It's the year 2013, and there's no shortage of third-person open-world action games to choose from. It's a genre some say was perfected years ago with PS2-era Grand Theft Auto games. So how does a game with a rocky past, at least three name changes, and a major development shift stand a chance? Can Sleeping Dogs stand out in a crowd?
Sleeping Dogs drops you into modern-day gangland Hong Kong as Wei Shen, a Chinese-born police officer who immigrated to the US as a young man. Wei, just off the boat from San Francisco, is chosen to go undercover and take on the criminal underbelly of Hong Kong from the inside due to his childhood ties to gang members. Pretty soon, things in his Sun On Yee triad begin to heat up, and Wei is forced to balance his friendships with his job as undercover cop.
The story of Sleeping Dogs is a nice departure from modern games. You're not the good guy or the bad guy - you're just a guy trying to make it. For the 10-12 hours of the campaign, you'll find ways to ride the fence and be loyal to friends and on both sides. While the main story takes a predictable and unnecessary twist near the end, everything leading up to it is appropriate and fresh, and your actions have impact in the world of the game.
Instead of making major story choices, you'll be the one deciding which team Wei plays for - the police or the gangs. Each story mission allows you to earn Cop Experience and Triad Experience, which unlock two different skill trees based on their respective alignment. In addition, you'll earn "Face" Experience - roughly equating to honor or dignity - that measures your reputation with the citizens of Hong Kong.
The primary weapons at your disposal in taking on the streets of Hong Kong are your bare hands. Sleeping Dogs features a hand-to-hand combat system lifted almost wholesale from the Freeflow combat system featured in the recent Arkham series. In this case, imitation really is the sincerest form of flattery as Sleeping Dogs' martial arts combat is executed flawlessly. You're given all the tools you need to take down every foe that comes your way, and when you fail, the only one at fault is you. You feel and hear the CRUNCH and SNAP of every cracked rib and broken bone - those you deliver, as well as, the ones you receive.
There are guns in Sleeping Dogs, but as in the real world, they're few and far between. Like the hand-to-hand combat, the gunplay also draws inspiration from previous games. The cover system comes straight out of Gears of War and slow-motion elements call back to Max Payne, but these disparate elements are married together in a satisfying way.
As you'd expect, Sleeping Dogs also features vehicles, and lots of them. Cars, trucks, bikes, scooters, and even a few boats are at your disposal to traverse the city. The handling is nice and arcade-like. The speed you can get out of some of the faster vehicles leaves plenty of room for crazy open-world shenanigans. You'll also act as gunner in both the driver and passenger seat, and you can action hijack other cars while moving at ridiculous speeds.
While on foot, Wei employs a parkour-like running, leaping, and vaulting that can get you from point A to point B smoothly and quickly. In most cases these moves work to your advantage and make traversing the city efficient, the handful of times in both the main story and side missions that require you to chase someone on foot are one of the game's few missteps.
Throughout Wei's journey, you'll spend most of your time in the city and surrounding areas of Hong Kong, which is spectacularly vivid. With the relentless bustle of pedestrians and cars, Sleeping Dogs' Hong Kong feels more alive than most other games of this type. From the pervasive neon signs to the slick asphalt after rain, every detail is rendered beautifully. All versions of Sleeping Dogs look nice, but on the PC, it's absolutely gorgeous.
The sights and sounds of Sleeping Dogs are great, but the real draw of the city is its people and activities. There's seemingly no end to the amount of fun you can have in Hong Kong, from dating to karaoke to street races to drug busts... The side missions here aren't your typical open-world filler, they're legitimately interesting and often provide the humorous and laid-back downtime you need from what can sometimes be a pretty heavy story.
All in all, Sleeping Dogs is a game about inspiration. It draws heavily from games of many different genres and styles, but for the most part it doesn't merely borrow, it innovates and improves. As the sun sets on this generation of consoles, Sleeping Dogs delivers a fresh take on a largely tired genre, and holds its own among some of the best open-world action games ever.
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