Sleeping Dogs: Definitive Edition Review
By Seth Robison
Rama Rating: 8 out of 10
It’s fitting that the past looms large over Wei Shen, the undercover Hong Kong Police officer and protagonist of the open-world action adventure title Sleeping Dogs. While Wei has been haunted by family tragedy and a loyalty to a criminal culture, two years ago I played the game’s original release. Now on the release of publisher Square Enix’s latest ‘remastered’ version: Sleeping Dogs: Definitive Edition for the Xbox One and PS4, I, like many others who caught this title the first time around, am haunted by my original experience in a game that’s been changed just enough to make it all feel like a half forgotten memory. Like Wei’s return to Hong Kong after a decade in the United States, we are back in a place we knew in our ‘youth,’ but it’s different than we remember, if only just.
The core attraction of Sleeping Dogs: Definitive Edition is that it takes the core experience from the title’s original release and mixes in the dozen or so DLC expansions that were released in its wake. While the epilogue story Year of the Snake and the apocryphal ghost story Nightmare in North Point are independent of the core game, all of the other content expansions, including costumes, new cars and the excellent Enter The Dragon pastiche, are weaved (with varying degrees of subtlety) into the core experience, unlocking as players advance though the story.
The game also received a boost in the visual department with its jump to the current console generation in the form of new visual and particle effects and a literal buff to the character models, all of which look extra, almost distractingly, shiny. We should note the original developer also worked on the remaster - this wasn't a third party job like many others of its ilk.
These updates are great, but are few and far between. The original experience is by far the key draw, and for anyone retuning to the game after the first go around even if they didn’t shell out for one or more expansions are not going to find enough here to draw them back into replaying the experience.
The uninitiated on the other hand are in for a treat. The mere existence of Sleeping Dogs: Definitive Edition is a testament to the popularity of a game that was once on the verge of being scrapped on account of sales projections and marketing analysis. While the open world genre is often placed on a spectrum from the criminal mischief of GTA to the criminal mayhem of Saint’s Row, Sleeping Dogs: Definitive Edition uses its undercover cop angle to add a little depth to the action.
In the fine tradition of gangster video games, your criminal persona ascends the latter of authority by being the lackey of a series of more and more powerful bosses; driving to and fro, chasing people down, beating people up and generally making a criminal nuisance of yourself. Refreshingly, what Sleeping Dogs does is take a lot of the little nuisances that plague the genre and fixes them in ways that make them all more fun.
The rules behind the irritating mission type that has you discretely following an AI driver have been revamped to require that you only follow ‘the rules of the road’ when behind your target. No guessing the proper range to target, just don’t make a spectacle of yourself and you’ll succeed. When it’s time to hit the gas and chase someone down, instead of trying to awkwardly push your target off the road, a ‘vehicle melee’ button will give you a burst of directional ramming speed that will take down a damaged car quickly. This, coupled with slow-motion drive-by aiming and an acrobatic high-speed hijack option, takes the frustration out of driving missions.
On foot, Sleeping Dogs borrows from a couple of non-conventional martial arts videogames to make getting around and beating down more dynamic. Simplified variants of both Assassin’s Creed’s free running and the Batman: Arkham-style of fighting turn brawls into John Woo meets Bruce Lee action sequences. Responsive multi-directional brawling lets you take down a ring of enemies with both simple button combinations ending in brutal finishing animations, especially if highlighted environmental objects are involved. You’ll never look at an air conditioning fan the same way again. On the down side, after you master a few key moves, the fighting suffers from too few variants in enemy types, or even character models. Even after you earn the numerous upgrades to your melee abilities, you’ll stick with what works for you rather than risk a quick beatdown trying to get clever.
By the time that guns are introduced via the storyline, you were likely to have forgotten they were ever a thing. Using Hong Kong’s strict gun control laws as a conceit to limit their availability, once you have one, you’ll find them a tad unwieldy control-wise but brutally effective. Shooting sequences feature Gears of War-style waist-high walls coupled with acrobatic moves that trigger bullet-time allowing you to clear a room in moments.
The aforementioned ‘fixes’ to classic open-world gaming irritations continue with solutions to those long drives to mission start points via taxis, unlockable maps to the locations of the collectibles and stat bonus awards for spending in-game money for new outfits. You can even replay favorite missions without having to start all over again.
These options and improvements all seem like a conscious choice to create an experience that is compact, where no time is wasted. Not a great idea from the standpoint that it only takes about twenty hours to complete the core storyline and most of the side-missions, but it is in the way that the experience never seems to lag.
Key to that point is the feeling that the game is running a casino-style scheme of positive reinforcement on you with its four leveling trees each with their own systems of advancement. The core pair is based on your performance in missions: your criminal skill is awarded with bonus Triad XP while at the same time your efforts to reduce collateral damage are rewarded by NOT having your Police XP bonus reduced. The third, Face XP, is awarded for doing side missions, while your combat move tree is advanced via one of the four sets of collectables (each of which has its own set of rewards themselves). This turns out to be completely diabolical, as the nagging perception that you are always on the verge of a new level compels marathon sessions.
Perhaps akin to the actual experience of living there, the Hong Kong of Sleeping Dogs is compact and crowded. There are no open fields or cozy suburbs, just tightly packed buildings and throngs of people. The rendering of this world is excellent and it comes compete with water and blood effects, real-time environment/vehicle damage and a great attention to detail. The lack of real product branding in the game world for things like the clothes and vehicles effects the immersion, not a complaint one typically makes, but if the in-car radio stations are going to bother to run obnoxious and unnecessary fake commercials for them anyway amidst the limited playlists of ‘underground’ artists and royalty-free pieces of classical music, it just makes the world feel obviously unreal.
Releasing Sleeping Dogs: Definitive Edition is an especially shrewd move. The original release no doubt rates high on lists of ‘best games few played,’ lost in the deep ocean of games in the last two years of the previous console generation. Now it is standing up in the shallow pool of this generation and those who ‘slept’ on it have been handed an irreplaceable second chance. Those of us who had the pseudo-misfortune of already having played an excellent game can at least say we told them so.