‘Sleeping Dogs’ is still the gold standard for virtual cities

With Saints Row resurrecting the humble GTA Clone, it's time to look back at the pinnacle of the form

The Pork Bun Guy thinks about packing up for the day, ending another long streak of serving life-giving snacks to passers-by. The thick din of Hong Kong’s bustle is broken by the distant revving of engines and wailing sirens. Someone, somewhere, is having a bad day. But that’s of no concern to the Pork Bun Guy. He just wants to go home and do some Pork Bun Guy stuff, before these streets once again demand their daily tribute of delicious charred pig in a sweet, soft bun.

Is he real? Am I real? I don’t know if Hong Kong has an abundance of pork bun stalls. What I do know is that Sleeping Dogs’ representation of it is one of the most authentic feeling worlds that has ever been depicted in a video game. If I ever visit Hong Kong, and discover that Pork Bun Guys are an invention of the game, I would feel deeply unsettled. Betrayed, even, such is the apparent realness of Sleeping Dogs as someone who has never had the privilege of visiting the real place.

I could ask around, or Google it. I don’t want to.

Sleeping Dogs
Sleeping Dogs. Credit: United Front Games

Sleeping Dogs is one of the greatest games of all time. The sights. The sounds. The neck-craning verticality. The sheer density of it. It’s all carefully stage-managed and blocked out in very precise and clever ways to sell its illusion, but what an illusion. It has an unmistakable vibe, in the way that all world cities do. Whether it corresponds to the vibe of its real-world counterpart is rather beside the point.

The history of Sleeping Dogs is almost as chaotic as that of Hong Kong itself. The project changed names and owners a number of times; originally conceived as a new IP, then folded into an existing franchise as ‘True Crime: Hong Kong’, under which guise it was unceremoniously cancelled before finally being published under Square Enix back in 2012.

Some lacklustre DLC, an ill-fated multiplayer spin-off, some rudimentary remastering and abandoned plans for a sequel would follow before the studio, United Front Games, slept their last dog in late 2016. The status of Sleeping Dogs as of 2021 is, well, who knows, but its inclusion by Xbox’s backwards compatibility team in the latest round of FPS Boost enhancements hints that it is still beloved by many.

Which it should be, because frankly, it’s the best non-Rockstar open-world game ever made, and it gives the Rockstar ones a good run for their money too. The source of its strength is its unmistakable sense of place. Its virtual Hong Kong is not a playground, it’s a setting for dramas big and small.

Sleeping Dogs cast
Sleeping Dogs. Credit: United Front Games

Sleeping Dogs’ mission structure springs from the location like a serialised TV show. Its overarching plot about a Chinese-American cop infiltrating the Triads regularly gives way to micro-stories involving regular beat cops, working vice, helping people on the street, and reconnecting the protagonist Wei Shen with his roots. Hong Kong existing on the game disc as an authentic city where complicated lives play themselves out is crucial to managing the game’s pace, contrasting bursts of John Woo bombast with tense micro-dramas and serene moments of levity.

By fleshing out Hong Kong as a city of countless stories, it earns the space to make you care about the one it wants to tell, and serves as a top-shelf example of how cities can be more than curious backdrops to action games. They anchor and enhance the experience. They bring the vitality, and the vibe.

Vibes are important. More important than laser scans and satellite mapping when it comes to digital tourism. Compare the recent Watch Dogs: Legion with something like Grand Theft Auto V. Both games depict an intensely familiar world city; the kind of cities that have so embedded themselves in popular culture that everyone on the planet has a strong sense of them. People even have opinions about how they’re governed when they don’t live there, such is their influence and visibility.

But the London of Legion and the LA of GTA V are not 1:1 recreations, and how they’ve been snipped and warped to suit the needs of those games can tell us a lot about how difficult it is to make believable virtual locations; to bottle the magic of a real place and spray it out of televisions.

Sleeping Dogs fight
Sleeping Dogs. Credit: United Front Games

GTA, for example, isn’t really concerned with recreating Los Angeles as much as it is with bottling its attitude. The skyline is instantly recognisable. Iconic locations like Del Perro and Vinewood are vaguely navigable to anyone familiar with Santa Monica or the Sunset Strip, but Los Santos’ compact map barely corresponds to the impossible sprawl of Los Angeles. It has a smattering of its landmarks, but the connective tissue is largely an invention of Rockstar, informed by LA’s general look and feel but casually unconcerned by its geography.

Watch Dogs: Legion, in contrast, is arguably one of the most street-level accurate locations that has ever been featured in a game. It’s certainly the most comprehensive and accurate recreation of Central London ever put to pixels. No mean feat, considering how often the place has been recreated in polygons.

Sure, it’s an abridged form of London with none of the outer boroughs, and many of its streets discarded for brevity, but the tourist hotspots and the thoroughfares between them are disturbingly realistic to any current or former resident of London. Except, Kings Cross is supposedly part of Camden. What’s that about?

The vibe, though? So bizarre as to push this London away from the Thames Valley and deep into the Uncanny one. A rail city without any working trains. Fish and chip shops with names that are tuna puns. A hyperrealistic Vauxhall Station with Dick Van Dyke accents and no Sainsburys. This is to London as the Madame Tussaud’s waxwork of Margaret Thatcher is to Margaret Thatcher – there’s no mistaking what it’s supposed to be, but it’s dead behind the eyes. As opposed to just dead.

Sleeping Dogs characters
Sleeping Dogs. Credit: United Front Games

It seems that getting the geography or even the names right has little to no bearing on how successful a video game recreation of a real-life location is. I couldn’t tell you whether or not Sleeping Dogs is a navigable facsimile of Hong Kong, but I can tell you it doesn’t matter. Whatever they’ve bottled, it feels right. These characters, as tropey and one-dimensional as they often are (it is an action game after all) inhabit this place and you, the player, are crashing their reality like it’s a mate’s couch.

This Hong Kong, it’s so tangible, so compelling, so right, that at times you feel as though you could reach into the screen and snatch a pork bun right from his hand. But you wouldn’t, because he’s just a guy selling pork buns and you want him to succeed.

You can’t bottle that.

Jim Trinca is a freelance journalist and occasional contributor to NME. Read the rest of the Remastered series here.

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