5 Ways Sleeping Dogs Improves On Grand Theft Auto

You could be forgiven for wondering what all the hubbub is about Sleeping Dogs. "Just another open-world crime game," you might think. "Been there, done that, yawn."

I've seen a few commenters ask why writers at Kotaku keep talking about this game -- the simple answer for that is that we write about what we're playing, and several of us are playing Sleeping Dogs. That fact alone says a lot about how much fun the game is.

But of course, yes, Sleeping Dogs really is a GTA clone. It was supposed to be new instalment in the True Crime series, but the name got changed when Activision dropped the game and Square Enix took over. But as much as Sleeping Dogs is "just another GTA clone," it also brings a number of its own smart touches to the formula. The results are, in several respects, superior to the game that inspired it.

Here are five ways that Sleeping Dogs improves upon Grand Theft Auto.

It Doesn't Take Place In America

Every Grand Theft Auto game since GTA III has taken place in America. And hey, that's cool -- I like America fine, I live here. But I'm also kind of sick of playing games that take place here, and have begun to yearn to explore someplace new. One of the great triumphs of Red Dead Redemption was that it put me in a part of America that felt totally fresh (and yeah, also that it took place in Mexico, too). When we heard rumours that GTA V would take place in London, or Sydney, I was really excited -- please, let me play an open-world game in another country!

Turns out GTA V will return to Los Angeles (aka Los Santos), which is fine. But I'm still glad that exploring Sleeping Dogs' version of Hong Kong is slaking my wanderlust. When I first started playing the game, I remarked as to how much I was enjoying being forced to drive on the left, but really, that's just emblematic of what I really enjoy about the game -- I enjoy how it takes me to another place. I love the all-Chinese cast, I love that I'm not playing a half-American, or an American who has relocated, or anything like that. Heck, I wish the game had an option to play in Cantonese with English subtitles. The location, cast and vibe all capture the films that Sleeping Dogs is emulating (films which Evan has helpfully catalogued for you here), and gives me that wonderful "stranger in a strange land" feeling that the best games conjure.

It's Not Gun-Crazy

Sleeping Dogs may have all of the same combat features as GTA IV, but it implements them much differently. You won't fire a gun at all for the first third of the story or so, and even after that, gun encounters are specific and almost instanced. There are very few encounters in the world that can be undertaken with a gun -- instead, you'll be brawling your way through most of the encounters using the game's robust and enjoyable Kung Fu fighting system. It's something like a more slow-paced version of Arkham City's fisticuffs, and it's got a decent amount of depth and is satisfying. (It's a bit too easy to spam some moves, but hey, it's still a good challenge, brutal and fun to watch.)

The best thing about the lack of guns is that even though I've put 14 hours into the game, it has yet to devolve into the constant chase/shootout/shootout/chase/shootout that GTA IV did at around the same point. There are a few basic gameplay types -- driving/shooting, chasing on foot, fist-fighting, shootouts -- but they're shaken up and varied to a refreshing degree. The lack of handgun segments also helps the story along, as Wei doesn't feel like quite the psycho killer that Niko did. (He does rack up quite a body count, but at least he's not shooting hundreds of guys every half hour.) It also helps the cutscenes where someone waves a gun around or shoots someone feel more weighty and believable.

You Play An Undercover Cop

Every GTA game casts you as the same kind of guy -- a likable criminal who is trying to change his ways but can't quite get out clean. OK, fine -- that's a workable archetype, and its proven successful in the past. That said, the protagonist of Sleeping Dogs is an undercover cop -- deep undercover. TOO deep. The funny thing here is that it's anything but a fresh story -- this story has been told dozens of times over, and every beat feels familiar. But it's never quite been told in a game like this before, and certainly not in a GTA-style game. I'm not a sociopathic killer, I'm a cop who is losing sight of which side I'm on. It's a big change, and makes me much more invested in the story.

Speaking of that...

The Story Is Much More Focused

Sleeping Dogs is, perhaps, a more modest game than Grand Theft Auto IV. I say "perhaps" because while it is certainly more modest in terms of scope and scale, it somehow feels more ambitious in its storytelling, if only because of the great focus with which Wei Shen's story unfolds. The first four or five hours of Grand Theft Auto IV remain my favourite part of that game, but by the second act, things had devolved into a lot of (fun, but repetitive) action-game histrionics. Sleeping Dogs has kept its story on a tighter leash (no pun intended), and in so doing has kept things tense and interesting for a far longer time. I'm at the 60% mark in the story, and it still feels like I'm in those opening hours of GTA IV.

Numerous Small, Empowering Touches

All this stuff about story and setting is great, but the most important thing is that Sleeping Dogs is also generally more fun to play than GTA IV was. That's because the game is designed around a bedrock of great design touches that iterate on the template that Rockstar set out back in 2008. I've played a ton of GTA IV, and so, clearly, have the folks at United Front who worked on Sleeping Dogs. Little touches like:

  • By pressing "X" you can lunge your car to the side or front, damaging pursuing vehicles.
  • Some gun-based events trigger slow-mo, letting you do a Max-Payne-style takedown. Further evidence that bullet-time is one part of Max Payne 3 that Rockstar should put in GTA V.
  • Right from the get-go, it's possible to store cars anywhere in the city, making it easier to get around in style.
  • You can do a move while driving where you leap from your car onto the car next to you, performing an "action-hijack." It's great, and useful.
  • When you're talking on your cell phone, you can get into a car and start driving without hanging up. (SMALL BUT CRUCIAL.)
  • Waypoints are marked on your mini-map but also in the world, helping you move one step closer to eliminating that troublesome mini-map entirely.
  • You can toggle through objectives using the left thumbstick, making it much easier to mess around and decide what you want to do next.

It's important to note that every one of these improvements came from Grand Theft Auto IV -- without that game to set a precedent, it's doubtful that Sleeping Dogs would have improved upon it. What's more, there are plenty of ways that Sleeping Dogs falls short of its inspiration -- motorcycles are a bummer, animations can be stilted, AI freakouts happen a little too often, and the physics engine is floaty and a bit spastic. The "face" respect system is an interesting idea with a flubbed execution. All the same, United Front should be proud of what they've accomplished -- they truly have improved on one of the best and most successful game franchises of all time, and they've done it with style.

The ball is now in Rockstar's court to not only improve on GTA IV, but to outdo the improvements made in Sleeping Dogs (and indeed, Saints Row The Third, Red Dead Redemption and L.A. Noire). I'm not a betting man, but I have a feeling GTA V might just make all of those games look like iterative speed-bumps on the road to the next big thing. Here's hoping they pull it off.

And hey, in the meantime, have you heard of this game Sleeping Dogs? It's pretty good…


    am I the only one around here who uses the ram function to launch pedestrians and motorcycles high into the air?

      haha not at all! that's so much fun!

    its a game where I dont HAVE to act like a psychopath if I dont want to...

      this is good to hear.

      I posted concerns similar to your comments, on another Sleeping Dogs before the game came out. Because the character is an undercover cop, I was worried it wouldn't make sense whenever you go on a crazy shooting spree.

      i'm glad this isn't the case in this game (I've got it coming from ozgameshop this week =] )

    The first point was a valid one except for the fact that isn't Wei Shen an American relocating back to Hong Kong? For all the excitement about having a foreign feel to the game, Wei Shen is basically an ABC (american born chinese) who doesn't seem to speak a lick of Mandarin or Cantonese throughout, replying all the natives in his heavily accented American English, which kinda ruins immersion.

    Also for the third point about Wei Shen being an undercover cop, I really enjoyed this plot point too but there was a big disconnect for me when Wei Shen has to kill/pummel all these triad members and then he suddenly chastises Teng because she casually dismisses their lives at the start of the case of the stolen organs.

    Other than that nice article with points I mostly agree on, the crazy AI is heeelarious especially when they are trying to flee Wei Shen in a vehicle.

      He was born in Hong Kong, his family moved to America when he was 10. He's not an ABC. This is discussed during his many conversations about his sister.

      From memory, he only really cared about his own gang members well being and them being people, not so much the rival gangs, which is why he didn't go around pummelling those that were on his side. I took his attitude as having a bias for his own "family" rather than triads as a whole.

      Hope that helps clear up some of the confusion. :)

    Mafia II also improved on GTA in various ways.

    E.g. Story, Vehicles, Environmental Detail, Police System, Atmosphere

    It wasn't as orientated towards 'free roaming' and lacked side-missions but you could still mess around with custom hot rods, rob stores, get into fights with gangs and the police. Who needs random taxi and vigilante missions or bowling minigames anyway.

      Mafia 2 is not a good comparison with GTA because you can have 100% free roaming while Mafia 2 is more linear. Because GTA IV is more free roam so more attention is pt into the environment and the programming. Rob stores, get into fights with gangs and the police, you can pretty much do these things in GTA (NOT in a mission). And side quests e.g. taxi and vigilante missions or bowling mini games are put in the game because again GTA is free roam and these mini games can add more activity to the game.

    The stroy in Sleeping Dogs is completely pointless, and everything is predictable. When you finish the game you'll realize sending Wei in was COMPLETELY pointless. And Pendrew is too stupid to switch off cameras.

      Only thing that saves the boring combat is the environmental finishing moves.
      The driving I enjoyed though. Drifting in a night race in the rain is amazing.

    The ram function is awful, easily the worst part of the game.

      True, but its the best way to get away from the cops, those bastards just teleport out of nowhere, and are ALWAYS faster than you are.

      Why? You don't have to use it

    You can only expect Wei to speak so much Chinese, considering that this is a Western game. If even the main character spoke in another language, it can be too much of a barrier for some to play.

    Having said that, I do wish they had a pure Cantonese voiced track, as uneconomic as it may be. One can always wish...

      They could have still done it and provide English subtitles. Ubisoft did this with Ezio in Assiasins Creed where sometimes there were whole sentences and phrases that was in Italian. I don't mind. It gave the game a much more genuine feel to fit in the context of the enviornment.

      As for a Cantonese track, It would be awesome. They already had a lot of dialogue in Canto. They even have a radio station in Chinese!

    Such an awesome game. I hope Rockstar take all the improvements into GTA V cuz GTA games tend to have boring stories/combat!

    I find it strange no one is comparing the driving mechanism to Wheelman. It is litterally taken straight out of that game.

    The part where it says "It’s Not Gun-Crazy" is true, but think about the settings of the game. There are tons and tons of guns in USA and people can easily buy it while guns in Hong Kong is very very restrictive so hand to hand combat seem more logical. Guns in USA is very easy to acquire so of course GTA is going to be gun heavy because all the criminals will have guns.
    Of course Sleeping Dogs is a really good and fun game but it is also newer than GTA IV and more time is probably spent in the game because Activision is going to release it but it got canceled and Square-Enix take it on.

    I really like the Bruce Lee/ Jackie Chan/ Jet Li touches on this game. Although the hand to hand combat system isn't as I like it to be but it's still fine. Of course this game IS a GTA clone but it got a kung-fu style in it and especially set in Hong Kong. The graphic can be beautiful but not the best. Te side quest can sometimes be weird I mean help a shop owner to take pictures of tourist attractions? I guess I will go back to be a drug courier and shot the b*st*rds who try to rip me off.

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