Sleeping Dogs: Infernal Affairs By Way of GTA

E3 2012: This scrappy Activision reject comes out fighting.

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Take Hong Kong-set thriller Infernal Affairs. Throw away the half of the plot about an undercover gangster posing as a cop (you'll only need the half about an undercover cop posing as a gangster). Stir in a blend of skull-cracking martial arts and gunplay from bloodier, shootier Hong Kong action flicks. Pour it into the Grand Theft Auto mould for a free-roaming urban crime adventure. And there you have Sleeping Dogs, the game formerly--more prosaically--known as True Crime: Hong Kong.

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Developer United Front redubbed this open-world action game after it was dropped by publisher Activision and picked up, dusted off, and set on its feet once again by publisher Square Enix. Now the name resembles more closely a title from the kind of Hong Kong action cinema it means to emulate (though its title before it was branded a True Crime game, Black Lotus, had the benefit of not suggesting gently dozing pooches, that least dynamic of animal imagery).

You play as Wei Shen, a police officer gone deep undercover as a Triad thug. The city map takes the real layout of Hong Kong and condenses it, renaming districts in the manner of Grand Theft Auto's Liberty city, but maintains a representative mix of buzzy, neon night markets and sleek skyscrapers. It's a straighter portrayal of its subject city than GTA's rendering of New York; United Front hasn't gone after the same kind of satirical slant.

On the streets of Hong Kong, Wei Shen is all things to all players: he shoots, he drives cars and motorcycles, and he shoots things while driving cars and motorcycles. He shops at hawker stalls for stat-boosting snacks. He free-runs down alleys and over obstacles in foot chase sequences, he gives rival mobsters what for in chopsocky hand-to-hand combat, and he sends them to their maker with brutal finishing moves based on bits of nearby scenery.

With these contextual kills, Wei slams enemy heads with car doors, skewers enemy torsos on exposed pipes or hanging meat hooks, or plunges enemy faces into spinning fans or onto scorching stovetops. In a pinch, he can crack skulls against simple walls or on handy close surfaces, but the opportunities for environmental murder abound so richly that this feels like phoning it in. Besides, while grappling, you can steer soon-to-be victims backwards and around the room at comical length, shopping for a juicier killing station, which will be highlighted in red for your convenience.

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These accompanying execution animations are wildly brutal and, according to individual levels of bloodlust, may at some point lose their grisly charm. If wince-making gore is what you came for, though, you will be amply catered to. Please see, for instance, one leg-drilling torture scene briefly sampled in a recent trailer.

The niggling feel of certain controls suggests approaching with caution, if not outright curbing your enthusiasm for Hong Kong ultra-violence; the wayward camera requires occasional manhandling in combat, and steering Wei in a sprint is on the heavy side. But Sleeping Dogs might well overcome--with its release due in August, a dead zone for game launches, the game that Activision dropped like a hot rock could yet be a hit.

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