Given all the publicity Square Enix is throwing behind Sleeping Dogs, it’s clear that, despite the saying associated with their title, they don’t want gamers to let this potential new franchise lie. However, the gameplay hints at a mistranslation: This hybrid takes the familiar open-world exploration of Grand Theft Auto and refines it with free-flow combat from Batman: Arkham City, bullet-time gunning from Max Payne, free-running sequences from Assassin’s Creed, and physics-defying vehicular chaos from Driver, and might more accurately be titled Old Dogs Successfully Steal Older Tricks. Nothing new here, but there’s at least a robust and addictive first half, in which undercover officer Wei Shen infiltrates the dangerous Sun On Yee triad, and a flavorful, albeit scaled-down, Hong Kong setting which one must fully explore to unlock all the cars, health shrines, clothes, and karaoke songs. (There are also food carts, massage parlors, and apothecaries, all of which temporarily boost your stats.)
During the first 10 hours or so, gamers will be delighted by the way missions smoothly transition from melee to gunplay to foot/car chases, especially when gadgets and their cleverly designed mini-games are involved (hacking cameras, opening safes, picking locks, calibrating bugs, triangulating phone calls). But as the game drags on into inconsequential (and easy) escort missions, or introduces so-called “romantic” side quests in which you’ll meet a girl, do her a favor, sleep with her, and never see her again, a sense of ennui sets in. Apart from the differing “environmental kills” to be used in fistfights, the game never shakes things up; it just throws more and more enemies at you at once. The big set pieces—pulling a hostage out of a warehouse, defending a hospital, escaping a high-rise—are few and far between; it’s telling that missions involving a wedding and a funeral play out almost identically. The greatest narrative moment occurs early on, when Wei Shen’s borderline-corrupt supervisor, Pendrew, has Shen tamper with the ballistics of a crime scene: As Pendrew gives his version of events, you must accurately fire a stolen triad gun at the imaginary targets he’s recounting.
That said, while the gameplay may grow a little stale, the story rarely falters. Even the myriad side missions, which can be taken on to increase your “face” (the respect accorded to you by others, often with ability-increasing or money-saving perks), feel authentically scripted, straight down to the slang-y mix between English and Cantonese. (You’ll want to have subtitles on.) You’ll find yourself, like Shen, growing perhaps a little too attached to these gangsters—the Sun On Yee chairman, elderly Uncle Po; soft-on-the-inside Red Pole leader Winston; hapless friend/stooge Jackie—and, like the game, losing sight of your initial quest for revenge. Instead, you’ll be jollily extorting merchants, collecting payments, and hijacking armored vans for a little more cash. And outside of those using the game’s so-called Social Hub to compare mission scores or in-game achievements (like “longest car jump”), few players will find themselves agonizing over Triad XP (earned through excessive brutality) and Cop XP (earned by avoiding unnecessary damage/deaths); there’s more than enough to be earned, and neither has any real effect on the other.
It makes sense that Sleeping Dogs, which shamelessly steals so much from its peers, wouldn’t worry too much about consequences. With gamers, fun comes first; being unoriginal, especially compared to all the truly gruesome scenes found in-game, is hardly a crime.