This is going to be another one of my reviews where I start out by “being honest”. In this case, I wasn’t even remotely interested in buying Sleeping Dogs, but when I went to my usual game store, they didn’t have what I originally went there to buy, and they outright insisted that I buy Sleeping Dogs instead. Eventually, I caved into POS pressure and bought it – and oh man, was I surprised.

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The game is set in Hong Kong, and it starts out with a bang as the player character, Wei Shen, is forced to run from the cops after they close in on a drug deal he was making. You get your introduction to the free running system here, which is quite simple, requiring you to hold to down the sprint button to run and tap it when obstacles approach to make Wei gracefully bypass them – or stumble if you time it wrong. Unfortunately, Wei is caught and thrown in jail. Cut to the interrogation room, where we learn that Wei is not actually a criminal, but an undercover cop on a mission to bring down the triads who control Hong Kong.

To do this, he has to work for the lowest ranking and easiest-to-fool triad boss of the lot, gaining trust and working his way up the ladder until he can get close enough to bust the fat cats at the top – all the while reporting his progress to his Interpol handlers. In order to do this, though, he has to really sell the idea that he’s one of them, and that means getting his hands dirty – kind of a “the end justifies the means” kind of thing. Just how far down the path of the triad Wei will go and whether or not he starts to feel split loyalties is exactly what makes the story so compelling.

What this translates into is an open-world action game similar to Grand Theft Auto and Saints Row. Everything is there, the map full of icons representing story missions, side missions, shops, your home base and so on. When you select any of these icons, a line appears on your mini-map GPS to guide you to the right place. There are many vehicles to use to get around, the city is huge and beautifully detailed, and there are cops and rival gangs who might react badly to you depending on what you do. Hell, the interface is so familiar it shouldn’t take you any time at all to get used to it if you’ve played an open-world game before. Stock standard stuff in every respect – or is it?

One of the things that makes Sleeping Dogs stand out from other games in the open-world crime genre is the melee combat system. In games like this, we’re quite used to relatively simple, button-mashing combat systems in which we pummel our hapless victims with our fists, curb stomp them American History X-style, or flap them to death with a big, floppy, purple dildo bat. There’s not usually much to think about – but if you try to hammer a single button in Sleeping Dogs, you’ll end up dead in under 10 seconds. No joke. The melee combat system is very similar to that in Batman: Arkham Asylum and Arkham City, where Wei can throw basic blows and combinations of blows at any of the enemies surrounding him. When enemies attack, they’ll flash red, during which you have to press the counter button to make Wei instantly counter the attack.

This Batman-style, freeflow-type system works very well, but there are a few differences. For starters, Wei can grapple with his opponents to do several nasty things to them, including dragging them to a nearby hazard, like a phone booth, slamming shutter, toilet, urinal, fish tank, TV, electrical box, crate or dumpster and use it to take them out of the fight instantly. It’s a bit like the Yakuza series in that regard, and no less brutal and satisfying.

There are several different types of enemies that can show up in any given fight, including weak but agile guys whose attacks can be easily stopped with your own; heavy brawlers who defend well and cannot have their attacks interrupted, forcing you to counter or grapple them; chunky grapplers who cannot be grappled themselves and will try to grab hold of you; and guys wielding melee weapons. Each enemy type requires a different approach to beat, and if you do the wrong thing – like trying to grapple one of the chunky sumo guys or trying to punch a heavy brawler while he’s winding up for an attack – you’ll quickly regret it. So you have to really keep your head, focus on the enemies instead of Wei, react properly to what’s going on and try to think ahead as much as possible. It’s awesome, really.

On top of all that, the “Face” concept, which I’ll talk about more later, makes an appearance in the melee combat too. If Wei does well in combat, landing enough hits and avoiding enemy attacks, his Face meter will rise. When it reaches the top, he’ll execute what looks like a little mini-Super Saiyan power-up which grants him a few benefits. Firstly, the enemies will be momentarily stunned by his sheer display of awesomeness – or blinded by his Super Saiyan charge, it’s hard to tell – giving him a few seconds to get the jump on them. Secondly, any health he may have lost steadily recharges. And thirdly, his attacks become more damaging and effective – like, his sweeps will always knock down, his knee attack will always stun, and his roundhouse will knock several dudes right on their asses. Oh, and if you manage to knock a weapon out of an enemy’s hand, you can pick it up and use it until it breaks. Most enemies are completely helpless when you attack them with a weapon, so use it to quickly get rid of troublesome bad guys.

Oh, sorry, I’m not done yet. After Wei meets his old Kung Fu teacher early in the game, a new set of side quests become available. If Wei can find any of his teacher’s stolen jade statues, he can bring them back and learn a powerful new combat move of his choice, like a running tackle and mount, a knee-breaking grapple move, or a powerful knee attack that breaks through blocks and stuns enemies. There are so many side quests in the game that it’d be understandable if you didn’t want to do them all, but believe me – you want to find the jade statues, because the new moves you can learn make combat so much easier.

Phew! And that’s just the melee combat I was describing there. Although, to be honest, it is probably the most in-depth part of the game. Gun control in Hong Kong is pretty tight, and even criminals have a hard time getting hold of them – hence all the melee combat. But you do eventually get access to guns and have to engage in a few large firefights, and there’s not much to say on that. If you like shooting things with the old cover-to-cover mechanic, it’s good fun. There is a nifty slow-mo feature that allows players to aim and shoot in bullet-time as Wei leaps over cover or hangs out of cars and so on.

With such a huge city, it makes sense that there’s a heavy focus on vehicles and driving. Wei can steal any vehicle he can see, and there are side quests where he’s required to do so as a job. He can also buy vehicles and customize their paint jobs, after which they’ll always be available from the parking garage outside his apartment – even if you total them or leave them somewhere. The driving physics are actually very good, making it easy to drift corners, dodge traffic and basically drive like a maniac without crashing. The game even keeps track of your longest, uninterrupted high-speed drive. As you may have guessed, there’s an entire street racing league sub-quest you can get into if you wish.

The main game is broken down into two parts – triad missions and police missions. In each, you’ll be required to complete various, story-driven tasks, like eliminating rival drug dealers or reclaiming triad-controlled bus routes for the triads; or spying on drug deals, planting bugs or investigating crime scenes by recreating them for the police. In actual fact, if you just do the story missions, the game is only a few hours long, but it’s hard to see how you could get through the tougher sections without having done enough of the beneficial side quests to buff yourself up some. It also keeps track of how far Wei has gone down either path, triad or police, which probably counts for something, I’m not sure – I’d have had time to finish the game twice if I weren’t a side quest whore.

Speaking of side quests, there are plenty of those. There are three main types: triad side quests, police side quests and Face side quests. The first two are pretty self-explanatory – roughing-up and racketeering for the triads, which rewards you with triad experience, and drug busts and undercover work for the police, which rewards you with police experience. As you earn experience in either category, you’ll level up and be able to buy useful skills from either skill tree. The Face side quests are mostly favours you do for the people of Hong Kong, which reward you with Face experience. Face is apparently a real concept in Asia, according to some of my friends who live there, but in the game, all it really boils down to is people’s opinion of Wei. The higher his Face level, the better clothes, cars and other status-related stuff he can buy.

And that’s basically Sleeping Dogs in a nutshell. A very large, genetically engineered nutshell the size of a coffee table, but really, it’s hard to describe what makes an open world unique without getting down to the nuts and bolts. You could argue that it’s another GTA or Saints Row, which we’ve got enough of, and it would be hard to argue – but when it’s this well executed, with such a gripping story and an amazing combat system, it deserves a shot.

Sleeping Dogs is out right now on Steam, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. There’s a demo of the game floating around out there, in case this review hasn’t convinced you to buy it.

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