Sleeping Dogs PS3 review – Ace sandboxer is far from Hong Kong Phooey
If you think I’ve made a big deal about the script and characters, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Because as good as those are, the gameplay itself is even better. From fighting to shooting to driving to RPG bits to collectibles, every individual element has been honed to make it outstanding in its own right. Whatever you’re doing at any given time – whether it’s part of a mission, or event, or just fooling around amid Hong Kong’s brilliantly realised neon streets, bustling markets and shimmering skyscrapers – it’s guaranteed to be a ton of fun.
Take the fighting, for example. Beating up thugs is a major element of the game (though never to the point that it becomes trite), and the mechanic for doing so feels like PS2 game Canis Canem Edit (aka Bully) taken to the next level, and with added kung fu. (Which isn’t surprising, given that there are ex-Rockstar Vancouver staff on United Front’s books.) Target with L2, throw with R2, counter with triangle,grab with circle, pummel using various combinations of face button presses. It’s a likeably fluid system, full of Jackie Chan inspired flying elbows and roundhouse kicks… and that’s before you throw in environmental attacks.
Wear down an opponent enough and, by dragging him over to highlighted objects then tapping circle, you can send him to his maker in a spectacularly gory (and often laugh-out-loud funny) way. Initially it’s obvious stuff like introducing torso to phone box for a literally electric farewell, and thrusting human head into circular fanblade to create an intriguingly crimson tomato soup.
As you progress, they get even more creative: Impaling enemies on a bed of swordfish snouts in a fish warehouse. Burning their faces off on a restaurant cooker. And, my favourite of the lot: removing the chain holding up a chandelier from a wall, tying it round an enemy’s neck, and then letting go – hanging your foe as crystal smashes all around your feet in a manner Del Trotter knows all too well.
Even hours in, those ingeniously barbaric melee kills never get old, and the shooting is just as joyously callous – there’s no scrimping on the blood effects as you carpet an opponent in gunfire, and nailing a headshot is endlessly satisfying. Snapping in and out of cover by tapping L1 quickly feels effortless, and while the Stranglehold-cribbed bullet-time which you enter when leaping an obstacle can hardly call itself innovative (it itself was ripped off from Max Payne), it’s still a spectacular way of taking out multiple enemies with one stream of bullets.
The best bits of the driving take their lead from elsewhere too. The handling has an early Need For Speed vibe to it (making top-of-the-range models a dream to cruise around Kennedy Town in), and Wheelman’s been pilfered for slo-mo shooting and action hijacks (hold X when next to another vehicle, then hit it again when an onscreen arrow flashes green to leap onto said motor and make it yours). Taking the obvious influences out of the equation, the salient point is that it results in a number of superbly high-spirited car chases and competitive races – the latter of which are aided hugely by roadside flares marking out your route, so you’re not constantly having to panic over missing a vital turn.
Still, I know what you’re thinking: Bully, Stranglehold, Max Payne, Need For Speed, Wheelman… doesn’t Sleeping Dogs have any of its own ideas? It’s a very fair question. And while it’s true that it many of its mechanics have been lifted from other games – even Arkham Asylum’s method of searching for a frequency using the sticks is used here, to place bugs on potential targets in air vents or vehicles – in the context of the story, nothing feels crowbarred in. The key is that it only takes the very best bits of those games. Think of it like David Guetta taking a load of dance hits, remixing them, and then meshing them together into one brilliant extended album. Just with more bloody-necked goons, and less Black Eyed Peas.
And while it’s borrowed much from elsewhere, it’s also corrected many things that other free-roaming games have got wrong. Missions mix all of the above elements (including an incredible shootout at a hilltop funeral, using gravestones and mausoleums and other assorted stonework for cover) and many more besides – rounding up sexy ladies to go hang out with King, taking photos of a road crash to use as evidence, a bit of surveillance here, a bit of intimidation there – and it never feels like you’re repeating the same old thing in a different location. Plus they’re checkpointed to be super user-friendly. There’s none of GTA IV’s ‘right back to where you started’ gubbins: die or fail and you never restart more than a few moments away from where everything went tits-up.