Originally planned to be True Crime: Hong Kong, Sleeping Dogs (SD) went through a change in publishers from Eidos to Square-Enix and with that came a change from the title being True Crime: Hong Kong to what it is now. Ultimately, the change in name is largely a good thing since it isn't like the True Crime one was among the most heralded in gaming, and the game as a whole feels like a spiritual successor to that series only with actual bug testing that ensures a fun experience for the player.
If you didn't know it was originally a True Crime game, you'd figure it out pretty quickly when you start out and play as an undercover cop. Wei Shen is out to try to clean up the streets with some slightly crooked-seeming characters both on the force and mostly outside of it. SD brings its M rating with ease beginning with a hack and slash cinematic involving a meat cleaver, and then quickly moving into one of many exciting chase and combat sequences.
Like any sandbox game, you've got a variety of activities to take part in outside of missions. One big change here compared to the True Crimes is that you're an undercover cop, meaning you'll have to do missions for your violent gang as well as cop missions, which themselves require some slightly unsavory skills like bug-planting and hacking with twin sticks and pass codes to do drug busts. These types of things can get frustrating, but thankfully, the codes only have four characters, and you get a lot of tries, so the process of elimination is usually good enough to solve those puzzles before having to start them over. None of the mini-games get frustrating and all of them are done fairly well.
Outside of the main missions, you've got fun side things like street racing, dates with a variety of nice-looking lasses, karaoke to serenade them, and fighting competitions to earn money on either things for your dates, clothes for yourself (including things like a yellow jumpsuit), or on food to give you some stat boosts. If you search around for an old friend's stolen martial arts idols, you'll be able to learn some secret techniques to kick tons of ass in hand-to-hand combat, while going through your Triad missions nets you more underhanded skills, and going through cop missions earns you skills that can be used for the betterment of mankind...and just so happen to look cool – like diving over a stand to disarm someone and punch them in one fell swoop.
Unlike a lot of sandbox games, there's an emphasis on hand-to-hand combat, and unlike a lot of games period, it's actually done really well. Combos are easy to do, and you can chain grapples, strikes, and environmental grapples together easily. Beyond using the environment to slam folks into ala the Yakuza series, you can also climb up stuff like gates to do sweet things like spinning kicks. QTEs are used against larger foes who charge at you, allowing you to counter them and attack them swiftly. Later on, you'll gain access to a variety of firearms and outside of the cover system not allowing you to zip from one area to the other unless it involves vaulting over something, it all works really well. Even aiming while in a vehicle either driving or as a passenger is easy to pull off and the controls as a whole are incredibly responsive.
There's a set formula to the game to some degree, but that's not a bad thing here. Every mission will either be a fight, a race, an on-foot chase, a car fight, or a multi-layered combination of those things. Mixing things up in the missions really does keep things fresh, and despite having tons of missions available throughout the entirety of the game, the feeling of been-there, done-that rarely hurts. The mission types are usually something you WANT to go back to because it's so well done.
Also unlike many sandbox games, Sleeping Dogs is very character-driven with some pretty compelling storylines going on. Sure, there are some predictable elements, but those wind up being some of the most fun parts of the game due to how they play out. It's rare that a game's plot will be good enough to where on its own, I'll want to plow through a game just to see where it's going. Most of the time, I just want to experience the next stage and see what the game has in store for me. Here, I found the storyline so intriguing that I simply HAD to keep going no matter how many times a restart was needed.
Part of that is due to the liberally-used checkpoint system that usually only sets you back a few minutes in play, and even then, there's still a great sense of satisfaction when you're finally able to get past something like a massive shootout where you're outmanned and outgunned. The plot as a whole revolves around Wei trying to balance being a cop with being undercover in a Hong Kong gang with a member who brings him in and who he's known since childhood. The idea of family and brotherhood is strong, and it reminds me a lot of Yakuza there, but with far fewer characters. I love me some Yakuza games, but there are definitely WAY too many characters to keep track of at times in that series. That isn't the case here – everyone who needs to be fleshed out is, and those who don't need that time, are usually given enough backstory to make you care without bogging the game down.
The well-executed storyline wouldn't be worth much if it wasn't acted well, and man is one of the best voice acting jobs for a game I've heard in a while. It's one of those voice casts that you can't imagine being changed in any way after you hear it. Everyone does a great job with their role, and even most minor characters have a sense of life to them – like the parking lot attendant who regularly wishes to be in your shoes for just one day. It's a little thing, it's one line you'll hear over and over, and then it's spoken with some gravitas to it so you can take it seriously.
Beyond the voice work, the music is largely good, although I certainly wouldn't put it up there with the greats in sandbox games like the Vice City games, it is really good at capturing a Hong Kong music vibe – and even has Cantonese talk radio. There's a great mix of rock with some rap and general pop music as well. You can perform songs like “I Fought the Law”, “I Ran”, or 'Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” in karaoke, which all sound amazing for either good or bad reasons depending on how you do in the mini-game. The sound effects for strikes and the like are really good, and there's a great sense of satisfaction when you slam someone into the environment in part due to that.
Visually, Sleeping Dogs is a mixed bag. In really shines at night – when you can see rain-slicked jackets, and the beautiful shine of a rain-soaked street. The nightlife also looks amazing then given all the neon on the buildings. The daytime look is fine, but shows off just how bad some of the lower-res textures look on the characters and environments. There's a muddy look to some of the skin, which definitely sucks because there's also some incredible attention to detail there at times too. Otherwise, the animations are usually really good – there is some minor clipping issues in battles, but nothing major. Move animations in particular have a lot of force to them – and the counter animations are incredibly complex and yet also very smoothly-executed. It's impressive to see how much effort went into the combat.
Overall, Sleeping Dogs is a remarkable game. The storyline is my favorite one yet for a sandbox game and is wonderfully-acted. It's hurt slightly by being a bit rough around the edges in places and not really doing much new, but what's done is mostly done very well and there's a lot of variety in both missions and extracurricular activities. That helps make it replayable later because you can continue to conquer unbeaten non-story missions (or replay story ones if you'd like) after beating the 13-ish hour campaign. Sleeping Dogs is a must for anyone who likes sandbox games, but wants one with a more impacting storyline. Multi-system owners may want to pick up the 360 version, as the occasional QTE prompts are easier to make out due to the brighter buttons, but you can't go wrong with either one.
This review is based on the Xbox 360 version of Sleeping Dogs provided by Square Enix.