Review: Sleeping Dogs

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I recently chose Sleeping Dogs (ABOG Podcast Ep 1.0) as my most anticipated game for the remainder of 2012. Considering some of the other titles that fall into that category, it was a bold statement. Having just finished the campaign I'm confident in standing by my choice. Sleeping Dogs was a roundhouse kick to the side of my head - and I loved it.

Picking up where Activision left this game to die, Square Enix and United Front Games (ModNation Racers, Little Big Planet Karting) resurrected this title from near extinction. Previously titled True Crime: Hong Kong, Sleeping Dogs places you into the ass-kicking shoes of undercover Hong Kong detective Wei Shen as he digs himself deeper into the underworld Triad crime organization. Your mission is simple enough, start as entry level muscle - taking orders from a variety of low-level thugs - and work your way up the Sun On Yee foodchain; all in an effort to take them down for good.

During your journey through an open-world Hong Kong you'll experience a high level of gameplay variety - all of which works well but will consistently remind you of games that you may have previously played; and this isn't necessarily a bad thing. While the focus is primarily on melee combat (I'll get to that in a bit), you'll have plenty of opportunities to participate in detective work (planting bugs, hacking security cameras, cracking safes and computers), underground street racing circuits, and the occasional gun-play. Side quests pop-up everywhere while traveling the endless streets of Hong Kong. I never found myself getting bored with the game and consistently had numerous missions to chose from - none of which ever demanded I play them in any particular order.

Sleeping Dogs incorporates a strong GTA vibe throughout its open-worldness. Looking to indulge your inner songbird? There are plenty of opportunities to sing karaoke. Interested in romance? Why not go on a date with the female characters you'll meet along the way? How about some cock fighting (that's right, cock fighting)? You may just win big. Regardless of what side attractions you take in, it behooves you to do so. Many of these one-offs equate to an increase in Face XP that yields more unlockables and upgrades down the road.

Increasing your XP is really the basis for succeeding at, and enjoying, Sleeping Dogs. Because you're playing both sides of the law, how you complete individual Triad and Detective missions will result in an increase in that specific XP. Performing a Triad mission will include Police XP (in addition to Triad XP) if completed with minimal innocent casualties and city damage. Conversely, completing a Triad mission with no involvement from the HKPD will help to level up your split-personality even further. As you level up you'll have the option to learn new combat moves and abilities unique to each role you play. It's an interesting dichotomy and one that you'll find yourself constantly monitoring as you play through the roughly 15 hour campaign.

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While gameplay variety is certainly a strong point with Sleeping Dogs, it's the melee that really makes this game shine. I'm still dumbfounded that the developer who gave us the "kiddie" racing game ModNation Racers, and the forthcoming Little Big Planet Karting, took over development and delivered such an incredibly brutal melee game. Taking pointers from Batman Arkham City (again, a good thing) the hand-to-hand combat is a combination of fluid attacks and counters. As your opponents glow red it's an indicator that you'll be able to block, avoid, and react with some impresive moves of your own. As you level up your character and find various collectables throughout the city you'll learn new moves that are a mix of karate and MMA - and they all flow like the best of John Woo films.

As if the hand-to-hand action wasn't polished enough, the developers at United Front Games had the foresight (thank God) to include environmental interactions during combat sequences; and they are some of the most brutal and cringing I've had the pleasure to experience. Depending on where the action takes place - be it a kitchen, auto-parts garage, or shipping dockyard - you'll have plenty of opportunities to end life in a variety of gruesome ways. Some of my favorites include: holding an enemies face to an oven burner, dropping an engine block on their head, flipping a thug onto a pallet of swordfish (swords face up, of course), and my personal favorite involving an industrial ice chipper. I'll just say it reminded me of the movie Fargo and leave it at that. I can't tell you how much fun I had grappling an opponent, dragging him to an available (and glowing red) environmental object, and crushing their will to live in the worst ways imaginable.

As incredible as the melee combat is in Sleeping Dogs, there was an initial learning curve with the counter attacks. If not timed properly - if enabled too soon - you place your character into a temporary form of stasis. If not done correctly, you'll not only miss your counter opportunity but will find yourself unable to do anything for a brief moment: no attacks, counter-attacks, or moving out of the way. The result, when surrounded by 10-15 Triads, is an open target for them to kick, punch, or hack at you with knives and clubs like a hanging piñata. It can end a lengthy battle and force a checkpoint restart.

While the majority of Sleeping Dogs is undoubtedly a beautiful game to take in - the cut scenes are some of the best I've seen this console generation - some of the in-game character animations are stiff and awkward. More often than not your conversations with the average shop keeper, city dweller, or "masseusse", looked as if they were suffering siezures with unusual arm and body movements. A minor complaint if you can even call it that.

Just as impressive was the voice acting. Leading the cast was Will Yun Lee as Wei Shen who did an incredible job representing a character working through the gambit of emotions as a deep undercover police officer. The supporting cast was also ripe with talent with the likes of Tom Wilkinson, Kelly Hu, and my personal favorite, James Hong (Blade Runner, Kung Fu Panda, Big Trouble in Little China). Their voices were all immediately recognizable while providing admirable performances that brought each of their characters to life.

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I realize I'm giving a ton of love to this game - and it's completely justified - it's not without it's share of glitches and odd development choices. Aside from the early stages of aggravation while getting used to the counter-attack move, I found myself scratching my head during other moments of the game. The inconsistent checkpoint saves is the first thing that comes to mind. Considering that many of the encounters - police or triad missions - involve several sections to complete, I more often than not found myself starting the entire mission over when failing to complete the objective. Not a game breaker by any means and more of an annoyance than anything.

Several missions that required a street vehicle (there is the occassional speed boat involved - awesome!) would simply vanish when starting the mission over after a failed attempt. Although Wei Shen is capable of jacking any vehicle he comes across ("action jacking" from one moving vehicle to another never got old - see above image), it was just odd to find my character standing at the starting point of the mission when you were previously driving a car or motorcycle. Again, mostly minor complaints with a game that was close to never seeing the light of day.

Sleeping Dogs is a rare game in that it satisfied nearly every gaming itch I had. I feel that it's been unjustly receiving too many complaints that the game utilizes gameplay elements from other titles - even though those same reviews have been better than average across the board. Although I would have preferred for the story to end differently to allow for a better possibility of a sequel - while one is likely to happen anyway - I couldn't be any happier. I was invested in the story and characters, adored the level of variety (the game opens up in the end to continue with the remaining side missions), and felt like a complete bad ass throughout. Those gamers looking to tide themselves over until the release of GTA5 need look no further. In my opinion, the developers at Rockstar Games have their work cut out for them.

**Sleeping Dogs is available on PS3, Xbox 360, and PC. For the purposes of this review I completed the game entirely on the PS3**