As you walk down a narrow street criss-crossed overhead with what you only hope is clean laundry, dozens of vendors shout annoyingly in your ears, hawking their equally ridiculous and questionable wares. Everything from food to clothing, cd’s and even “massages” are all for sale here on the crowded streets of Hong Kong, but with just a few dollars in your pocket you can barely afford to have chugged that last disgusting sports drink. All that though, is about to change.
As Wei Shen you’ve just returned from America and already you’re getting involved in a seedy underbelly of crime. But your bosses wouldn’t have it any other way. Working as an undercover officer easily inserted into the Sun On Yee Triads, what makes you so great at your job is also the very thing that threatens to pull you in too deeply. You grew up with these guys, who constantly remind you of your past and your sister’s fate.
The story of Sleeping Dogs is compelling, in that you are driven to make personal connections between your present and your past, despite having to live a double life. While you are being paid to get close to a criminal organization, there’s also that piece of you that pulls closer to the lives of those you are closely observing, running the risk of succumbing to what I can only describe as a strange form of “Lima syndrome” in feeling sympathy for those society would objectively consider the bad guys. The best part about the story is that this psychological reversal of the Stockholm syndrome doesn’t simply work on your character, but it begins to work on you as the player, too. Needless to say, there are moments of the story which are surprisingly poignant. But despite how good that aspect of the game is, that isn’t where you’ll spend the majority of your time.
Whether you are engaging in hand-to-hand combat or racing at breakneck speeds through highly-trafficked streets, Sleeping Dogs is an immense and enjoyable world. Guns themselves are relatively rare so the majority of your fights will be constrained to martial arts techniques (which can be learned through finding and turning in jade statues hidden throughout the three islands). The melee combat, being the focus of a large part of the action, operates very similarly to that of the recent Batman: Arkham Asylum/Arkham City titles, which is to say that you can pull off punches, kicks and counter attacks all with ease, while feeling like a total bat-ass doing it.
Squaresoft really did fans a huge favor by rescuing this title when it was dumped by Activision/Blizzard. Originally called True Crime: Hong Kong, despite the change in title this is every bit the superior and worthy successor to the awesome ideas implemented in True Crime: LA and True Crime: New York (to a lesser extent). For all of your actions you earn points with gang members or the police, where doing things one way may not please the other faction. Once you accumulate enough you can choose a skill to unlock, making things like boosting cars or disarming opponents easier. Visiting a local massage parlor opens up your “mind” and grants you a bonus which allows you to learn more from your experiences for a set amount of time, giving you greater rewards for every effort and finally explaining why I did so poorly in grade school. (But don’t worry — like any good father I am determined to make sure my son has all the advantages in life I never did. And dad, if you’re reading this, I forgive you – it’s not your fault that no one ever taught you the benefits of prostitution.)
As Sleeping Dogs will inevitably be compared to other open world games that allow you to run amok, depending on what you’re looking for this game might actually be your best option. Though it is still possible, as an undercover officer you are less encouraged to seek out random carnage – you won’t typically carry around rocket launchers or have tanks waiting in your garage, available on a whim. Though there are plenty of things to see and do (with drug busts, street races and random side missions), the game itself is mostly well structured. Despite the fact that it technically is a sandbox game, there’s almost always something you ought to be doing. The game does have difficulty occasionally in transitioning logically from one task to another – sometimes you just have a random way point to break up a drug ring – but if you want any down time you’ll have to deliberately ignore an obvious destination.
If launching people from a cannon is your sort of thing, then Sleeping Dogs takes its world too seriously for your tastes. The sprawling metropolis of Hong Kong, while true to reality, does not feel like a massive playground with jungle gyms and monkey bars. It feels dark, crowded and gritty. The title exceeds the level of technical proficiency found in GTA IV and, consequently, is the better game for it. Sleeping Dogs doesn’t have that same identity crisis where it wants to make jokes but also wants to convey the gravity of a situation, so you don’t have ridiculous annoyances here like seven different friends constantly bothering you because they all want to play pool and think you don’t love them anymore.
Sleeping Dogs chooses to explore emotional and personal themes, chooses to explore the concepts of right and wrong and what it means to be on either side of the law. It does so in a world that is open and rich in opportunity for exploration. It is an immersive title in the truest sense of the word. If that’s something you’re looking for, then this game does that better than anything Saints Row or GTA has ever put together. And if that’s not something you’re looking for, then you probably won’t appreciate what you’re missing.