Sleeping Dogs (which has just had a definitive edition released on Xbox One, PC and Ps4) tells the tale of Wei, a cop placed into deep cover to take down the Hong Kong triads and finds his loyalties divided along the way. It’s fitting, if a tad tragic, that the game is itself torn between two identities.
The game’s portrayal of Hong Kong is beautiful and sprawling yet there’s nothing to justify exploration, the combat is brutal but rendered trivial by an overpowered counter-attack, and the moral ambiguity of the protagonist’s role isn’t accompanied by any meaningful choices during the narrative. Sleeping Dogs wants to be a gritty crime drama, and largely succeeds, but the story of a man clawing his way to the top of the “Sun On Yee” feels at odds with gameplay that pulls almost every punch.
It’s a problem that’s becoming endemic among big-budget games and it’s particularly sad when a title comes so close to true greatness, only to be held back by rigid adherence to design conventions and – I suspect – too many artists with not enough communication. Even some relatively small changes might have let Sleeping Dogs be a true gem, like removing some of the excessive on-screen clutter and adding the option to turn off the patronising red glow that signals an imminent enemy attack. I find it very telling that the game is perfectly playable when you turn the HUD off, since ammo is plentiful and health regenerates whenever you beat up a few goons in succession. I appreciate that not everyone is as accustomed to videogame tropes as I am, but it still feels surreal to have an open world that gets locked off whenever a mission starts, and a grim story that revolves around standing still and repeatedly countering attacks from goons who have no qualms about throwing themselves at you until they die.
Still, Sleeping Dogs comes closer to greatness than Tomb Raider 2013, another Square Enix game blighted by dissonance between its story and its mechanics, and I’d recommend it to anyone looking for a spin on the Grand Theft Auto formula. It has an unusual setting that’s treated with respect and some mindless action to blow off steam with. It’s just a shame to have all the ingredients of a classic thrown together rather than cooked properly.
Image rights: Square Enix