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THE HONG KONG MASTERPIECE
We Shouldn't Let Sleeping Dogs Lie
BILL WOOD | MAY 25, 2022
“I wish I could live your life. Just for one day.”
This wistful line is sighed by a parking lot attendant as he retrieves one of Hong Kong police detective Wei Shen’s exotic street racers. Taken at face value, it seems like a perfectly natural sentiment. The irony is that in United Front Game’s epic Sleeping Dogs, that we live Wei’s life for many, many days, and while these days may be action-packed, they are nowhere near as glamorous as our parking lot attendant assumes.
Since the earliest days of Shenmue and GTA III, open world gaming has constantly set new standards of excellence for the single-player experience. Modern players can live their virtual free-roaming lives as samurai, cowboys… even Homer Simpson. Some of these titles represent my all-time favorites; Red Dead Redemption, GTA San Andreas, Mafia II, the list goes on. Like a great novel, I go back to these games time and time again. Another such game is Sleeping Dogs, a masterful blend of action gaming and Hong Kong crime drama narrative that never lets up. Hard to believe it's been a decade since its original release, but there's never been a better time to go back and revisit this forgotten gem.
What exactly is it that makes Sleeping Dogs so special? Let’s start with what makes open world gaming so special in the first place; the world itself. UFG's recreation of Hong Kong is a rain-drenched sandbox of concrete and neon, a violent playground where trendy fashion boutiques and five-star restaurants are juxtapositioned by dark alleys populated with gang members, purse snatchers, and other ne’er-do-wells. It’s not exactly Times Square on a Saturday evening, but this version of Hong Kong is vibrant enough to make you feel as though you’re in the center of a thriving metropolis, a place where adventure and misadventure are always around the corner.
It's the little things that makes Sleeping Dogs' version of Hong Kong feel like a living, breathing city. Pedestrians reach for umbrellas and hold newspapers over their heads when it starts to rain, street vendors shout at passersby as they hawk their wares, loiterers swear in native Cantonese, car enthusiasts hang out on corners, awaiting the next big street race. There's plenty of hustle and bustle on these digitized streets, but there are also normal everyday people living normal everyday lives, which incentivizes players to stick around and uncover all of its hidden treasures.
The story, which is centered around an undercover cop infiltrating the notorious Triads, deserves heavy praise. The duality of Wei Shen's double-life as gangster and cop becomes increasingly complicated as the plot develops, to the point where the lines between good and evil are blurred. Wei's character development isn't just a simple narrative to keep the action moving along, it's every bit as essential as the constant mayhem taking place on the streets. The supporting cast of characters—voiced by actors such as Emma Stone and Robin Shou of Mortal Kombat fame—are compelling, the dialogue is smart and never feels contrived or formulaic. All in all, the game plays out like one lengthy John Woo flick, which is a very good thing.
There are tons of activities in Sleeping Dogs, everything from brawling to racing to gambling to hacking to karaoke singing (!), and all of them are enjoyable thanks to the smooth controls. The melee system can be described as "Arkham Lite," meaning there's less emphasis on precise input timing and more emphasis on all-out action. Strikes, grapples and counters all flow into one another seamlessly, turning Wei into a one-man ass-kicking machine. The third-person camera can be a bit problematic in places, but it's never wonky enough to cost you a battle. Even the racing (usually my least-favorite part of any open world game) is a blast, never overly difficult.
Sleeping Dogs: Definitive Edition includes all previously released DLC, and while none of this extra content is essential to enjoying the main story, it absolutely adds to the overall fun factor. There's plenty of cosplay goodness, including tributes to several Asian cinematic icons. Many of these costumes aren't simply for show, they provide Wei with crucial stat boosts and fighting abilities. In addition, there's an island tournament that is essentially Enter The Dragon, complete with '70s drive-in intro and wah-wah soundtrack. There's even a ghostly side story with supernatural enemies (Chinese hopping vampires!)… it's every bit as killer as it sounds. The only DLC that didn't click with me was Year of the Snake, which features Wei in a pure good-guy role as a beat cop and bomb squad expert as he takes down a cult leader. Still, the sheer amount of extra content does extend the game's lifespan considerably.
One downside to Sleeping Dogs: Definitive Edition is that the visuals aren’t exactly “definitive,” on consoles anyway. Textures and draw distances are slightly improved from the original, but the game is locked at 1080p/30fps even on the mighty PS5. All in all, it still looks very much like a late-gen PS3 title. I'm not expecting a 4K remake any time soon, but at the very least, having the game run at 60fps could have made a huge difference. Then again, if 30fps is the price to pay for having a densely populated world, I'll gladly settle. There's also no native Cantonese dialect option, a curious absence from a game directly influenced by Hard-Boiled and The Killer.
A Sleeping Dogs sequel was in the planning stages years ago, unfortunately the project was canceled with the dissolution of United Front Games and is unlikely to ever see the light of day. Other HK-based action games such as John Woo’s Stranglehold and The Hong Kong Massacre are spiritually connected to Sleeping Dogs, and while they are both worthwhile titles, neither rises to the heights of the latter. It is, as this title suggests, a masterpiece. Sleeping Dogs frequently goes on sale for under five bucks, so there's no reason to avoid throwing on your favorite detective suit, grabbing a pork bun, and dispensing justice on the crime-ridden streets of Hong Kong. - BW