Is Sleeping Dogs the Sleeper Hit of 2012?

I don’t enjoy GTA-style open world games. I’ve tried before, I really have, but the games just simply do not hold my attention long enough to become something special to me like they do to the rest of the world.

That’s why I almost completely wrote off Sleeping Dogs when I first saw/heard/learned about the game. Luckly, I gave it a chance, and it’s been one of the best surprises of my gaming life.

So good, in fact, that I’d declare it one of my favorite games of the year so far, and I hope beyond hope that it gets crowned sleeper hit of 2012.

If you haven’t been following it, Sleeping Dogs is a game that has been through hell and back. It was True Crime: Hong Kong at one point, then scrapped by Activision, then picked up by Square Enix, re-named to its current title, and then eventually released by United Front Games as the product it is today.

Now, it’s not common for games to go through such development hell and come out as clean on the other end as this one has. Usually, a game having to go through that much trouble comes out as more of an exasperated, dragged-through-the-dirt project that achieves mediocrity at best.

Not so with Sleeping Dogs.

It’s like I said on the podcast this week; this game is what would happen if Grand Theft Auto threw a party and invited Jade Empire, Max Payne, and Need for Speed. Conventions are mixed, personality is present, and the game does a great job overall with blending together different elements of multiple genres into a title that is nothing if not engrossing.

It’s a crime drama that actually feels like a crime drama. Morality lines are blurred, allegiances are questioned, and the main character is shaky, torn between loyalty and his own troubled past. Despite its open-world feel, it successfully weaves a compelling narrative that both keeps you engaged and drives you forward, always leaving you asking for more.

The game follows the exploits of Wei Shen, an undercover cop working to bring down the infamous Triad gang through infiltration and espionage. What follows from there is a well-paced and hard-hitting story that sees the development of Wei as he struggles with his duty to the law and his connection with new-found friends.

The world of Hong Kong within the game is extremely well-realized. People rush by and gather in the streets, shout at you when you push them aside, chatter in Mandarin and in some English, and even offer their opinions on events taking place within the game’s story line. It never feels empty or flat, instead feeling much more fleshed-out than any other open world game I’ve played recently. Developers themselves have cited the fact that they traveled to Hong Kong several times and took more than a few pictures in order to get a proper feel and layout for the city they created within the game. It even adopts enough realism to make you drive on the left side of the road (a fact that cost multiple civilians their lives as I tried to wrap my Yankee brain around it).

But the story itself is only a small part of what makes Sleeping Dogs great. Of course, gameplay is king, and in this case, gameplay is expertly handled to be nothing short of a blast.

Driving in Sleeping Dogs is well-balanced and enjoyable. Each vehicle has its own distinct feel and way of handling, and varies depending on its quality and renown. You’ll start with a dinky motorcycle, but you’ll eventually work your way up to buying a much more powerful vehicle as you earn the rewards of your missions. Or, you know, you could just steal one. That worked for me a couple times as well.

Combat in Sleeping Dogs is arguably the game’s best feature. Which is odd, since the game doesn’t hand you a gun until a few hours in, instead forcing you to adopt its stylistic hand-to-hand melee combat that feels (and looks) an awful lot like something from a Kung Fu movie. Enemies will engage you one at a time while the rest linger around, stalking you and watching your every move. Combos are learned from both the branching skill trees of upgrades and from the Kung Fu school in downtown Hong Kong. There’s also a robust counter system to the game that allows Wei to respond to enemy attacks with devastating results. It’s a combat system that both requires patience and some strategy to it, since it will punish you for both running in haphazardly and waiting everything out. Timing and accuracy are the key to mastering the combat of Sleeping Dogs, and once you get the hang of it, it’s a completely satisfying and rewarding system that does not disappoint, even leaving me wishing for more melee in the cases where I am handed a gun.

There’s more to the game than just the main story. With a myriad of side missions, you’ll help anyone and everyone in the city in a variety of interesting and unique ways, be they drug busts or even driving a woman’s car into the harbor to help her collect insurance money for her ailing husband. It all works well to create a feel for your character, and the side missions are a nice palette cleanser when you’re in between the latest happenings within gang factions in Hong Kong. Not only do they keep the world interesting, but they also help to give it an additional breath of life and realism.

Now, I know it’s still too early to declare this a sleeper hit, but I’m pretty comfortable in saying that this is my hopeful for 2012. From start to finish, it’s a fantastic game that delivers on all counts, not only having a fantastic story, but coupling great dialogue, writing, and action with solid gameplay to boot. If you’re into open world games, pick up a copy of Sleeping Dogs. If you’re not into open world games, still pick up a copy anyway. It’s been the best decision I’ve made all year.

Do you agree? What’s your pick for 2012’s sleeper hit? Tell me in the comments or in the forums!