But it’s good to see Square Enix give the game another chance with a “HD” version, and after the disappointment of Watch Dogs, Sleeping Dogs: Definitive Edition (what is it about dogs?) gets to be an open world game on a console with relatively few of them right now. With any luck it attracts more notice this time around because it really deserves any success it finds.
Hong Kong isn’t the cleanest city. It’s not even the most beautiful city (though it has a couple of photogenic spots, of course). But what Hong Kong has in spades is colour and energy. From the neon lights to the street vendors, Hong Kong is the kind of city where people bask in the glow of man-made lights brighter than the sun and risk their lives with food poisoning to take in the local flavours and cuisine. It’s exciting, it’s vibrant, and because of that, it’s fun. It’s also a far cry from the glistening clean cities depicted in Watch Dogs or Grand Theft Auto, and this appeals to me as well. The world of Sleeping Dogs is more exotic than those open world games based in more familiar cities, and in a genre that badly needs developers to take some riskts to inject some variety into it, lest it go the way of Call of Duty, Sleeping Dogs provides that breath of fresh air though its stunningly-realised environments.
I also applaud the developers at United Front Games for their willingness to break away from the typical expectation of an open world game to have a Caucasian man in the lead role. Wei Shen is a our protagonist this time around, and he’s a Chinese American undercover officer, covered in tattoos and carrying a tough guy attitude that is charged with infiltrating the Sun On Yee Triad. It’s a fairly standard gangster plot in the end, but it’s one that does take its opportunity to display the unique style of Hong Kong organised crime seriously.
The voice performances are also surprisingly decent, with Shen’s character especially being more charismatic and sympathetic than many other protagonists from the genre. Anyone with any understanding of Triad culture understands why these organisations have an international reputation for their brutality and capacity for violence (which does apply to all organised crime, but these guys take things to the next level). At the same time, the Triads adhere to their own concept of a code of honour, known as the “36 oaths,” which is different in many respects to how other organised crime organisations operate.
Sleeping Dogs does a great job representing this nuance, giving the game an narrative authenticity that helps support the authentic atmosphere of the city. And then for Shen’s sympathetic character and American attitude to be thrown into that underground provides for an fascinating contrast. It’s somewhat disappointing that the developers didn’t pace the character too well and you never quite get past the sense that more could have been done with him, but compared with most of his peers, Shen’s one of the better protagonists that we’ve seen in recent years.
On a technical level the developer has done a good job in updating the game to reflect the power of the newer hardware. Sleeping Dogs was always a good looking game (especially with regards to the character models), but on the PlayStation 4 the additional details that have been added in and higher resolution help contribute to an even more vibrant environment to explore than we had seen previously. With this being said, if there’s one thing Sleeping Dogs does poorly is in reflecting just how busy Hong Kong is. The number of people wandering around the city is too low most of the time, and while there’s a lot of contextual stuff going on that helps to give players a sense of a living city (I especially enjoyed the conversations that went on in the hotel that represents the player’s “home base”), one of the things I liked most about Watch Dogs is how each individual in the city had a small bio to give them something of a personality. Going back to games like Sleeping Dogs after that, with their nameless and blank citizens, makes for a city that feels both quiet and devoid of human personality.
But Sleeping Dog’s greatest strength is the core gameplay loops, which are quite simple by open world standards, but cleanly and efficiently executed. Players can choose to complete “Cop” missions or “Triad” missions, to help out the police or to further ingratiate Shen to the Triad to infiltrate it, respectively. Each of these streams of missions have their own skill trees which are unlocked as you play along. You’ll want to do both anyway, but it’s a nice way to break character development down into small chunks that are easy to keep track of. The missions themselves don’t do much to break away from the norm as we’ve seen in the likes of GTA, but hooning around Hong Kong has nice sense of agency to it, and the game controls beautifully. I especially enjoyed the melee combat, which had the kind of brutal impact that you’d expect to see in Hong Kong gang warfare.
I have issues with these kinds of games, in that they do tend to romanticise organised crime and vigilantism, and Sleeping Dogs, despite having a policeman as the protagonist, doesn’t actually do enough to reflect the actual horrors that the Triads inflict on any population they involve themselves within. However, as a gangster-style narrative, I can’t think of one I enjoyed more than this. I loved the game when I played it as a freebie on PlayStation Plus ages ago. I love it even more on my shiny, powerful, PlayStation 4.
– Matt S.
Find me on Twitter: @digitallydownld