What does it take to survive as an undercover cop who infiltrates one of Hong Kong's most ruthless criminal organizations? If Sleeping Dogs is any indication, it takes martial arts prowess, good marksmanship, driving skill, a reckless willingness to leap from one speeding vehicle to another, and the confidence to sing karaoke. None of the individual elements in Sleeping Dogs are best-in-class, but they're all thoroughly enjoyable, and the structured story missions have you switching from one type of action to another frequently enough that you're never tired of what you're doing at any given moment. Additionally, the fictionalized version of Hong Kong where Sleeping Dogs takes place is an exotic and atmospheric setting for this tale of conflicting loyalties; you probably wouldn't want to live amid the ruthless criminals who populate the game's cast, but this world sure is a nice place to visit.
You play as Wei Shen, a Hong Kong native who has returned after spending some time in the States. Driven by a desire to avenge his sister's death, he accepts a dangerous assignment to infiltrate the Sun On Yee triad and help take them down from the inside. Starting out on the lowest rungs of the criminal ladder, he rapidly climbs up through the ranks, behaving in ways that sometimes make his triad cohorts suspect he's a cop and sometimes make his police superiors think he's getting too attached to his brothers in crime. It's a typical tale of an undercover cop possibly getting in too deep, and the story doesn't have any surprises in store for you. But solid voice acting and writing that convincingly blends English and Cantonese make it a narrative that's more than capable of supporting the gameplay, providing context for many a dramatic mission and building up to a cathartic climax that's bloody enough to be taken right out of one of John Woo's Hong Kong action films.
Sleeping Dogs is an open-world game, but it doesn't start out by setting you free. The opening chapters keep you on a tight leash as they introduce you to the basics of movement and melee combat, which is good, since that combat plays a huge role in the game as a whole. Taking its cues from the standard-setting brawling of Batman: Arkham Asylum and its sequel, this combat has you unleashing combos and using timed button presses to counter enemy attacks. Wei's attacks look and feel powerful, and the bone-breaking animations may often make you squirm and make your enemies flinch.
But what sets Sleeping Dogs' combat apart from games with similar systems is the emphasis on environmental attacks. In most places where you find yourself needing to clobber some fools, you can drag enemies to certain objects around you and use these things to finish them off. These environmental finishers range from the relatively restrained old standby of tossing a thug into a dumpster, to the much more original and brutal attack that has Wei impaling an enemy on a swordfish head. There's a good assortment of these attack opportunities throughout the game, and a number of chances for you to make your own fun with the environment, too. Tossing an enemy from the upper level of a swanky club to the level down below isn't, strictly speaking, one of the game's contextual environmental attacks, but don't let that stop you from doing it. It's empowering and effective.
The early stages also introduce you to some of the atmospheric pleasures of this fictional Hong Kong. People believably appear to go about their business; cooks fry things up in restaurants, merchants hock their wares at the marketplace, and dancers perform at a street festival. What's absent from the behavior of non-player characters is almost as important as what's present. Strangers can sometimes be overheard discussing story events, but they don't constantly call out to you as if their existences revolved around you. (They do, of course, but it shouldn't seem like they do.) Unfortunately, close inspection can shatter the illusion. Character models look like plastic dolls when viewed up close, and some gestures characters make are rigid and unnatural.
But Sleeping Dogs is more about wide-angle, big-picture atmosphere than about close-ups. The skyline gleams with towering skyscrapers. Neon signs hang from every available outcropping on busy streets, crowding the air above you with glowing Chinese characters. This city may not be accurately modeled on the real Hong Kong, but it nonetheless has a powerful identity, and while you're playing, you feel transported to this dangerous land. Collectibles scattered across the island make exploring it worthwhile as well as enjoyable; finding health shrines increases your maximum health, while blue lockboxes hidden all over the place reward you with cash and sometimes with new items of clothing.
Once you complete the first few missions, you're free to explore the island as you see fit. But Sleeping Dogs is an open-world game in which you're sure to enjoy the structured missions more than the opportunities for free-form mayhem. It's fun for a while to run around jump-kicking people to death, or fatally tossing them off of three-foot-high railings. However, unlike other games in the genre like Just Cause 2 and Saints Row: The Third, which reveled in giving you ways to wreak incredible havoc on your own, Sleeping Dogs is at its best when you're playing through the story. Missions typically string together a number of activities, switching from one type of action to another frequently enough to keep you on your toes and ensure that you never get tired of what you're doing.
Driving in Sleeping Dogs is great. The arcade-style handling makes it easy to hop into any vehicle and start drifting your way around turns in no time, and the physics-defying sideways shunt you can do to damage enemy vehicles or ram them off the road brings with it a satisfying sense of impact. Just as exciting as the many races and car chases that take place throughout Sleeping Dogs are the vehicular shoot-outs that start cropping up a bit later in the game. Taking aim at the tires of pursuing cars and disabling them isn't particularly challenging, but it's still thrilling to send your pursuers flying end over end as you speed along unscathed. Wei also has the ability to perform action hijacks, leaping from one vehicle to another and forcibly taking the driver's place. It's an outrageous move that lends Sleeping Dogs a bit more of that Hong Kong action movie feel.
Whether you're escaping from a big drug deal or just driving your gangster pal's fiancee on an errand, the music emanating from your car radio always makes for fitting accompaniment to your activities. The eclectic soundtrack includes hip-hop, sappy Chinese love songs, throbbing techno numbers, tunes by some of the greats of British rock-and-roll, and more. And of course, if you don't like the tune the game has lined up for your current situation, you can always change the station.
Guns aren't a constant in Sleeping Dogs as they are in many other open-world crime games--the story explains at one point that guns are something of a rarity in Hong Kong--but there's no shortage of gunplay on hand. Gun combat makes use of a standard cover system, and though it doesn't quite measure up to the bone-crunching impact of the melee combat, a few dramatic touches lend it some flair. While vaulting over tables or other objects, you can slip into a slow-motion aiming mode, taking enemies out as you speed forward. And melee combat and gunplay sometimes blend together, as when you use a learned technique to quickly disarm a thug and use his gun to take out others. One shoot-out takes place in a hospital and memorably evokes the climactic sequence from the film Hard Boiled. Another gives you a gun equipped with a grenade launcher, which makes taking out the cars your enemies are crouching behind an enjoyably pyrotechnic process.
But it's not all fast rides and big guns in the life of Wei Shen. Sometimes you need to do a bit of police work by calibrating bugs, hacking cameras, cracking safes, or tracking cell phone signals. These minigames are pleasant little diversions from the core action--particularly the hacking game, which involves code-breaking a la the board game Mastermind. Missions also occasionally find you hitting the clubs to sing some karaoke. This takes the form of an uninvolving minigame that has you moving an arrow up and down as green bars scroll along a track. Still, these rare sequences are good for a laugh; the way your character stands looking straight at the karaoke machine and ignoring his audience is amusing, and it's particularly funny if Wei Shen is singing while all bruised and bloody from some brawling or shooting he's just been involved in.
You can seek out karaoke at any time if you want to hear Wei Shen try to belt out a stirring rendition of "Girls Just Want to Have Fun" or one of the numerous other recognizable hits on offer. Singing karaoke is one way to increase your face level, which brings with it passive upgrades like increased bonuses from the food and drinks you can purchase from vendors and machines, or from the massages you can purchase in back-alley parlors. Raising your face level is also necessary before you can purchase some of the nicer clothes and more powerful vehicles available in the game.
Thankfully, singing karaoke isn't the only way to go about raising your face level. You can also do favors for people around town. These optional activities usually aren't very interesting, though. Many of them have Wei closely inspecting something just so a thief can run up behind him and make off with some of his money, starting a foot chase that ends with you fighting the thief. Other, more enjoyable favors find Wei playing the part of a getaway driver, or leading a criminal pursuer into a police trap.
Wei also earns cop experience and triad experience throughout the game by completing missions and by keeping property damage and innocent casualties to a minimum, with each type of experience opening up selections on limited skill trees. The triad skills primarily improve Wei's melee abilities, while the cop skills improve his prowess with guns and cars. Additionally, statues you find throughout your adventure can be returned to a martial arts school to learn new moves. All of this brings a pleasant sense of growth to Wei as you advance through the game.
There are other minor attractions throughout the Hong Kong of Sleeping Dogs. You can bet on cockfights, for instance, or sail out to a gambling barge for a bit of poker mahjong. And a social hub ranks you against your friends on mission performance as well as a host of other challenges, like longest bike jump and most cash earned by running down parking meters in rapid succession. Goofing around and pursuing high marks on these leaderboards is fun, but it's the atmospheric city and the varied story missions that make Sleeping Dogs an alluring adventure. It may have more violence than you'd want in a typical vacation, but this is still a fun-filled Hong Kong getaway that will leave you with many happy memories.