Who the hell steals CRT monitors?
– Wei Shen on the inevitability of the obsolescence of electronics.
The employees of the Hong Kong Tourism Board cannot have easy jobs: the past thirty years must have seen them busy dealing with negating the negative PR associated with the particularly gruesome Tuen Mun Rapist and Jars Murderer, as well as attempting to quell the general swell of feeling in other nations that the country is essentially run by the mob and is a haven for street crime. The success of the Infernal Affairs trilogy in the West following its remake in Scorsese’s The Departed has probably done little to help this. Film aside, video games have done little to help this media impression: Deus Ex’s Hong Kong levels revolve around the Triads’ seeming incapability to get on with one another, and Sleeping Dogs is, well, an indictment of the ability of the police of a fictionalised Hong Kong to deal with the racketeering, infighting, extortion, authentic Cantonese cooking and simple brutality of the Triads; as well as the extortionate asks that are made of undercover operatives of the Hong Kong Police Department. Sleeping Dogs is brutal, immediate and expansive. Sleeping Dogs is incredibly good, both in terms of spectacle and gameplay.
The core plot of the game is solid: the player takes on the role of Wei Shen, a undercover cop returning to Hong Kong from living in San Francisco. As with all good police officers’ stories, Wei has a personal tie to the Triad in which he will be working, the Sun On Yee – he holds it to be their fault that she died of an overdose. A theme that recurs throughout the game is that of family and belonging: given Wei’s lack of cultural ties to anywhere (often remarking that he does not feel that either Hong Kong or San Francisco is his home), his police handler Raymond reiterates the conflict that Wei must feel regarding his duty and his new Sun On Yee family. In addition to the direct storytelling of the story missions of the game and the associated cutscenes, the player unlocks and is able to peruse files pertaining to the major characters of the game using the in-game mobile phone.
The first thing that is apparent in the game is United Front Games’ attention to detail in the realisation of their desired aesthetic, both in terms of the visual and aural components, with it being clear that the Hong Kong presented was not to be an ignorant Western-fictionalised idealisation from the option being given to have subtitles in the game purely for speech in Cantonese. While the whole game is not presented in Cantonese, characters split between Cantonese and English at points that underscore their intent in speaking or their age – for example, the younger Triad members all speak primarily in English, accentuating their anger with idiomatic Cantonese, while the mother of the Red Pole under whom you spend much of the game serving speaks entirely in Cantonese: an indication of the increasing Anglicisation of Hong Kong culture across the generations, a trend that would not have been picked up save for some good research. Further attention to detail is demonstrated through the authentic presentation of Hong Kong Police Department uniforms and cars, telephone booths and even bins. The developers have made much of the level of research that has gone into the game, from talking to Hong Kong police officials to talking to former and current members of the Triads, and it is not research that has been undertaken in vain: every little detail adds to the texture of the game world, serving to increase the level of immersion. The player’s Wei Shen is not any tabula rasa action hero: he is a fully-realised undercover cop with a history as real as any fiction could be.
What looks on paper to be a fairly generic third-person brawler and shooter turns out to be a game with incredible depth: the brawling and shooting mechanics themselves are quite deceptively complex, with the initial getting to grips with combat feeling like a lesson in pressing square in a rhythmic fashion, but as the game progresses, you find new ways to use the aforementioned square in combination with other buttons to perform increasingly devastating attacks. The system is initially intuitive, with a relaxed learning curve that rewards successful experimentation and punishes the bad, leading to progressively better play of the game. The shooting elements of the game play much like Max Payne 3, with a similar bullet time-esque slowdown system used available when Wei vaults over objects, with a similar cover mechanic. While technically capable, the shooting does feel somewhat cookie-cutter and lacks something to make it the game’s own.
The core combat mechanics are bolstered by three experience metrics: Cop XP, which is awarded for virtuous actions (such as performing the optional drug bust missions and the police missions) and subtracted for harm to non-Triad agents, Triad XP, which is awarded for violent acts against enemies while undertaking story missions, and Face XP, which is awarded for the completion of favours which increase the fame of the player character (anything from paying someone’s bills to testing new drug-transport technology) or the successful courtship of one of the five possible ‘romance’ interests of Wei throughout the game. Levelling up each of these traits allows the player to select an upgrade to their character in line with the actions that lead to its increase: in the case of Cop XP, upgrades tend to be of the sort that will allow Wei to better evade capture by law enforcement; Triad XP tends to lead to more powerful attacks and better counter-attacks; Face XP helps the player in any social interaction that he undertakes, be that in the market or in the consumption of food, drink or massages. The Cop and Triad upgrades are split into two trees, allowing for a meaningful player choice that genuinely affects how the player is to play the game.
The ever-present influence of the Grand Theft Auto series rears its head here in the open-world system of the player being able to take on non-story missions in the order they choose: be that the optional drug bust missions, the street races or the favours for friends, the player is free to explore the game’s incredibly detailed Hong Kong and undertake any of the distractions on offer, be this gambling on cock fights or poker mahjong or partaking in the martial arts clubs. This free-roaming element is bolstered by the inclusion of highly incentivised find quests of two types: health shrines and lockboxes. The discovery of and worship at health shrines leads to an increase of ten per cent in maximum health for every five found – something that comes in great use when the player comes across more heavily armed foes as the game progresses. The lockboxes will always contain cash – anywhere between HKD$1,500 and HKD$20,000 – but often contain weapons and clothing which may lead to increases in the rate at which one gains any of the types of XP when worn. The safe-unlocking minigame that ensues for some of the more valuable lockboxes is, however, while impressive at first glance (a technical minigame that actually requires some skill is still a rarity in games), increasingly becomes infuriating when working through the forty lockboxes in North Point alone. Given the multilevel expanse of the game world, obtaining some of these can prove either infuriating or challenging depending on the player’s temperament.
In spite of all that is good about the game, there are some elements that let it down. The character models and animations sometimes lead the game straight into the trough of the uncanny valley: facial expressions can be incredibly woody and all characters perform the same awkward circular gestures with their arms outside of cutscenes, invariant of the content of their speech. This may well just be a deficiency of the console ports, but is still incredibly offputting when playing. A slight incongruity also rears its head with the drug bust missions: when the player is identifying the drug supplier via CCTV, upon the order to arrest someone, everyone except the accused flees. There appears to be no grounding for this other than that the player has singled them out for arrest, and is just something that breaks immersion quite critically. A similar oversight is seen in the production of motorcycle helmets apparently from nowhere upon embarking on a ride – while not game-breaking, the incongruity is somewhat jarring.
While Wei’s involvement with them is meant to be casual, little is done with the relationships that he engages in with any of the five women he is able to in the game: he meets them, he goes on a date with them – then that’s that, saving for an extra favour mission in two cases. They come into Wei’s life in the narrative and leave without so much as another word, making the complete of the date mission seem superfluous but for the abilities they unlock. It also serves to make Wei seem unlikable and incapable of personal development over the course of the game.
With solid gameplay, an expansive game world, and more than fifty hours of gameplay, the minor faults in Sleeping Dogs do little to not make it worthy of a purchase. The core story is well-paced, well-acted (thanks in part to a lot of high-tier Hong Kong talent being brought in, as well as Lucy Liu) and well-scripted, the action is as deep and complex as the player wishes to make it and it is clear that a lot of work has gone into the game that wasn’t strictly necessary to ensure the release of the game itself, but as a labour of love for a good product.
Just as an exercise in trivia, the influence on the game of Infernal Affairs is not something just to be inferred by setting and themes: there is a disturbing similarity between the appearance of Edison Chen, who played the young Lau Kin-Ming in Infernal Affairs and voiced Jackie Ma in Sleeping Dogs, and the facial appearance of Wei Shen. See below:
GAME OVER SCREEN ANALYSIS: The dragon motif that underpins much of the game combined with strong typography. As something that will be seen incredibly often by the player, it is definitely no eyesore.