Despite its rough edges and a cringey mix of English and Cantonese dialogue, Sleeping Dogs has earned a place in many gamers’ hearts for being one of the few games set in Hong Kong. So just how accurate is the game’s depiction of the Fragrant Harbour?
In honour of the recent closure of the game’s studio, United Front Games, I figured there’s no better excuse for me to slack off and do some gaming, to see how the game holds up against the real Hong Kong (yeah, yeah, I know I’m like 5 years late). I dug up a copy of Sleeping Dogs and drove around on the wrong side of the street for the better part of a day – snapping a whole bunch of screenshots for your comparing pleasure.
Some in-game assets pleasantly surprised me with their accuracy. Others… well, why don’t you see for yourself? Keep in mind that – even with revamped graphics – you’re looking at a 5-year-old game built for last generation consoles. In short, Sleeping Dogs looks like poop.
Warning: Major nitpicks below
Time travel back to 2012 and read any review for Sleeping Dogs, and you’ll see praise for how the game nails the atmosphere of Hong Kong. You might agree with that if you’ve never set foot in Hong Kong or if you’re clinically insane.
Even if we chalk the game’s billion-lane-wide roads, vast open spaces, and lack of shoulder-checking pedestrians to technical limitations, there are still a lot Sleeping Dogs gets very wrong. But for now, let’s holster our pitchforks and look at the good – starting with the small things.
Barring the missing blue arrow (I checked all four sides ingame – twice), that is a pretty darn good reproduction of the good ol’ ‘ice cream’ traffic lights found around Hong Kong. I especially like how the in-game version keeps the serial number to 5 digits. My only gripe is that these lights are used to mark traffic islands in real life, whereas this in-game one was found along a random sidewalk.
Also, if anyone knows the real term for these lights, PLEASE TELL ME cause it’s killing me.
The street signs are also remarkably close. The colours, in particular, appear spot-on. But I have been accused of being colour-blind many times, so take that with a few grains of salt.
Okay, this is what you call a robbery. The colours, charts, and even the logo placement are practically identical. It looks like United Front ran an old PCCW phone booth through a 3D scanner and said, ‘screw it, we’ll have enough money to fight the lawsuit’.
This would sound completely nuts in any other context, but I was most impressed with garbage cans (or, if you’re British, rubbish bins). Notice how the government logo, decals, built-in ashtray, and even the tiny yellow fine print are faithfully recreated to near perfection.
Wait a minute. Aren’t Hong Kong garbage cans orange?
Yes and no. Trivia time: garbage cans in Hong Kong were actually purple up until 2008, when the current orange ones were introduced to commemorate the 2008 Beijing Olympics equestrian competitions. Nowadays, you’ll still see the occasional purple straggler around the city, along with green and yellow ones at parks and beaches. Now you know, and knowing is half the battle!
Alright. United Front did get taxis wrong – just not in the way you think.
While these vehicles look great in-game (thank you, for remembering the label on the back door), this screenshot was actually taken in Central. Anyone who’s spent more than 24 hours in Hong Kong will immediately experience a light bulb moment because, yes, green taxis are legally limited to operating only in New Territories. They will never cross over to Kowloon, let alone over to Central on Hong Kong Island, where all taxis are red.
Maybe the green taxis were a stylistic choice, since red taxis are indeed in other areas of the game, just not Central. Still. Shame on you, United Front!
Aaaaand same deal with minibuses, because why make a mistake once when you can make it twice?
On a positive note, I’d like to commend them for adding the stickers on the front and side, and the yellow price sign on the dashboard.
There is only one type of bus in Sleeping Dogs, and for reasons unknown to possibly even the development team, it’s not modeled after Kowloon Motor Bus Company (#1 biggest bus service in Hong Kong), or CityBus (#2 biggest), but New World First Bus(#3). What’s even more baffling is that they didn’t even bother creating New World’s single-deck buses, just the double-decker.
The result, as you can see, is likely as close as United Front can get without infringing copyrights. Heck, even the name remains basically the same (新巴 vs 新速巴士).
Again, the key word here is ‘some‘.
Out of all the Sleeping Dogs landmarks (surprisingly, there’s not many), the Causeway Bay Circular Footbridge has to be my favorite.
You can’t help but wonder why it’s even included when Causeway Bay is not (the bridge is found in Sleeping Dogs’ Central). I feel like the Footbridge is so mundane that – unless you’ve personally been to Causeway Bay – you probably wouldn’t notice if you crashed into it in-game. There’s no mission or interactive NPC that makes use of the Footbridge either – it just kind of sits there.
Yet, the Circular Footbridge is recreated with such surprising authenticity, from the little pots of plants on the railings to the staircases leading up, that it definitely earns my seal of approval.
Okay, maybe I just have a thing for bridges, but I also liked Sleeping Dogs‘ inclusion of the Central Elevated Walkway. Obviously the digital recreation isn’t photo-realistic, but you can tell the effort is there.
It’s a real shame that the in-game bridges are not interconnected like in real-life. Whereas the real Central Elevated Walkway can take you from IFC all the way to the Central escalators, the ones in Sleeping Dogs will sadly only take you across the street.
In a stroke of genius, Sleeping Dogs actually removed those pesky trees in front of the Court of Final Appeal Building, which in real-life prevents anyone from getting a decent shot of the damn place.
Strangely enough, Lan Kwai Fong is not in the game, but SoHo is. I took this screenshot at 2am in-game time. Anyone who’s been out drinking in Hong Kong will know this is absolutely not what 2am looks like. The road is also far too wide, and the neon signs feature too much Chinese, but you can still tell it’s SoHo.
If you can overlook the lack of drunk people and dried vomit, the Centrals escalators leading up to SoHo kind of works too. Appearance-wise, anyway, since the in-game escalators don’t really move.
Now that we’ve gone through the good stuff, it’s time to rip Sleeping Dogs a new butt hole.
The Rest of the Landmarks
Let’s start with one of Hong Kong’s most memorable landmarks – the Bank of China Tower. Granted, it’s not a very good comparison shot because Sleeping Dogs makes it very difficult to look at big objects, but you can still get a feel of the replica.
Call me crazy, but something about the tower is just… off. Maybe it’s the lack of weird angles and ultra reflective panels. Maybe it’s because the lights don’t all turn on at once.
Seeing the tower in real-life, especially lit up at night, will stop you cold in your tracks. It demands you to marvel at its beauty. When I saw it in-game, I just kind of went, ‘Huh, that’s it?’
The next landmark the Sleeping Dogs messes up – and I swear this one is less nitpicky – is the HSBC Building. The real-life version is rectangular in structure, whereas the in-game one is… oval? Rather than looking like the feat of engineering prowess that it rightfully is, the digital building just comes off as a lifeless imitation.
It also fails to light up at night, which in my opinion, is the biggest crime of them all.
Speaking of lifeless, what on earth happened to the Jumbo Floating Restaurant?! It almost looks incomplete!
We can blame the unimpressive lighting on the game engine, but what excuse do they have for turning the place into an Edo castle?
I don’t even know where to start with the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre. The tacky colour change? The replacing of the Golden Bauhinia sculpture with a generic fountain?
Or the rather blatant ‘Convention Center’ sign? Psssst, it’s even spelled wrong.
Oh, I got it! How about the fact that the convention centre faces THE WRONG WAY?!
IFC (Specifically, Lack Thereof)
Apart from the previously mentioned lack of interconnected bridges in Central, another thing that really, really irks me most is the disappearance of the International Finance Centre.
Ever since it’s opening in 2003, IFC has since solidified its status as an icon of Hong Kong Island, even appearing in 2008’s The Dark Knight. You would think that such an important building would definitely be included in Sleeping Dogs. Nope. Instead, we’re left with more or less of an empty space.
Of the four neighborhoods in Sleeping Dogs, including Central, Aberdeen, and North Point, Kennedy Town is by far the lamest. Sure, it’s not like real Kennedy Town is particularly exciting, but at least it has a tangible sense of identity, with its old school Kowloon-esque feel and the way it integrates the adjacent ocean.
In Sleeping Dogs, the water is physically blocked off by a massive highway. Without other distinguishing features, its Kennedy Town looks like a re-skinned Aberdeen/North Point:
Believe it or not, there are some truly questionable things in Sleeping Dogs, which I’ve saved for this aptly named section.
If there’s one thing that truly represents Hong Kong, it is without a doubt Victoria Harbour. After all, how many metropolitan cities can you name with a giant river/ocean/whatever-scientific-water-noun snaking through it? There’s no way Sleeping Dogs will get that wrong, right?
Rather than recreating the historical Star Ferries and its Central piers, United Front takes the road less traveled by instead opting for… Sheung Wan’s Shun Tak Centre?
The real-life Shun Tak Centre is a mall, office towers, and the Hong Kong-Macau ferry terminal rolled into one. In Sleeping Dogs, it’s just ‘Central Ferry Terminal’. I don’t think anyone has ever found Shun Tak architecturally interesting, certainly not when compared to the Star Ferry piers. But okay, I can roll with it. Look what I found parked in the back:
A freakin’ Star Ferry. An ugly, poorly designed one at that too. WTF, Sleeping Dogs? In case you’ve never taken the ferries, to Macau, these are the boats you’ll find at Shun Tak:
These super turbo jets. Not Star Ferries, because they can’t park at Shun Tak!
Argh, alright. I’m just going to take a nice walk along the digital waterfront to calm myself. Surely that cannot disappoint me.
Raise your hand if you’ve ever seen that view in real life before. Nope, didn’t think so.
At least there’s still the grand view of Kowloon to look forward to.
This is absolutely the worst offender on the list.
It takes some real hard work and dedication to screw up the two biggest landmarks in Hong Kong, but United Front has managed to do it. Perhaps they figured the real deal would be too convoluted for gameplay, or maybe someone just has a thing against the name ‘Victoria’, but Victoria Peak is a hot mess.
The real Peak consists of two major buildings, Peak Tower and the Peak Galleria. Sleeping Dogs forgoes the tower for Peak Galleria, and they even have the balls to rename it simply as ‘Station’. Needless to say, it looks nothing like the real thing.
Here is the barren, soulless Peak from another angle. 80% of this place, from the gate onwards, is blocked off for a side mission. When you finally gain entry, you’ll realize it’s just a big courtyard.
What’s even more mind-boggling is that the entrance to Victoria Peak is a bottleneck in the form of a big, flat parking lot. With no parked cars.
In case you’ve been hitting your head against your keyboard from reading this article and are currently experiencing short-term amnesia, this is what the Peak should look like.
Compared to the rest, this one is a relatively minor complaint, but it still bothered me enough to warrant writing about.
Sleeping Dogs takes place entirely on Hong Kong Island, where trams are naturally found. Trams run on rails built into major roads throughout the island. Trams are also quite slow – going from the opposite ends of Sheung Wan to Shau Kei Wan has a journey time of about 90 minutes.
Now that we’re established the ground rules for trams, would anyone like to tell me how it is physically possible for this in-game tram to reach motherfreakin’ Tai Po?
Let’s ignore the fact that Kowloon (let alone New Territories) does not exist in the world of Sleeping Dogs. If a tram takes 90 minutes to travel its usual 12km route, that means it would take rough 250 minutes to reach Tai Po from Central. That’s four hours. One way. Contrary to popular belief, even tram operators have to pee.
To be fair, Sleeping Dogs is not supposed to be realistic. Its meant to be the video game equivalent of a Michael Bay flick. Sleeping Dogs is an arcade-y adventure that’s throws you an army of bad guys to beat up and damsels to save. For god’s sake, this game even features cockfighting and the ability to jump from one moving car to another.
In my opinion, United Front did an admirable job for a North American company, though there’s certainly tons of mistakes they could have avoided had they just consulted me.
Bottom line: if anyone here is thinking of making the next video game about Hong Kong, maybe shoot me an email first? I promise I’ll give you a good rate.
So do you think Sleeping Dogs does the real Hong Kong justice? Roast me below!