Somewhere between the deadly serious, existential epics like Rockstar's Max Payne and L.A. Noire, and the over-the-top, amoral zaniness of Saints Row: The Third, lies Sleeping Dogs. After being dropped by Activision, Square-Enix and United Front Games' rebranding and reworking of what should have been True Crime: Hong Kong comes to us as an open-world action game that does little to redefine the boundaries of the genre, while remaining a generally entertaining and well-executed product.
Eschewing the generic, ersatz American cities of most open-world games, Sleeping Dogs is set in a scaled-down but vibrantly realized Hong Kong, with a number of distinct districts to explore during the game's main campaign and numerous side-missions. Alive with the sights and sounds of a teeming world port, Sleeping Dogs' Hong Kong is an interesting setting for a game, even if the gorgeous sights of the PC version don't entirely transfer over to the console edition; there, it suffers a bit from blurry textures and less-than-photorealistic visuals and camera placement that—especially in some of the driving sequences—can be annoying.
Nonetheless, complementing the game's presentation is voice work that's absolutely top-drawer with seasoned actors voicing the main roles and putting in pitch-perfect performances of generally well-written dialogue. Though, as in most open-world games, the sheer amount of content almost guarantees bland line reading will pop up now and again in the side missions and minor characters. The music is understated but often intriguingly accented by Asian instrumental colors and effects. Unlike the often hilarious radio chatter in the Grand Theft Auto and Saints Row franchises, the filler in Sleeping Dogs seems forgettable.
In order to experience Sleeping Dogs' aesthetics, it requires playing the story of Wei Shen, an Americanized native of Hong Kong who returns to his home city as an undercover cop, determined to infiltrate its organized crime scene and avenge his sister's death. Along the way to the game's 20+ hour conclusion, Wei Shen struggles to retain some semblance of morality and lawfulness, while descending deeper and deeper into the criminal lifestyle he is sworn to combat. While the tension between Shen's impulses could be the stuff of a subtle and thoughtful game of real choice, Sleeping Dogs' campaign ultimately forces Shen (and the player) along a largely pre-determined path where, minor variations aside, every player's experience will be more or less the same.
But Sleeping Dogs is not entirely free of player choice, as earning Police, Triad, and Face points will open up a variety of upgrade options and side-missions in which to participate—though none of these ultimately impact the direction of the main story. Unfortunately they're on the bland and repetitive side, even if, thankfully, none of them are real time sinks and most take only a few minutes to complete. Still, it's nice to see an open-world game that dings a player for property damage, reckless driving and indiscriminate slaughter, while simultaneously rewarding them for brutal and creative environmental kills.
Although melee weapons and, later, firearms make their way into Sleeping Dogs' combat, most of the fights are hand-to-hand and martial arts inspired, and most often, a lot of fun thanks to the intuitive controls and well-timed prompts. Laying waste to a dozen gang members in a frenetic, non-stop ballet of kicks, grapples, punches, and gruesome environmental deaths is endlessly entertaining. Driving missions—usually the bane of open-world games—are made a little more palatable by virtue of their brevity, relative scarcity, and physics that don't frustrate. There are lots of cars to steal, buy, drive and collect if that's your thing.
Despite its open-world structure, Sleeping Dogs is disappointingly linear, composed of a story that sets up the potential for some agonizing moral choices. Unfortunately, it's the writers who wrest any meaningful control away from the player. Despite this, the game's setting is unique, its presentation is generally stellar and its gameplay a lot of fun; it succeeds much more often than not and is definitely worth a look.
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