You could be forgiven for wondering what all the hubbub is about Sleeping Dogs. "Just another open-world crime game," you might think. "Been there, done that, yawn."
I've seen a few commenters ask why writers at Kotaku keep talking about this game—the simple answer for that is that we write about what we're playing, and several of us are playing Sleeping Dogs. That fact alone says a lot about how much fun the game is.
But of course, yes, Sleeping Dogs really is a GTA clone. It was supposed to be a new installment in the True Crime series, but the name got changed when Activision dropped the game and Square Enix took over. But as much as Sleeping Dogs is "just another GTA clone," it also brings a number of its own smart touches to the formula. The results are, in several respects, superior to the game that inspired it.
Here are five ways that Sleeping Dogs improves upon Grand Theft Auto.
Every Grand Theft Auto game since GTA III has taken place in America. And hey, that's cool—I like America fine, I live here. But I'm also kind of sick of playing games that take place here, and have begun to yearn to explore someplace new. One of the great triumphs of Red Dead Redemption was that it put me in a part of America that felt totally fresh (and yeah, also that it took place in Mexico, too). When we heard rumors that GTA V would take place in London, or Sydney, I was really excited—please, let me play an open-world game in another country!
Turns out GTA V will return to Los Angeles (aka Los Santos), which is fine. But I'm still glad that exploring Sleeping Dogs' version of Hong Kong is slaking my wanderlust. When I first started playing the game, I remarked as to how much I was enjoying being forced to drive on the left, but really, that's just emblematic of what I really enjoy about the game—I enjoy how it takes me to another place. I love the all-Chinese cast, I love that I'm not playing a half-American, or an American who has relocated, or anything like that. Heck, I wish the game had an option to play in Cantonese with English subtitles. The location, cast and vibe all capture the films that Sleeping Dogs is emulating (films which Evan has helpfully catalogued for you here), and gives me that wonderful "stranger in a strange land" feeling that the best games conjure.
Sleeping Dogs may have all of the same combat features as GTA IV, but it implements them much differently. You won't fire a gun at all for the first third of the story or so, and even after that, gun encounters are specific and almost instanced. There are very few encounters in the world that can be undertaken with a gun—instead, you'll be brawling your way through most of the encounters using the game's robust and enjoyable Kung Fu fighting system. It's something like a more slow-paced version of Arkham City's fisticuffs, and it's got a decent amount of depth and is satisfying. (It's a bit too easy to spam some moves, but hey, it's still a good challenge, brutal and fun to watch.)
The best thing about the lack of guns is that even though I've put 14 hours into the game, it has yet to devolve into the constant chase/shootout/shootout/chase/shootout that GTA IV did at around the same point. There are a few basic gameplay types—driving/shooting, chasing on foot, fist-fighting, shootouts—but they're shaken up and varied to a refreshing degree. The lack of handgun segments also helps the story along, as Wei doesn't feel like quite the psycho killer that Niko did. (He does rack up quite a body count, but at least he's not shooting hundreds of guys every half hour.) It also helps the cutscenes where someone waves a gun around or shoots someone feel more weighty and believable.
Every GTA game casts you as the same kind of guy—a likable criminal who is trying to change his ways but can't quite get out clean. Okay, fine—that's a workable archetype, and its proven successful in the past. That said, the protagonist of Sleeping Dogs is an undercover cop—deep undercover. TOO deep. The funny thing here is that it's anything but a fresh story—this story has been told dozens of times over, and every beat feels familiar. But it's never quite been told in a game like this before, and certainly not in a GTA-style game. I'm not a sociopathic killer, I'm a cop who is losing sight of which side he's on. It's a big change, and makes me more invested in the story.
Speaking of that...
Sleeping Dogs is, perhaps, a more modest game than Grand Theft Auto IV. I say "perhaps" because while it is certainly more modest in terms of scope and scale, it somehow feels more ambitious in its storytelling, if only because of the great focus with which Wei Shen's story unfolds. The first four or five hours of Grand Theft Auto IV remain my favorite part of that game, but by the second act, things had devolved into a lot of (fun, but repetitive) action-game histrionics. Sleeping Dogs has kept its story on a tighter leash (no pun intended), and in so doing has kept things tense and interesting for a far longer time. I'm at the 60% mark in the story, and it still feels like I'm in those opening hours of GTA IV.
All this stuff about story and setting is great, but the most important thing is that Sleeping Dogs is also generally more fun to play than GTA IV was. That's because the game is designed around a bedrock of great design touches that iterate on the template that Rockstar set out back in 2008. I've played a ton of GTA IV, and so, clearly, have the folks at United Front who worked on Sleeping Dogs. Little touches like:
- By pressing "X" you can lunge your car to the side or front, damaging pursuing vehicles.
- Some gun-based events trigger slow-mo, letting you do a Max-Payne-style takedown. Further evidence that bullet-time is one part of Max Payne 3 that Rockstar should put in GTA V.
- Right from the get-go, it's possible to store cars anywhere in the city, making it easier to get around in style.
- You can do a move while driving where you leap from your car onto the car next to you, performing an "action-hijack." It's great, and useful.
- When you're talking on your cell phone, you can get into a car and start driving without hanging up. (SMALL BUT CRUCIAL.)
- Waypoints are marked on your mini-map but also in the world, helping you move one step closer to eliminating that troublesome mini-map entirely.
- You can toggle through objectives using the left thumbstick, making it much easier to mess around and decide what you want to do next.
It's important to note that every one of these improvements came from Grand Theft Auto IV—without that game to set a precedent, it's doubtful that Sleeping Dogs would have improved upon it. What's more, there are plenty of ways that Sleeping Dogs falls short of its inspiration—motorcycles are a bummer, animations can be stilted, AI freakouts happen a little too often, and the physics engine is floaty and a bit spastic. The "face" respect system is an interesting idea with a flubbed execution. All the same, United Front should be proud of what they've accomplished—they truly have improved on one of the best and most successful game franchises of all time, and they've done it with style (and with a really good PC version, too).
The ball is now in Rockstar's court to not only improve on GTA IV, but to outdo the improvements made in Sleeping Dogs (and indeed, Saints Row The Third, Red Dead Redemption and L.A. Noire). I'm not a betting man, but I have a feeling GTA V might just make all of those games look like iterative speed-bumps on the road to the next big thing. Here's hoping they pull it off.
And hey, in the meantime, have you heard of this game Sleeping Dogs? It's pretty good…