Like Darksiders II, Sleeping Dogs is very derivative in the way it cherry picks signature elements from some of the best-loved video game franchises. However, this third-person open-world title takes these ingredients and cooks up one of the most enjoyable experiences in the genre. The game can be best described as a love child of Bruce Lee and Faith (Mirror's Edge) in the GTA universe. It incorporates free-flow hand-to-hand combat from Rocksteady Studios' Batman games and Parkour from Assassin's Creed in an oriental open-world setting reminiscent of the Yakuza games. You even have a smattering of RPG elements across multiple disciplines, which give an interesting twist to the proceedings.

An oriental GTA clone

The plot is reminiscent of the Hong Kong crime-thriller Infernal Affairs. You play the role of Wei Shen — an Asian-American cop sent to infiltrate the ranks of the Sun On Yee Triad (Chinese mafia). Set in a fictional version of Hong Kong, Sleeping Dogs features a unique blend of Cop and Triad missions that are played out in a non-linear fashion. The game has you playing on both sides of the law. You gather evidence against the Triad as an undercover cop, while at the same time committing increasingly dastardly crimes to gain access to Sun On Yee's inner circle. The main story missions themselves are quite cinematic and well executed.


The car handling dynamics are impressive

The cops and robbers dichotomy is reflected in the game's RPG implementation, which offers just the right amount of depth. Both Police and Triad missions provide separate experience points (XP), with a discrete levelling system and unlockable abilities. Apart from these two XP systems, you also earn Face XP by performing side quests. Face is a measure of your street cred that lets you unlock clothing, cars, and other items that boost your offensive and defensive stats.

Complex and refined gameplay

The Batman-inspired combat system is fluid and admirably nuanced. It employs a traditional blend of light and hard attacks, along with grappling moves, to create a fighting style bearing a great deal of depth. Wei can grapple Foes and slam them into walls as well as environmental props, whereas various stun and power attacks can be used to disarm or defeat enemy defences. The baddies themselves come in Brawler, Armed, Grappler, and Striker varieties — each requiring unique strategies and move sets to defeat. New moves can be learned and perfected by visiting dojos peppered around the city. Overall, the brawling segments are involving and require much deeper strategy and skill level than your average open-world game. This karma, I believe, is enough to forgive its slightly clunky cover system and Third-Person Shooter mechanics.


The combat system is complex and challenging

The Parkour mechanics have been seamlessly integrated into many chase segments involving spectacular set pieces. While you can't expect to pull an Assassin's Creed or Mirror's Edge, the free-running elements still are great fun. However, the vehicle sequences are what set Sleeping Dogs apart from the rest of the open-world games. The developer United Front has worked on ModNation Racers, whereas some members of its development team were also involved in Need for Speed games. This is evident in the game's vehicle handling system, which walks the tightrope between arcade and simulation camps quite well. Like the PSP game Pursuit Force, Sleeping Dogs allows you perform crazy stunts and jump from one car to another, which adds a whole new dimension of action to the vehicular sequences.

A living, breathing microcosm

The city may not be as large as San Andreas, but its four districts have been painstakingly crafted to capture the essence of Hong Kong. The PS3 version doesn't have complex 3D meshes or cutting edge particle and lighting effects evident in GTA IV. However, a mix of brilliant art direction and densely populated streets makes the Sleeping Dogs universe seem like a living, breathing city. My only complaints with the graphics department were anaemic draw distances and minor framerate issues in certain segments. In a nutshell, the game leverages good art and design to overcome limitations of its graphics engine.


Yes, you can (finally) have girlfriends in this game

The sound effects are well done, with some impressive voiceover performances that complement equally brilliant cinematics. The narrative is surprisingly refined for an open-world game. The performances are well nuanced, and lend credibility to the complex plot. Sleeping Dogs doesn't feature an anti-hero, unlike almost all open-world games, which happen to include some delightfully quirky elements of their own. Having said that, this oriental take on the genre has its share of oblique humour in the form of massage parlours, wacky karaoke bars, and some hilarious banter that can be overheard in the streets. The main Police and Triad missions require no specific sequence, and you are encouraged to wander off a tangent completing side quests (favours), betting on cockfights, or even getting yourself a proper digital girlfriend. The game itself is filled with great moments of sarcasm and some brilliant self referential humour.

An experience that's hard to replicate

It's not an easy task for a video game to find acceptance with casual gamers without resorting to a tie-in with either a movie or a sports franchise. It's remarkable then how open-world, crime capers such as GTA, Mafia, Saints Row, and Yakuza are popular with the same lot. What they lack in Hollywood or spectator-sport quotient is made up by their ability to provide an escape from mundane reality. These games let you indulge in stuff that's frowned upon in real life — activities such as beating up random people on the street, dealing drugs, driving like a complete lunatic, and murdering prostitutes. We all like to let off some steam, in a socially questionable manner, as long as there's no one judging our actions. It's not difficult to understand why these games are so popular then.


Vehicular combat is reminiscent of Pursuit Force

Their massive scope comes at a price though. Because these games have to incorporate a lot of content in essentially the same development time as regular titles, they tend to suffer from poor controls, gameplay gremlins, or a general lack of refinement and polish. Sleeping Dogs, however, is surprisingly refined. This is mainly because it was fortunate enough to have a rather long development time. It originally started out as True Crime: Hollywood, which was eventually canned by Activision. Don't ask why, but my guess is that the AAA factory may have thought there weren't enough Call of Duty and Guitar Hero games to focus on this one. Interestingly, the game was nearly complete when it was cancelled. Square Enix eventually bought the rights and gave United Front another year to polish it, which is easily evident in every aspect of the game.

Sleeping Dogs is by far the most refined GTA clone I have come across. Something tells me that its unprecedented gameplay depth will not be matched for a long time. It's not every day that an open world game gets a second chance and the extended development time required to deliver an experience as compelling as this. If you love this genre, there's no reason why you should miss this.

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