The main problem with Sleeping Dogs is that it’s not Saints Row: The Third.
That might seem like a pretty unfair comparison — there are, after all, a truly unfortunate number of games out there this year that aren’t Saints Row — but in a lot of ways Dogs is a game that invites it, partly because it’s a game that doesn’t really have much of an identity of its own. I know that it was originally planned as the next installment of the True Crime series before being shuffled over to Square Enix, but in practice, it really just takes a bunch of elements from similar games and throws them in a blender. The influence of Grand Theft Auto is obvious, both in the open-world steal-a-car-and-shoot-some-dudes structure and in the plot’s aspirations of being a playable movie, but there are others in there too, like Saints Row’s clothing system and how it affects your respect/”face”/whatever ranking and a melee combat system that draws pretty heavily on Arkham Asylum. My favorite, though, and probably the most hilarious, is that it does its damnedest to lift the parkour from Assassin’s Creed, to the point where the white cloths that mark the start of free-running lines have just been swapped out for green tarps.
The one thing that it really brings to the table — and the element that puts it into direct conflict with Saints Row — comes from the idea that you are Wei Shen, a loose cannon working undercover with the Hong Kong Police Department to bring down the triads and settle a score, making it an open-world crime game where you’re actually playing as one of the cops for a change. It’s an interesting setup, but it’s also one that led to a lot of frustration while I was playing. The game levels you up along two different paths (three if you count the martial arts skills that you learn by finding jade statues, which I’ll get back to in a second), one of which represents your Triad Skills and one that reflects your Cop Skills. They’re both affected by what you do on a given mission, and the way it’s done is really clever: The Cop Skills start off full and deduct whenever you violate the law, and the Triad skills start out empty and fill whenever you do something… well, something cool, I guess. Beating the living crap out of dudes seems to be the best way to raise it up.
The frustrating thing comes from how it’s possible, and encouraged, to max out both at once, and how they’re done in three sections. Because Wei is only pretending to be a rampaging murderer, the game often penalizes you for acting outside of what it expects you to do as a policeman, to the point where accidentally running over a parking meter during a frantic chase scene can knock off a full third of your cop experience for a given level. I’m perfectly fine with the game knocking off points, but dropping down to 60% seems a little harsh. Especially when you compare it toSaints Row.
The great thing about Saints Row — besides everything about Saints Row — is that it didn’t have any pretensions of cinema. It told a story, and I’d say it told that story pretty well, but everything about it was geared towards having fun. That opening sequence, in which the characters in the game are dressing up in double-sized football mascot-style costumes of themselves. Right away, you know that things are going to be over the top, and the game follows that up by constantly providing you with new and interesting situations, and rewarding you for doing the kind of fun stuff that open-world games lend themselves best to. Afterthat, a game that punishes you for careening into a bank of parked cars or getting up onto the sidewalk before you leap from one car to the other doesn’t feel like it’s providing a challenge of skill, it feels like it’s offering up a set of shackles.
There are a few other interesting quirks, too. Rather than loading you down with an arsenal, the game has a focus on melee combat, and that’s really fun. The animations are great, and the different ways that Wei can break faces and disarm enemies are a real strong point. But at the same time, much like the “Action Hijack” mechanic, it’s a signature element that doesn’t actually come up all that often in the game. Whenever it comes time to advance the plot, you’re given a gun and dropped right back into a GTA-style shooter, which is even more perplexing because the game seems dead set against letting you have a gun in any other situation. Seriously, you can find one or two laying around over the course of the game, but even then it’ll occasionally decide to take it away from you during a cutscene. For those big missions, Sleeping Dogs is essentially asking you to use skills that you developed in other games, rather than the ones that make it unique.
But the thing is, even underneath all that, Sleeping Dogs is a pretty solid game. It’s a little rough around quite a few edges — during one segment, there was actually a broken IMG SRC tag in a menu, and seriously, is that how you make video games these days? In basic HTML? Because that is surprising — but it’s pretty enjoyable, with more than a couple sections that are actually great. The last mission where it suddenly turns into Die Hard is awesome, and about the perfect way to end the game. There’s just not enough. Even though it’s done its best to lift the most fun parts of other great games, and does them reasonably well, the sum isn’t greater than the parts. More often than not, it’s just reminding you of how fun those other games are.
I talked to Matt Wilson, who picked it up at around the same time as I did, and he described it as a “this will do while I wait for the really exciting games” game. I don’t think either one of us regrets picking it up from Amazon at $35, but that really sums it up. Sleeping Dogs: Because Assassin’s Creed III Isn’t Out Yet.
That new Halloween DLC where Wei fights Chinese Hopping Vampires that want to drag his girlfriend to Hell, though… that has potential.