“A man who never eats pork buns is never a whoooole man.”
As a practicing Muslim, I can’t quite agree with this quote. I can’t even marginally relate to it, having never had a pork bun in my life. I have little reason to care about it in any way. And yet, I will happily preach this quote at the drop of a hat.
Such is the power of Sleeping Dogs.
On August 14th 2012, Square Enix and United Front Games launched Sleeping Dogs, an open-world brawling adventure set in the sprawling streets of Hong Kong. As undercover detective Wei Shen, players are tasked with infiltrating the Sun on Yee, a powerful Chinese triad. Wei’s background with the triad and its now key members makes him the perfect operative — and a massive risk for the police. The line between undercover cop and hardened enforcer is thin. Fortunately, we level headed gamers were the ones to tread it.
I mean, you saw where that was going.
Sleeping Dogs was not the first open-world crime simulator, and it was most certainly not the last (that was GTA V). Yet, the Hong-Kong-based title still stands out amongst its peers. An all-star cast, including Will Yun Lee, James Hong, Lucy Liu, and more brought its characters to life. Combat reminiscent of the Batman Arkham series but with a kung-fu twist gave Sleeping Dogs a strong identity, with grimace-inducing environmental takedowns never failing to delight. And, of course, there’s the world.
The living world, a design element especially harped on in a post-Breath of the Wild world, is present to an impressive degree for a 2012 game. Early on after the opening few missions, Wei can witness a purse snatching happen in real time. He can then chase down and beat down the petty thief, backtracking to return the purse to its rightful owner. It’s a random occurrence that doesn’t pop up often, but it’s fun to see in such an early title of the genre.
Where the living world truly shines, however, is the ambient dialogue. Video games have blessed us with such gems as cries of “foul BEAST!” in Bloodborne and the classic “it’s da BAT!” in the Batman Arkham series. Sleeping Dogs takes things a step further, involving the player in the ambient dialogue. If Wei drives like a menace in the streets, a visit to the hospital will have you overhear nurses concerned about a recent car accident uptick. Feeling peckish? Ice-cream vendors will flirt with Wei to get his attention. Walk through the Night Market in the starter outfit or similar, you’ll hear: “Oh my God, you got big balls walking around in THOSE clothes, aiya!” There is almost no end to the unique ways the world of Sleeping Dogs reacts to Wei and the player’s actions.
Of course, the allure isn’t just in the polish. Put simply, Sleeping Dogs is downright batshit in a way that would make even Yakuza proud. The substories of Kamurocho have equals in the character quests of Hong Kong. During the escort Tiffany’s plotline, for instance, it is never established that she and Wei are dating. Following our first meeting over a karaoke date, the very next mission is catching her “cheating” with another guy. Wei gets mad, acting as if Tiffany has breached their relationship. It’d be incredibly toxic, if not for the fact that she acknowledges the cheating! Tiffany even accuses Wei of cheating too! We met fifteen minutes ago!
Wild storylines aside, Sleeping Dogs has plenty of absurdity to offer throughout its runtime. The dialogue is engaging and dynamic; Wei’s signature greeting is also “I’m Wei Shen motherfucker.” Convenience store clerks all know and address Wei by name for some reason. The fashion options are varied and fitting for this vibrant, living city; Wei can also pull up to a triad mission in full SWAT gear and have no-one bat an eye. Combat has depth and nuance; you can also run 40 monks in a row into gongs for a whole mission. On your very first extortion run, a grocer tells Wei’s new boss Winston to shove a bok choy up his ass.
Matching its insanity is the violence of Sleeping Dogs. Environmental takedowns are but the cherry on top of this bloody cake. Wei can brutalise foes with handsaws, break legs multiple times in the same place, and slap people with fish. To kill them. With fish. The line between cop and criminal is not so much tread as it is picked up and used as a blunt instrument. The plot’s own dark turns echo the growing brutality of combat. Mrs Chu’s revenge particularly stands out as a moment that could give even the most hardened player pause. Cooking one conspirator into literal soup, the bereaved mother serves that soup to the ringleader behind her son’s murder. The rest of the scene plays out more implicitly than explicitly, but leaves a harrowing feeling all the same.
These moments, and indeed all of Sleeping Dogs’ charming elements, still have the same impact ten years later. The story takes great twists and turns, running its stellar cast of characters through an emotional wringer. Hand-to-hand combat feels weighty and satisfying, while gunplay is brutal and quick enough to make up for its floaty nature. Collectibles are rote but satisfying to come by, and are hardly necessary to go looking for to sufficiently upgrade Wei over time. Jackie Ma is a gem of a character that you’ll never get enough of. If you’re looking for a great retro exemplar of the crime sim genre, you could do worse than where Sleeping Dogs lie.
If you’re looking for something else, well…