Varied missions, hard-hitting melee combat, and a captivating setting make Sleeping Dogs an enjoyable escapade.

The Good

  • Savage melee combat
  • Alluring atmosphere
  • Fun driving and gunplay
  • Varied missions
  • Numerous collectibles to hunt down and other enjoyable diversions.

The Bad

  • Unattractive character models and environmental textures.

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.

Sometimes, you just can’t escape the long arm of the law.

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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.

You weren't planning on using your face for anything, were you?

You weren’t planning on using your face for anything, were you?

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.

You can purchase food and drinks for temporary benefits.

You can purchase food and drinks for temporary benefits.

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.

Varied missions, hard-hitting melee combat, and a captivating setting make Sleeping Dogs an enjoyable escapade.

By Carolyn Petit