In 2012 United Front Games brought us Sleeping Dogs, the Hong Kong cop/criminal caper, like the Phoenix rising from the ashes of the True Crime series. The game was a surprise in that it was actually good and held its own in the burgeoning open world adventure market, releasing at just the right point between GTA games. Now, like Grand Theft Auto V, it’s had a definitive edition released so that new generation console owners can play with “enhancements”. United Front also handled the Tomb Raider Definitive Edition at the beginning of the year, so we know they can manage the conversion. Even with that in mind, is it worth making the return trip to Hong Kong?
Sleeping Dogs is the story of Wei Shen, a US cop who returns to his Hong Kong birthplace to infiltrate the local Triad gang (the Sun On Yee) to help loosen the criminal organisations hold on the island state. The story aspect needs to be emphasised because this game actually has one. A damn good one. If there’s one thing that really stands out when playing through this again it’s how tight and well defined Wei Shen’s tale of conflicted loyalties is. Characterisation, performance and supporting cast all create a really compelling game that actually has you invested in what you’re doing. Such a shame that some of the new generation games we have seen so far can’t get anywhere near to this, though as a bonus it makes up for the fact that whilst there is a resolution bump and some additions here and there, it’s pretty much the same as it was originally.
Hong Kong island isn’t obviously an exact recreation, but it carries all the key features to make it believable. There are the famous landmarks; the taxis and their respective colours; the markets (even if they are much less densely populated than the real ones); and the language switching between English and Cantonese randomly. The atmosphere and impression of the place are definitely there, and it all manages to draw you in. Graphically it holds up reasonably well most of the time, though there is a bit of slowdown in busy situations – mainly whilst driving and spinning the camera around – though on the whole there are no complaints. The power increase in the new hardware means that there are better weather effects, more pedestrians and traffic, and I swear Wei Shen’s hair now moves like a toupee in a gale when he talks. It’s probably a testament to the original release that it doesn’t seem like there’s a major increase in the way it looks, yet it doesn’t scream “LAST GEN!” at you.
Keeping with the theme of things remaining the same, there’s nothing at all different about the controls, combat, driving or shooting which is both good and bad. Good in that the relatively deep fighting system lets you get hands on with bad guys when you’re close up, and the shoot and cover mechanics keep you engaged at distance. Bad in that car handling feels too solid unless you liberally use the handbrake. Even then it’s not actually bad, it just isn’t always as responsive as you want it to be. The pedestrians of Hong Kong can tell you all about how often I veered off the road. Speaking of which, despite living and driving in the UK it should be easy to get to grips with left-hand driving in games – seems that I’m far too used to open world being right-hand drive and it took time to retrain my brain.
If this is your first experience of Sleeping Dogs, the structure of the game is straightforward and like any other open world genre title. Walk/run/drive around a map from marker to marker doing things for NPCs. However, there’s an element of RPG underpinning your development with upgrades coming in the form of cop points, triad points or face points. Because you’re an undercover officer you get to choose doing missions for both the police and the gangs which means you earn a specific point set for each; and face is earned through proving your bad boy credentials to the local populace. Each point system has a skill tree that unlocks new abilities, and there’s a fighting move upgrade system as well linked to collectible finding. It sounds complicated but isn’t, and even the items that give you new fight moves are found in story locations so you can choose not to go hunting for them. The pacing is fixed to a degree so that the story will always make sense no matter your progress with either side of the law, and this helps cement your understanding of Wei’s motivations through the core campaign.
Taking a leaf out of the more RPG heavy open world games like Fallout, and utilising the ever more ubiquitous mobile phone, Sleeping Dogs also immerses you in the detective and criminal aspects with its choice of minigames. Picking locks, cracking safes, hacking camera feeds, and tracking phones are all in there to break up the drive-fight-drive-shoot-drive rhythm, and they all succeed. Breaking into an apartment to plant a bug and steal data from a computer is a complete change of scene from the usual missions, and stands out because of it. Wandering the streets looking for triad gangs to beatdown and then using remote surveillance to get them arrested is very satisfying. It feels like you’re actually cleaning up the streets… only to make a mess again when that security van you hijacked gets rammed into oncoming traffic.
This being a definitive edition means that all the DLC is included as one complete package, so for those dress up fiends out there you can really go to town. Fortunately the extra content for Sleeping Dogs ran to a few decent length add-ons so aside from some additional quests in the main game, like the brilliant but challenging Zodiac Tournament, so you also get two separate story based adventures in Nightmare in North Point and Year of the Snake. The main campaign is no 5 minute wonder, there are loads of side quests and collectables to keep you going for a while after you’ve reached the conclusion, and then there’s the two standalone packs to contend with. This is great value for money. Chuck on top simple but effective social competition with your friends that doesn’t require any effort and you’ve an effective reason for bringing on that “I’ll get to the mission later” feeling.
On initial release I played through and platinum’d the game, really enjoying the well written, animated and acted story. A two year gap before going in again has been just the right amount of time to appreciate the crafting that’s gone into Sleeping Dogs. Is this the best conversion for the new generation of consoles? No, it doesn’t feel enough different. Does that matter? Not a single bit. It’s inspired by epic movie themes, pays homage to kung fu and Hong Kong cinema all the way through, has it’s own unique identity and knows what it’s there to deliver. It’s not perfect, but it’s a great game and if you’re let down by some of the supposedly “next gen” games then think about giving this a shot.