Shooting is also well-handled. There’s a simple cover system and third-person targeting, and while anyone looking for the John Woo heroics of Midway’s overlooked shooter Stranglehold will be disappointed, what firefights that there are are tightly controlled and nicely executed.
Sleeping Dogs then crams in a spot of free-running. Here, it’s all about timing. In a chase, pressing the sprint button keeps you running away from cops or towards your quarry , but you also need to tap it to leap acrobatically over obstacles or clamber up and over fences. It’s hardly Assassin’s Creed, but it helps give Sleeping Dogs its own distinctive flavour.
On the Side
Meanwhile, a series of side missions help you move forwards through your dual police and triad careers. Doing favours for and extorting cash from the locals will give you more ‘Face’, unlocking abilities that improve your chances in melee combat. Helping the cops by hacking security cameras to ID drug dealers or record evidence will unlock bonuses that aid you when you’re stealing cars or shooting enemies.
On top of all this, a third series of side missions has you collecting stolen statues in exchange for new martial arts moves, while a fourth involves dating a succession of potential girlfriends, though the game is curiously prudish on what goes on when you’ve accomplished your current squeeze’s chosen task. Finally, there are street races to be won, plus the usual dicoverables and collectibles hidden around the city, from shrines where praying will boost your maximum health to dropboxes full of dirty cash.
An Infernal Affair
On paper it doesn’t sound all that amazing, and in truth it takes an hour or two to click. When it does, however, Sleeping Dogs is one of those games where it all comes together in a hugely absorbing whole. There’s enough variety in the missions and side-missions to avoid the old Assassin’s Creed effect, where you fall into a cycle of repetition, and there’s enough going on in the story to make you want to know what happens next. Most importantly, Sleeping Dogs really uses its setting. From the neon lighting to the weather to the funky east-west fusion music, the architecture and the subtitled Cantonese slang, it consistently packs in more atmosphere than most would-be GTAs can ever manage. The game’s Hong Kong might not have the depth or the believable population of Liberty City, but it’s a great place to explore.
On a technical level, there are some minor issues. Playing on Xbox 360 we’ve spotted patches of dreadful pop-in and there are areas where textures look curiously flat. Generally, though, Sleeping Dogs is a great-looking game, with convincing Hong Kong locations and striking, well-animated characters - providing the AI hasn’t decided to make them shuffle along the pavement pushing a random piece of scenery along (as we have seen happen on occasion).
Sleeping Dogs isn’t a genre-defining masterpiece, but its evocative setting and well-balanced gameplay make it a cut above most GTA clones. The hand-to-hand combat works brilliantly, and the stylised violence and gritty Triad movie feel help give the game its own tone. It might well take an hour or so to click, but when it does it’s a gripping effort. With no competition on the immediate horizon, Sleeping Dogs deserves to be a sleeper hit.