with gruesome environmental finishers that can leave you wincing. It’s all very, John Woo-ish. Driving is distinctly arcade-like, but this suits the games dalliance for car combat (like Burnout with guns).
Borrowing from open-world games of the past, Hong Kong is divided into several districts, many of which remain inaccessible until reaching certain story moments. As an undercover cop, Wei can participate in several activities around the city. Karaoke, street racing and fight clubs are dotted on the map and help flesh out this decadent city. Wei’s a bit of a ladies man and can date women throughout the game, which gain you awards. You can spend your ill-gotten profits on flash clothes, to look the part of a prosperous triad or a large verity of sports cars to rip through the streets.
Sleeping Dogs can be visually stunning and shows off the neon city at its finest. Graphically, the game is at its best when played on PC, but the definitive edition on PS4 and Xbox One are both fantastic too. I can’t think of any gameplay aspect I didn’t enjoy.
Sleeping Dog will remain underrated due to it being an open-world game, in the vein of GTA; as is the curse of many similar games. It has a compelling story and an impressive kung fu combat system that’s so rare in modern games. We aren’t likely to see a sequel anytime soon, so if you come across it, don’t miss out on the chance to experience one of the best games of the 7th generation; you won’t regret it.