If the method to measure how much one likes a game is by how many times they have purchased it and played it through to completion, then Sleeping Dogs would take my number two spot, with only Dragon’s Dogma above it. Sleeping Dogs originally started it’s life as ‘True Crime: Hong Kong’, but following delays and budget issues, Square Enix bought the rights and transformed that would-be threequel into something special. And now ten years after its release, Sleeping Dogs is still one of my favourite video games.
As Grand Theft Auto continued to rule the gaming scene, the copycats needed something to set them apart. Maybe it was old-timey mob stylings of the Mafia series, or the over the top nature of what Saints Row soon became. Or maybe they could just replaced cars with horses, as Rockstar Games themselves so cleverly did to create another of my favourite games, Red Dead Redemption. What Sleeping Dogs decided to do was focus on the martial arts and parkour abilities of main protagonist, Wei Shen, in a Hong Kong where guns are realistically quite sparse.
I have written about those martial arts abilities in some detail before (though in hindsight, perhaps in somewhat less favourable light than they deserved). Taking obvious cues from the Batman: Arkham style, Sleeping Dogs added a bit more to it, including proper combos and context sensitive actions. The introduction of enemies with weapons of both the melee and ranged variety added some need to master these abilities, and Shen could not ‘bounce’ between enemies the way Batman could. Taking out a horde of enemies like in one of The Raid movies, before sliding over a crate to disarm an enemy and turning the weapon on them was immensely satisfying, but could easily go wrong if you didn’t know what you were doing. When in vehicles, Shen could shoot out tyres of pursing cars, or even jump between them in a pseudo-Just Cause style hijacking.
I won’t claim the story was entirely original, as it borrowed heavily from the 2002 Hong Kong film Infernal Affairs (itself the original of what The Departed was based off), but translating that story into a dynamic video game was a striking success. As an undercover police officer, Shen infiltrates a Triad group, and this dual role has a strong effect on gameplay as well, with the split between Police/Triad/Face experience (the latter of which was essentially helping the general public) granting new abilities to benefit certain situations. The story contained such memorable beats as a horrific ‘Red Wedding’ mission, long before the Game of Thrones episode, and the betrayal and comeuppance of various friends and enemies, some of which will genuinely stick with you long after the mission is complete.
In a most favourable comparison to the early Grand Theft Auto games, the world of Sleeping Dogs felt truly alive, as the neon lights and open storefronts of Hong Kong so accurately matched those of the real world. Though graphically not particularly impressive, with some draw distance issues even on powerful console or PC hardware, it was so easy to just drive around the city in any of the varied vehicles, before taking on side activities such as karaoke and street racings. There was also a very bare bones dating system, with some certifiable mega babes based on and voiced by the likes of Emma Stone or Lucy Liu, just to name a few. In fact, the whole cast had some top level talent, including Will Yun Lee as Wei Shen himself, and others such as Tom Wilkinson and James Hong showing up in various roles.
Not content with leaving things as a phenomenal base game, the DLC packs were also some of my favourite, standing alongside Red Dead Redemption‘s “Undead Nightmare“. That first story download, “Nightmare in North Point“, transformed the major city location into a nightmarish hellscape, complete with jiangshi (aka those ‘hopping vampires’ I think we all know of). The second, and my personal favourite of the two DLC packs was then an ‘Enter the Dragon‘ style tournament of death not to subtly named “The Zodiac Tournament“, where Wei Shen’s kung fu was put to the test against all other manner of marital arts, which Shen could then unlock to use for himself. The final pack, “Year of the Snake” let Shen return to his police officer role, as he investigated terrorist threats around the city – but I remember it mostly for being able to tackle and arrest random civilians, which is always hilarious.
There is (allegedly) a movie adaption in development, set to star Donnie Yen in the main role, but truthfully I’d prefer a sequel. Wikipedia tells me that this game did “not meet sales expectations”, and I know that means there is probably not a sequel coming. But hey, if I can wait ten years for a Dragon’s Dogma sequel, maybe Sleeping Dogs II isn’t too far off?