It’s times like these where I’m glad that I’m not a professional game writer, because then I’d have to be a bit less wishy-washy when describing my experience playing Sleeping Dogs.
On the one hand, I greatly admire what it’s trying to do. It’s true that the number of GTA clones has decreased considerably in recent years, but even so, there are still 2 directions that most of these open-world games seem to take – there’s the batshit crazy direction, best personified by the excellent Saints Row 3, and then there’s the serious, thoughtful, contemplative direction first explored in GTA4 and then in Red Dead Redemption. Sleeping Dogs, to its tremendous credit, is aiming for something serious here – or, at least, is doing everything it can to avoid being unintentionally funny, which is a verydifficult thing to do when you have Chinese accents peppering a game meant for ‘Murican audiences. (There are too many YouTube-able instances of prominent American celebrities/sports stars/newspeople saying stupid shit like “ching chang chong” as a shorthand for Chinese for me to link to here, but I’m sure you get the idea.)
It also brings a lot to the table in terms of gameplay. First and foremost, it’s probably got the best melee combat we’ve yet seen in an open-world game, and while it’s not quite as good as the recent Batman games, it’s still great fun. (By the same token, some of the fights are quite difficult, which can be frustrating – but when you do win a fight, it’s all the more satisfying.)
And enough can’t be said about the open world itself. Hong Kong, even if it’s fictionalized, is an exotic and unique locale for this type of game – or, indeed, any game, really – and the city is incredibly well-designed and is a lot of fun to explore. If I were to make a Top 10 Best Open World Cities list – and I very well might, when the next generation of consoles launches and I need to do a current-gen wrap-up – I’d probably put this in my top 3. It’s that good.
But where there’s a sandbox, there is also jank, and Sleeping Dogs has some very strange jank. Not the usual jank, where there’s bugs and broken AI and shit – more like inconsistent game design. Without spoiling anything, your player character is an undercover cop, and you will be performing missions for both the police and the gangs you’ve infiltrated. After each mission, you receive performance grades that reflect how you did for both factions. Now, here’s where this gets weird; regardless of which faction you work for, you will get docked points for the police faction if you do anything wrong – if you shoot a civilian hostage while aiming for the bad guy behind them, if you crash your car into a civilian vehicle during a chase even though the civilian car drove through an intersection, if you happen to run over a streetlight. And yet, during the missions, you are not only beating up thugs, but you can brutally murder them by, say, impaling them on a pallet of swordfish heads, or by breaking an aquarium with their face, etc. Indeed, you get rewarded for such brutality.
There’s also a bunch of weirdness in the story – it feels like certain scenes may have been edited out without smoothing over their rough edges. Characters suddenly appear out of the blue and yet interact with your character like they’re old, trusted friends. A wedding takes place out of the fucking blue. And then there’s the character of Winston’s mother, which I can’t talk about without spoiling it, except to say that it is SUPER FUCKED UP and your character seems more than willing to help her do the things she does. Which, as a cop, he should maybe not do. Is all I’m saying.
I have no idea how far along I am in the story, but I’m enjoying myself for the most part, and it’s certainly worth a look if you’ve got some free time.