A cinematic video game gives players ultimate control over their actions, but it takes them on an emotional ride similar as to what an audience experiences when watching a movie on the big screen. Sleeping Dogs, then, is a prime example of what interactive cinema feels like when it takes the form of a game. Its soundtrack is on cue with the action on-screen; characters evoke their emotions through their dialogues; and the story is told in such a way that makes its climax worth waiting for. Sleeping Dogs was worth waiting for.
Published by: Square Enix
Platform: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC
What works: Impressive storytelling, engaging soundtrack, great combat system
What doesn’t work: Technical issues, framerate problems, graphics are subpar
The basis for what makes Sleeping Dogs so good comes from its story, inspired largely by the Hong Kong film Infernal Affairs, and its themes of loyalty, betrayal, and identity. Wei Shen is an American police officer sent back to his homeland of Hong Kong to investigate and take down the Sun On Yee, the largest and most powerful triad in the city. The game traces Wei’s experience in Hong Kong and follows his actions from the moment he is reunited with his childhood friends until the last few minutes of the game’s twist ending. Because he’s an undercover cop posing as a gangster in a world he left years ago, Wei’s loyalties are tested and questions arise as to whose side he’s really on. It is only until Wei fully becomes integrated into the triad hierarchy that the game gets even more complex because you, as the player, don’t fully know who you’re playing as. Are you still a cop, a triad member, or both?
Further adding to the game’s cinematic storytelling are the sounds you’ll hear from both your environment and the people around you. The game’s cast of actors does a great job conveying emotion through their voices, and the mix of English and Cantonese makes being in Hong Kong even more real. Actors like Will Yun Lee become fully immersed in their roles that it makes certain lines in the game sound like they’re right out of a movie. The streets of Hong Kong are also full of people going about their lives, so the sound effects you’ll hear do a great job of conveying the bustling atmosphere of the city as well. The game’s soundtrack contains a nice blend of both Western and Asian music, and even the radio stations include a great mix of songs to jam to while driving.
As seen in nearly all open-world titles, missions must be completed to drive the story forward, and while the game itself isn’t necessarily as long as other titles in the genre, its length helps them avoid becoming repetitive. Sure, you’ll be tailing cars, driving getaway cars, and drag racing for cash and status, but the game introduces new objectives as the story progresses so as to keep things fresh and current. These missions even help reestablish the fact that Wei is a man trapped between two worlds. While you will sometimes have to commit crimes with your triad buddies and escape the Hong Kong Police Department, other times you’ll need to side with the HKPD to solve cases and bring criminals to justice. It’s not a groundbreaking method by any means, but the missions in Sleeping Dogs manage to keep your attention because they let you play on two sides of the coin.
Aside from the story-driven objectives, there are various short tasks Wei can find and complete all around Hong Kong. Favors are quick missions that people on the street will ask Wei to help them with such as retrieving lost valuables or catching pickpockets. Wei will also need to help out the local HKPD by arresting drug dealers and catching them in the act after clearing triad hangout spots and hacking security cameras. There are also races to complete, cars to steal, statues to collect, lockboxes to find, and health shrines to activate. Wei can even participate in a surprisingly fun karaoke rhythm game. The island of Hong Kong isn’t very big, but there are plenty of side-missions and things to do that make the game last well past the credits.
The underlying themes of duality and identity even extend into how the game tracks your progress and experience. It’s quite interesting to see how Wei behaves as an undercover cop who needs to fit into the world of a criminal. Not only do you need to be mindful of who you hurt or what you shoot at, but you also need to act tough enough to make your followers believe you’re one of them. For this reason, the game includes a Police and Triad Point system that gives you experience depending on your performance completing a mission. Run over civilians, destroy property, or steal people’s cars and you will lose Police Points. On the other hand, pull off fancy combos or perform headshots or brutal finishing moves, and you will gain lots of Triad Points. Missions essentially challenge you to acquire the best score possible. While the game doesn’t include any multiplayer mode, it does allow players to compete with others via online leaderboards that track your mission scores, combat achievements, and race times. At first, not driving over hydrants during a car chase might put a damper on your fun, but soon you’ll want to best score possible because it only helps level up Wei even faster.
The game puts a big emphasis on hand-to-hand combat and is heavily inspired by Hong Kong movies that show the hero coming out victorious despite being surrounded by mobs of enemies. Most battles involve fighting off groups of bad guys, so you’ll need to utilize your various martial arts moves and even your environment to defeat them all. As the story progresses, Wei will be able to use weapons like knives and machetes, but these items are temporary and only last a few hits, further emphasizing a battle’s focus on Wei’s skills and not on his weapons. Guns are also introduced later on, and like melee items, you can only use them during certain parts of the game when other enemies wield them too. Unfortunately, the game’s cover system leaves much to be desired, and doesn’t give you the option to move from behind one object to another while still remaining in cover. It’s clear an emphasis was placed on the game’s martial arts combat that actually prevents battles, and ultimately the missions themselves, from getting dull over time.
Despite its amazing qualities, Sleeping Dogs does have a few technical issues that sometimes mar the overall experience. During combat, I experienced a few glitches and moments where enemies went through walls and got stuck between different surfaces. The game’s graphics, while good, often suffer from framerate issues and texture loading times that make them look subpar in contrast to the game’s detailed cut-scenes. Character animations, too, often look stiff and not as natural as you’d hope from a game coming out this year. The city of Hong Kong, however, looks amazing, and all its narrow streets and tiny shops are well represented against its backdrop of mountains and hilltops.
Sleeping Dogs does what many open-world games have already done before, but the way in which it presents itself and tells its story makes it stand out as an achievement in cinematic storytelling. Despite not wowing us with its aesthetic presentation, Sleeping Dogs provides great moments with enough detail and charm that make it a truly amazing experience to sit through and play. It’s great when a movie achieves this feat; it’s even greater when a video game comes along and does it so effortlessly.