the artistry and psychology of gaming


Sleeping Dogs

Sleeping Dogs

Review in Brief
Game: A third-person open-world game set in modern Hong Kong starring an undercover cop infiltrating a local brutal gang.
Good: An undercover cop dynamic that reframes every element of the game; gameplay competitive with other recent open-world releases; a sufficiently different setting.
Bad: Overly generic and unoriginal gameplay; subpar storytelling of an otherwise good story; lack of polish.
Verdict: A one-trick pony: the undercover cop dynamic is excellent, but everything else is entirely generic.
Rating: 7/10 – “Good – A few problems, but worth the time to play.”
Recommendation: Worth playing if you’re a fan of the genre, but definitely not a must-play.

“A one-trick pony — but it’s a very good trick.”

Over the past decade, open-world games have gone from a revolutionary new style and structure of game design to arguably the most default way of structuring a game. Many recent releases incorporate a strong open-world feel even if that is not part of their selling point: Assassin’s Creed, Batman: Arkham City, Red Dead Redemption, No More Heroes, and numerous other recent games implement an open world structure without necessarily being considered an “open-world” genre game: that is just how ubiquitous the genre has become.

Because of how common that structure is in modern game design, however, games that want to make their open-world layout their main selling point have to offer a bit more. There are dozens of games that give the player a free world to explore while also developing the game in other interesting ways; simply supplying an open world is no longer sufficient.

In the case of Sleeping Dogs, the game does supply a bit more than just the open-world structure: but only a tiny bit. The game is a one-trick pony; it has one significant gameplay dynamic that sets it apart from other dedicated open-world games, and aside from that, it is about as generic as can be. Fortunately for the game, its one trick is very good and represents a significant twist on the genre; at the same time, the game is up to par with other mechanics that modern open-world games use. Calling the game ‘generic’ has the silver lining that at least it provides everything that other games in the genre provide. It also means that the game makes the same mistakes that other games in the genre make, but we’ll get to that later.

Overall, Sleeping Dogs is a solid, if overly generic and unoriginal, open-world third-person action game with one significant gameplay mechanic that sets it apart from the rest of the genre.

The Game
Sleeping Dogs takes place in Hong Kong, a long way away from the American cities where open-world games are typically set. You take the role of Wei Shen, an undercover cop who is tasked with attempting to infiltrate one of Hong Kong’s most dangerous triads (the Eastern equivalent of a ‘gang’ or ‘crew’ in Western-set games). Because of the gravity of the mission, as well as the suspect morality of law enforcement in Hong Kong, Wei is entitled to use whatever means necessary to infiltrate the triad and rise through its ranks, even breaking the law and killing innocent people. Throughout the game, Wei’s relationship to both law enforcement and the triad becomes the central theme, with the persistent question of whether the character is simply successfully infiltrating the triad or becoming a part of it himself.

In terms of gameplay, the game is your pretty standard open-world structure. You control an individual and can wonder around the world at will. Going to specific locations will trigger story missions and side quests, but between those you are free to wander around and interact with the world at will. The interactive element of the gameplay can be divided largely into four categories: melee combat, cover-based shooting, driving, and free running. There are also minigames and other uniquely structured sidequests to vary the normal structure a bit. Overall, if you’ve ever played an open-world game, you know what you’re getting into with Sleeping Dogs.

The Good
As mentioned in the introduction, Sleeping Dogs is a one-trick pony: it has one very interesting dynamic that informs both the gameplay and the plot and distinguishes the game from the rest of the genre. Aside from that, it is adequate as far as the genre’s current standards go, just enough to present no major weakness compared to the rest of the industry.

Officer/Criminal Dynamic
Sleeping Dogs‘s one trick is the interesting dynamic it sets up between officer and criminal. Your character is a police officer professionally, but given that he is being tasked with infiltrating a criminal triad, he is obligated to play the role of the criminal. Right from the start, this frames the entirety of Sleeping Dogs‘s main character interaction very differently from other open-world games. You are not a lost and largely vicious criminal like Niko Bellic, nor are you a man with no particular allegiance to any system of morality like John Marston. Instead, you are a police officer, with all of the societal and ethical expectations that come with that position. Your character, according to their background, has an opposition to committing crime rather than the typical ambivalence toward or appreciation for it that you find in other open-world games.

That character, then, becomes a very interesting player in attempting to infiltrate this criminal triad. We know that the character comes from a background that would discourage committing the exact actions that Wei must commit to successfully infiltrate the criminal syndicate, reframing every decision and mission that the player undertakes. As the game goes on, it is difficult not to wonder if Wei is still sticking to his mission of infiltrating the gang or he himself has become so swept up in it that he actually prefers the gang life to his life as a police officer.

This dynamic is responsible for an incredible variety of elements that make Sleeping Dogs stand out. First of all, this dynamic does a better job than any other open- world game I have played in motivating, incentivizing, and most importantly excusing criminal behavior. We all know that one of the appeals of this genre of game is the ability to go and do whatever you want, breaking the law at will and seeing how the world reacts to your actions. In most games, this ability to play the bad guy is a difficult balance; every game I have played seems to have a tough time balancing the ability to be bad with whether or not to allow you to be bad. Assassin’s Creed, for example, permits the player to kill innocents in the engine but discourages them from doing so with the game structure. Grand Theft Auto games, on the other hand, go as far as incentivizing bad behavior, effectively prohibiting the player from being good at all. Games like Red Dead Redemption arguably do it best by having a world equipped to react to either action the player takes, but it still brings up some difficulties that we will get to in a moment. With Sleeping Dogs, though, the dual roles of the main character provide an excellent excuse for any actions the player might take. There are reasons and justifications for being bad that do not necessarily reflect directly on the character.

At the same time, though, it is this dynamic’s reflection on the character that perhaps is its most important effect. Scripting a plot in an open-world game is difficult for a variety of reasons. One cannot script a plot without knowing the character, but in an open-world game, the player plays such a significant role in determining the character that the plot often will not make sense. Take Assassin’s Creed, for example: we have a main character that talks and talks about only killing when absolutely necessary, but yet depending on the player controlling the character, that character is running around killing every guard he sees just for sport. Ezio’s principles are an important element of the plot, but yet the player can play an active role in determining whether or not he actually lives by those principles. In the case of Wei, however, these dual roles prevent the player’s decisions from significantly creating a mismatch between the plot and the character. The character is permanently justified in any good or bad action he might take, meaning no matter what kind of main character the player decides to be, it still works with the plot. That itself is a refreshing change for the genre, and I would not be surprised if future games attempted to leverage this same dual role for their main characters.

The system also represents an interesting remedy to a problem that has affected the industry, and this genre in particular, for years: the morality system. Part of the appeal of having so much control over your main character is in determining the moral stance he takes: you are free to make your character a paragon of morality and class or the classic merciless antihero. However, the need to script a plot has often made these types of decisions silly. As many reviewers have noted, most systems are far too all-or-nothing: if you are not completely good or completely bad, you lack an identity altogether. Plus, rarely do these decisions actually impact the game or its plot; you wouldn’t think that the events of Mass Effect would proceed exactly as they did regardless of whether Commander Shepard is a Paragon or a Renegade, but yet the only main effect of the system is in the dialogue. Sleeping Dogs‘s system, on the other hand, partially resolves this. There is sufficient explanation for why pursuing one course over the other does not significantly impact the plot or character development. The player is free to choose the kind of character they will be without feeling any obligation to be the kind of character the plot dictates. There is no situation like there is in Red Dead Redemption where choosing to be the bad guy creates a very unbelievable interaction between the character and the plot.

Finally, this system also achieves one of, in my opinion, the most significant goals that any game should attempt to realize: an effective symbiosis between plot and gameplay. As the player, you have two tracks of skills to pursue: officer skills and criminal skills. Completing missions on the officer track develops skills like gunplay whereas completing missions on the criminal track develops melee combat and other similar skills. The two tracks do not conflict with one another, and the game makes it possible to be both the best possible officer and the best possible gang member at the same time. Although sometimes it can feel a little bit too disjointed — on more than one occasion, I felt more like an officer moonlighting as a gang member than like an officer infiltrating a gang — the gameplay implementation of the plot mechanic is still very strong.

Up-To-Par Gameplay
“Up-to-par” isn’t exactly a glowing compliment, but it isn’t supposed to be in this case. The gameplay in Sleeping Dogs is nothing to write home about in the context of the broader gaming industry and open-world genre of today. I actually have some significant complaints about the majority of the gameplay as being overly ripped off and unoriginal, but we will get to those later.

The important thing to note as far as a point in the game’s favor is that the gameplay is as good as it is in the games that created the genre. As mentioned before, the gameplay is broken up into four major active play styles: gunplay, melee, driving, and running. All four of these are pretty much exactly what you are accustomed to for the genre. Gunplay is cover-based with the normal controls regarding aiming, shooting, reloading, moving, and everything else. Melee combat is the same one-versus-many structure that has become more and more common in the industry lately. Driving is arguably a little bit more polished than most other open-world games, but of course still pales in comparison to any legitimate driving game. And running… well, I’ll talk about that more later.

You’re not going to run out and tell someone about how good the gunfights are in Sleeping Dogs or how revolutionary melee combat system happens to be: all of the gameplay features are just about what you would expect from a modern release. The point in the game’s favor is that they are done just as well as any other game; they’re not significantly notable, but they don’t hinder the game either. Of course, that might be because the game is imitating such long-proven mechanics, but again, I’ll rant about that later.

Subtly Different Feel
One of the weaknesses that had begun to affect the open-world genre leading up to the release of Sleeping Dogs was an increasing homogeneity in the cities and settings where these games took place. With obvious exceptions (the historically-set Red Dead Redemption and Assassin’s Creed games, for example), most open-world games took place in the same sort of modern American-style cities; even if they were modeled after different actual cities, the feel of them was largely the same. It seemed that the only way the genre could get away from the clean, modern, American city was to go all the way back into history or into the future.

For that reason, the other main strength of Sleeping Dogs is the sufficiently different-feeling city in which it takes place. Hong Kong, as portrayed in Sleeping Dogs, is a dirty, realistic, lived-in world that feels significantly more dynamic and realistic than most other open-world games I’ve played. The atmosphere surrounding the game is very cohesive, with every element needed to render Hong Kong included; it is not just another big city with different accents and languages, but rather it is fully and totally different. The populace feels less formulaic in their movements and actions, and the locales are sufficiently different to make the city feel like more than just a tiled palette swap of the same buildings and structures.

This is not just a word about the city itself, however; this is different feel pervades the gameplay, characters, and tone as well. Part of this comes from the martial arts focus of the triad portion of the game. That alone makes a lot of the game elements feel a bit more personal. It sounds somewhat silly, and I was surprised myself when I noticed I was making this observation, but the focus on melee combat makes a lot of the game feel more personal solely because the enemies are actually in your face rather than crouching behind a chest-high wall somewhere across the battlefield. You wouldn’t think something like that would play a big role in changing the atmosphere of the game, and yet it does; it frames every battle and interaction a bit more as a conflict between actual individuals rather than newly-spawned faces. Plus, the martial arts focus helps link together the parkour elements with the gunplay; without it, Wei’s ability to scale and run through the city would feel like a bizarre talent for a skilled gunslinger.

The Bad
Overall, the main weakness with Sleeping Dogs is that it remains very generic. The silver lining, as mentioned above, is that generic at least does not mean that: there is not very much bad about the game, there just isn’t very much notable about it either. It is generic in terms of both its strengths and its weaknesses: all of the appeal that the game has can be found in other games as well, and it makes the same mistakes that other games in its genre make.

Generally Generic & Unoriginal
When I was preparing to write this review, I broke one of my cardinal rules: I read other people’s reviews of the game. When it comes to big open-world games like this, I always have a fear that there is something dynamic to the game that you would never know without playing it through multiple times. Without the Internet, for example, how would you ever know that a game has multiple endings? Could it have been possible that in Sleeping Dogs, choosing to focus on one type of mission over the other could have an enormous impact on the course of the game? Well, no, it doesn’t seem so.

But in reading those other reviews I started to notice that almost every single one makes a comment that exactly mirrors a comment I had planned make: large swaths of Sleeping Dogs‘s gameplay are significantly similar to recent popular games. I’m not going to go so far as to call the game a ripoff of these other games, but it is definitely very unoriginal.

We could start with the obvious one: the open-world structure. Sleeping Dogs does not do anything to significantly change the same structure that we see in every other open-world game released in the past decade. There is a world map with icons on it, and going to those icons will trigger story events or side quests. You exist in an open world, where you are free to interact with the environment at will just like in any other open-world game. At this point, this has become more of an overall structure that a concept pioneered by any one game; still, let’s call this an impression of Sleeping Dogs‘s own predecessor series, True Crime.

Then you have the gunplay. Again, third-person cover-based shooting has become such a ubiquitous and common genre that it is difficult to call Sleeping Dogs a direct copy of any one instance of the genre, although if pressed, I would go with Grand Theft Auto IV as the prototype for Sleeping Dogs‘s gun battles (or True Crime, but I already used that). You duck behind cover, you move between chest-high walls, you pop out long enough to pick off an enemy too stupid to wait for you to pop out first, and you keep going until all the enemies disappear from your radar. It’s the same shooting you played basically every game for the past five years.

From there, though, the game gets more specifically unoriginal when you consider its running and melee combat segments. This is the main thing that I have seen every other major review for Sleeping Dogs say: the melee combat comes from Batman: Arkham Asylum and the running gameplay comes from Assassin’ s Creed. Like Batman: Arkham Asylum (and, really, like Assassin’s Creed, too), the melee combat places your character in the middle of a group of enemies waiting for them to attack so you can initiate a counterattack. You, of course, can initiate attacks as well, but generally all you need to do to succeed is sit back, wait, and when you get the telegraph from an enemy letting you know they are about to pounce, press the button for the counterattack. Assassin’s Creed‘s combat works in much this same way as well, but the more direct feature copied from Assassin’s Creed is the parkour element: the free running in Sleeping Dogs is basically a less-fluid reimplementation of what is arguably Assassin’s Creed‘s most recognizable gameplay feature.

On top of the various gameplay modes coming across as very generic, the game also has a major difficulty with transitioning between the different styles. Admittedly, I started Sleeping Dogs in the middle of playing Red Dead Redemption for the first time, so my expectations regarding seamless integration of multiple gameplay styles were pretty high considering the latter game is a masterpiece for that feat. The problem with Sleeping Dogs is that the transitions between the different gameplay styles occur far too suddenly, and the time you spent in any one sequence is far too short. On multiple occasions, I actually started to feel like a different combat and gameplay modes were more like mingames solely because of how little time was spent engaging in each one. You don’t really have time to practice and improve because of how quickly the game yanks you are one gameplay mode to another, which has an enormous impact on how you perceive the gameplay.

I should mention that one of the things that people have praised about Sleeping Dogs is its context-sensitive melee combat attacks. That was one of the elements that I was excited about as well, considering that was one of the main things I’ve praised about Batman: Arkham City. In the end, though, I found this feature lacking: the environmental indicators of when a context-sensitive attack is available destroy the main appeal of these types of moves: their emergent nature. Those moves are cool when they seem to flow seamlessly from normal combat; when they have to be specifically chosen, they lose some of their luster.

Linear Storytelling in Open-World Setup
The other major weakness in Sleeping Dogs is actually a general weakness of the open-world the genre as a whole. Red Dead Redemption managed to avoid this weakness, but every other open-world game I have ever played has struggled with this issue in one way or another. It was my biggest criticism of Batman: Arkham City, and it continues to plague the Assassin’s Creed franchise to this day.

As mentioned in the sections above, part of the appeal of the open-world genre is that it puts the player in full control of the main character. The player does not feel as much like they are arbitrarily controlling the one character as they play through a highly linear pre-scripted storyline because they are free to go where they want and do what they want at any given time. In this way, part of the strength of open-world games mirrors the appeal of virtual life games: you are not playing through a game story, but rather taking on the role of an individual in an actual world.

The problem is that within that structure it to be very difficult to tell a good story. A good story involves tension, pressure, and pacing, but how can you tell a tense, well-paced story when the player is free to run off between missions and deliver packages or jack cars? How can you tell a good let your story while also letting the player feel like they are still driving the story?

I don’t want to spoil any of Sleeping Dogs, so let me digress a bit and explain this weakness in terms of a different game: Batman: Arkham City. Of course, if you don’t want to that game spoiled for you either, you should probably skip the rest of this paragraph — although the spoilers will be minor. In that game, Batman was placed into an open world of Arkham City. There were Riddler puzzles, Zsasz phone calls, augmented reality missions, and various other things to do besides pursue the main quest line. However, at the end of each main story mission, something happened that told you how urgent it was to rush to the next place. In order to participate in any of the side quests or even interact with the world as a whole, you had to momentarily ignore the plot and remind yourself that it is just a game and the hostages won’t be killed if you don’t hurry.

This same problem plagues most open-world games: there is an inherent difficulty in telling a good story in an open-world environment. In Assassin’s Creed, the problem is even worse because it usually manifests itself in completely cutting the player off from the open world for the last 25% of the game. Sleeping Dogs does not do anything that bad, but it is still guilty of this same weakness. The player feels like the game is waiting for them to go to the next story mission to get on with the game as a whole. Anytime spent dillydallying around the world feels kind of exactly like that: dillydallying. You don’t feel like you are taking on the life of Wei Shen so much as you are running him around the world between plot segments.

I tend to judge the plot of an open-world game according to one construct: would this plot have been better if the game just presented missions one after the other? In the case of most games, Sleeping Dogs included, the answer is yes. That is not to say that they should have done that — the open world has plenty of benefits of its own — but I good plot for an open-world game should actually use the open world to enhance the plot. In far too many cases, the open world gets in the way of the plot. Sleeping Dogs is one of those games. In fact, this problem is the main thing that keeps me from praising the game’s story; the game has a very good story, but the storytelling leads to an uncomfortable mismatch between the game world and the plot.

Although I did not observe any game-breaking glitches during my time with Sleeping Dogs, I did notice several little details that indicate an overall lack of polish. They are not terribly notable, although at times they can be amusing at best and very irritating at worst. Many of these have to do with the physics. On several occasions, a certain action I took led to a highly unpredictable end result. This came up most often in the driving sections where it is sometimes difficult to differentiate which terrain items will affect your car and in what way. It also came up a few times in the shooting and melee sections especially after an enemy’s death: on multiple occasions they bent and physically impossible ways, and at least once an enemy stopped registering being hit at all, forcing me to run away.

I’m always hesitant to criticize the AI in games because I know what a difficult task it actually is, especially considering game’s growing complexity. Still, I expect some failsafes against blade Lee stupid behavior, such as an enemy running back and forth between two points rather than jumping into any sort of cover. The AI also leaves something to be desired during the gun battles, where, like most cover-based shooters, the enemies will pop out whether you are visible or not, setting themselves up to be sitting ducks waiting to be picked off and removing a lot of the strategic elements. And although it is not an AI feature, the degree to which enemies telegraph their attacks and melee mode is frustrating as well, ruining much of the challenge that could have been present in the system.

Lastly, there are often times when the game mechanics seem to behave unpredictably. The same action that at one time will cause everyone around you to grow suspicious or terrified of your behavior will, the next time, be met with no fear or reaction at all. On the other side of the coin, an action that will once diminish how wanted your character is will the next time have no seeming affect whatsoever. The problem with things like these is that they serve as very clear reminders that you are playing a game: you find yourself wanting to figure out what the game wants you to do rather than what the game world wants you to do.

The Verdict
The overall verdict on Sleeping Dogs is, unsurprisingly, the same verdict I rendered in my title. The game has one trick, but that trick is very good. The criminal/officer dynamic presents a profoundly different flavor on the otherwise-generic open-world game structure that Sleeping Dogs appropriates. That trick alone permeates into various different levels of the game, changing how the player views the characters, the plot, and the game world as a whole. That feature also helps to alleviate many of the problems that often plague open-world games. It allows the player to do what they want with the main character without feeling pressure from the plot to act in a certain way. That, combined with the significantly different setting and the solid open-world game mechanics, could have facilitated some of the best storytelling the genre has ever seen.

Unfortunately, the game is significantly crippled by failing to do very much outside of that one trick. While that trick opened up an enormous amount of storytelling opportunity — loosening the shackles of the obligation to keep the plot somewhat generic to account for player decisions — the game did not fully take advantage of it, instead falling into the same traps that tend the plague the storytelling in other open-world games as well. That, coupled with the game’s lack of originality in nearly every gameplay domain, prevent Sleeping Dogs from rising to any level beyond simply a strong, yet unremarkable, open-world game

My Recommendation
If this kind of game is your thing, Sleeping Dogs has enough to keep your interest; it is a solid open-world game with a sufficiently interesting twist. Not a must-play, but you could do worse.

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