I’ve written plenty of times on here about my love for Grand Theft Auto. GTAIII is the progenitor that spawned generations of spin-offs; just about any open world game that incorporates driving, social satire, and a nice violent plot owes something to this series. I’ve played each one religiously and thoroughly, mining for the hidden secrets, striving to reach that one obscure area of the map just to say I’ve been there, and replaying them all to hear the dialog and watch the story unfold again. GTA IV was the entire reason I bought both a Playstation 3 and a projector.
So it’s with all that taken into consideration that I say this: the king has got a serious challenger here.
Sleeping Dogs was made by Square Enix, a well-renown Asian studio if you’re unfamiliar. The game is set in Hong Kong, which adds the quirky twist that all cars drive on the left side of the road there. What’s incredible about this game is that it seems like the people who made it have been playing all the other great games recently and taking notes on what makes them fun: Sleeping Dogs convolves the fluid hand-to-hand combat of the recent Batman series, the tense footchases from L.A. Noire, the upgrade system to learn new combat moves from Assassin’s Creed, and even a little bit of being able to choose between being good/evil (aka cop/triad) from games like Mass Effect. It’s a little bit of everything–and some well-chosen bits at that.
Since it’s impossible not to compare to this game to GTA, I’ll go on to point out that some of the major annoyances of that series are absent here: you never seem to find yourself stranded on an empty street with no cars in sight. There are rarely unreasonable obstacles that will maddeningly stop you dead in your tracks if you drive into them–like a 3 foot fencepost that can suddenly halt a garbage truck traveling at 50mph. Or a row of shrubs seemingly made of concrete. And–and!–best of all: the driving mechanics are such that you can actually… Drive! Tapping the e-brake will send you skidding around a corner from which you can deftly recover and thread through traffic like a stuntman. This is Driving, with a capital D, that will make you feel like a badass again. GTA IV, for all it’s amazing successes, had one abysmal, unforgivable failure at it’s core: every car you drove felt like it was driving through mud. I don’t know what in the holy hell they were thinking with those driving mechanics but seriously, I hope someone at Rockstar is playing this game and taking notes. It’s a testament to how amazing the GTA games are–that a shortcoming so central to the gameplay could be overlooked in light of all the other ways it shines… but man you guys… Driving has been going downhill in every entry since Vice City.
Sleeping Dogs only goes further and gets better from there: you can wash your hands in the sink. People standing outside your apartment have conversations that tell a continuing storyline about their lives. When you set a destination on your map, little arrows appear on the street where you’re supposed to turn, so you can concentrate on driving instead of the minimap. You actually get lucrative rewards for obtaining the myriad of “collectibles”. Like health upgrades or more special moves. You can do badass tricks like jump from one car to another to perform an “action hijack” on the freeway. You can shoot in slow motion when you jump over obstacles. And you can kill your opponents in hand to hand combat with a slew of entertaining and/or gruesome “environmental attacks”. My personal favorite was slamming a dude through the glass of a wall-sized fishtank in a nightclub, in a huge explosion of broken glass, fish, and lots of water. Now that was a gratifying finishing move!
The voice acting is top notch. The music is awesome. The plot draws you in but doesn’t glue you to the story so much that you’ll forget there’s tons of cars to try, clothes to wear, types of food to eat, favors to do, girlfriends to call, hidden little spots to discover, security cameras to hack, health shrines to visit, street races to win, lockboxes to fight for–the list goes on! It’s worth re-mentioning that the left-hand-drive in Hong Kong is a novelty that doesn’t wear off from start to finish. And the Asian ‘vibe’ is really recreated with panache. From the banter of pedestrians on the street, to the dingy high-rise apartment complexes on the horizon, water-stained by the Pacific rains, to the colorful advertisements everywhere, and to the lively feel of the night market where you find yourself early on in the game–if you’ve been to Asia, this will all ring familiar.
Sleeping Dogs deserves some real recognition. Going forward, this will be a touchstone for me in open-world crime/driving games. The bar has been raised. You can’t realistically say it’s “better” than GTA IV, in the same way that you can’t really say that a top-notch steak is better or worse than a top-notch lobster. It depends on what you’re hungry for. But I can say this for sure: In some ways it feels like GTA is made in a bubble–oblivious to all the new gameplay mechanics and tricks that everyone else is inventing, Rockstar seems content to simply iterate and make the same game over again. Yeah it’s a winning formula, but the locations are the same, the combat has really not evolved, and the same tired complaints never seem to get addressed. Sleeping Dogs is like a mash-up that folds in the best parts of many superb titles into one colossal experience. It’s got polish. It’s got style. You gots to play this. This is the real deal people. The Dai Lo.
When GTA V drops this fall I know I’ll be playing it upside down and sideways for as many hours straight as I can before passing out in exhaustion. And I also know that, without question, there’s going to be moments where I say to myself “maaaaan, Sleeping Dogs did this so much cooler.”