It’s not exactly unfair to expect Sleeping Dogs: Definitive Edition to have the same high shine of polish that the Tomb Raider re-release did, but perspective is important. That Sleeping Dogs only receives the slightest of graphical upticks—primarily in textures and fine details—is less a sign of laziness in porting the game to next gen so much as a testament to how well-crafted Sleeping Dogs was to begin with. The game’s Hong Kong is a clear labor of painstaking love for the city and its culture. Its characters are clichés, but well-crafted clichés with arcs that meander from point A to B and layered characterizations that aren’t painted simply in black or white, good or evil. The mechanics of the open world—running, climbing, shooting—are just as strong as Grand Theft Auto’s, and in some areas, like the driving, and the hand-to-hand fighting, stronger. These are not things that needed updating so much as exposure to a new audience, and inasmuch as Sleeping Dogs: Definitive Edition is a naked attempt to put the game in front of more eyes than it reached on the previous gen, its still a success. As any sort of advancement on the open-world principles it’s riffing on, however, it still has a tendency to come across as unfocused.
For the uninitiated, Sleeping Dogs represents probably the strongest interpretation of a Hong Kong action movie ever put into a digital medium, and that’s including John Woo’s attempt with Stranglehold some years ago. It follows Wei Shen, an undercover cop brought over from San Francisco to ingratiate himself with his old partners in crime, the Water Street Gang, in order to infiltrate the Sun On Yee, one of the triad gangs vying for control of Hong Kong’s criminal underworld. The plot thickens when Wei Shen’s loyalty starts shifting toward his friends in the Sun On Yee, in the face of the growing power struggle.
Much of Sleeping Dogs’ strength derives from Wei Shen as a protagonist. Unlike, say, Red Dead Redemption’s John Marston or most GTA protags, there’s no dissonance here about the fact that Wei is a good man in a situation where he must kill to fit in. It’s the core of the narrative, and the way the game throws the loyalty of good criminals versus bad cops at the player makes Wei’s story compelling, though Sleeping Dogs never truly gives the player the opportunity to choose sides, with Triad Points (awarded for kills, thefts, and criminal activity) and Cop Points (awarded for not damaging property or civilians and solving cases) mainly used for XP instead of shifting Wei as a character in one direction. It makes for stronger plotting, but it does, admittedly, take some of the control out of the player’s hands.
It’s an example of Sleeping Dogs’s biggest problem, which is that despite the clear love that went into the game as an expansive imagining of Hong Kong as a city, it doesn’t offer enough outside of the core narrative to justify this being open world as opposed to a straight-shot, linear story, with some open-world elements. The game started its life as an entry in the now-dead-in-the-water True Crime series, and it clings to that pedigree too stubbornly for its own good. Your activities outside of anything not pushing the narrative forward are sparse, mundane fetch quests, exposition dumps that just require Wei to be there and be led by the hand through each step, or meaningless high-speed chases, neither of which really offer sufficient incentive outside of doing them for their own sake. Sleeping Dogs’s best incentives all have to do with the people in Wei’s circle. He helps his friends with their weddings, and we get to see the softer side of a hard-ass Triad member. He dates an American tourist and we hear how Wei’s adopted family has and will take to his dating interracially. He helps a grieving mother seek retribution for her dead son, and we find out the depths of both her love and her psychopathy in the process. Sticking to the campaign missions gets you more rock-solid criminal drama. Sticking to the side missions gets Wei the ability to buy better shoes.
Eschewing deep political maneuvers in favor of character study was undoubtedly the way to go in order to bring criminal drama into the hands of players, and though it’s regrettable that the game doesn’t commit to that wholeheartedly instead of making it stretch, it doesn’t reduce its successes. Sleeping Dogs still trips over itself more than a couple of times reaching its climactic stages, speeding through plot points after spending three-fourths of its playtime conducting a master class in watching a character build from nothing to criminal affluence. And yet, by then, the game has already won the player. By then, you care about Wei keeping both his cop and criminal family together, about his loyalty, his honor, his friends. You care about his ability to get out with all of the above intact, and all the running, gunning, and driving in service of that feels entirely just. Wei Shen is a man whose skin is worth inhabiting, and his world a place worth spending 20 hours in. The Definitive Edition is simply the most comprehensive version of the world.