Drawing inspiration from the classic film Infernal Affairs, open-world action title Sleeping Dogs was no slouch when it dropped on last-gen consoles and PC, but a host of small niggles kept it from instant classic status. That makes it my pleasure to report that almost all of these have been eliminated in the game’s Definitive Edition, easily vaulting Sleeping Dogs into the must-buy bracket for any newcomers. However, as usual, a rebuy is a curlier proposition for those already familiar with the saga of Wei Chen.
Shen is an undercover cop whose past as a gangster makes him the ideal candidate to infiltrate Hong Kong’s Sun on Yee Triad. Once on the inside, however, Shen’s loyalties and focus are divided as he grows attached to several of his fellow gangsters while plotting revenge on others for parts they played in his now-distant criminal past.
The story may be boilerplate, but it is boosted by winking acknowledgement of its martial arts movie influences, as well as some great voice performances from a strong cast, which includes Will Yun Lee, veteran UK film and TV actor Tom Wilkinson, Emma Stone, and Lucy Liu. With their help, the narrative barrels along toward a brutally bloody, hilariously over-the-top finish worthy of its numerous cinematic influences.
The Hong Kong of Sleeping Dogs oozed atmosphere, but the Definitive Edition polishes it to a lovely sheen. Now running in 1080p, it features none of the frame rate troubles of the standard version, draw distances are much longer, and there are many more interactive objects and pedestrians to mess with. Hong Kong is a grimy neon wonder, an intoxicating clash of the Chinese, European, and western influences that inform its heritage.
The game’s mechanics have also been improved. In particular, fighting is a much more enjoyable experience, and that’s good because you do a whole lot of it. Guns don’t feature for much of the game, so groups of enemies are taken on bare-handed or with knives and bats instead. There are a pleasing number of bone-crunching moves to unlock, and thanks to snappier controls, Shen no longer pauses at odd moments to take a kick to the throat.
He can interrupt enemy attacks with greater frequency too – gone are the invulnerable animation cycles – and there are plenty more opportunities to perform environmental kills than before. There still isn’t the flow of the Batman Arkham titles here, but many aggravating idiosyncrasies have been ironed out, so being beaten to death doesn’t feel as unfair than it did two years ago.
Even so, countering remains the superior tactic in battle, although it’s hard to resist going on the offensive when your Face Meter peaks and the extra damage bonus kicks in. Grappling a hapless opponent and putting him down for the count permanently using context-sensitive environmental finishers such as electrical boxes, table saws, and other improvised weapons never becomes tedious.
Nor does hurling Triads off buildings, or seeing a group of thugs wince as Chen breaks their comrade’s arm or leg. And not many games allow – let alone revel in – the gratuitous use of cleavers, tyre irons, and knives the way Sleeping Dogs does. There is a satisfying physicality to these slugfests, and throwing weapons into the mix makes things appropriately nasty.
Given the hand-to-hand focus, guns are much more rare here than in similar games. They can’t be purchased, and don’t even make an appearance until well into the story. Despite this, a sizeable portion of the second half of the campaign is spent engaging in some classic John Woo-ery — minus the dual-wielding, sadly. It comes as a surprise, then, that Sleeping Dogs is a more than competent (if easy) shooter that features destructible cover, an intuitive and generally effective cover system, blind fire, and a Max Payne-style slow motion mechanic that rewards aggressive play.
Driving has also been tweaked for the better in the Definitive Edition. Drifting around corners is now a cinch, and handling is much-improved overall. The ram mechanic is unchanged, and remains the best way to dispatch of pesky police cars, as they generally outpace Chen’s transport anyway.
There is no doubt that the best of Sleeping Dogs is found within the Triad storyline, and the sometimes-related cop story not far behind. Outside of these, the drug bust missions and gang member favours are generally entertaining, however the plethora of other minigames including the racing, dating, and collectible hunts are uniformly dull, and the lack of potential for unscripted chaos provides little reason to wander aimlessly the way it has in the Grand Theft Auto series.
Fortunately, even avoiding the racing and item hunts, it’s a substantial game, with at least 15 hours of content to play through. The Definitive Edition adds all the game’s DLC to the mix including story expansions Nightmare in North Point, Zodiac Tournament, and Year of the Snake, which push play time to more than 20 hours.
While it may not have the epic sweep of a Rockstar title, Sleeping Dogs is refreshingly streamlined, hilarious, and contained, even as it pays homage to its sometimes less-than-grounded source material. No longer hamstrung by wonky punch-ups and weird driving, it's a terrific title whose gameplay finally matches its great characters and top-notch production values. The recommended retail price of NZ$100 on console is a bit steep for those who already played it through at release, even if they haven't touched the DLC. However, everyone else (including PC owners, who can pick it up for US$30) should wake these dogs ASAP.