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Those folks at Activision must be kicking themselves.

Originally penned as True Crime: Hong Kong, Sleeping Dogs was once the intellectual property of Activision, until some bright spark decided the project wouldn’t see a worthwhile return on the company’s investment and so cast it into the wilderness.   Several months later Square Enix London picked up the rights and renamed the game Sleeping Dogs. 

Shortly after a brief showing at this years E3, (one that was met with cautious optimism), Sleeping Dogs was released onto an unsuspecting general public and quickly became this years surprise hit, securing the top spot in the official charts for no less than an impressive three weeks.

After sampling this quirky Grand Theft Auto-cum-Yakuza open world video game for myself, it quickly became abundantly clear as to why Square Enix’s gamble has paid off – Sleeping Dogs is both an extremely well put together and highly entertaining title.

You are Wei Shen, a Chinese-American police officer thrown deep undercover into the beating heart of Hong Kong’s criminal underworld as you infiltrate the Sun On Yee Triad Organisation.  In truth that is the plot in a nutshell, however it’s in how that premise is delivered where Sleeping Dogs truly excels.

 

 

As one might expect with a story revolving around an undercover cop infiltrating one of the most dangerous criminal organisations ever known, Sleeping Dogs conjures up images of Hong Kong action movies with unashamed relish.  Via a mixed bag of motor bike chases, dockland shootouts and slow-mo gun fights you could be in any number of John Woo’s trench coat wearing, cocktail stick chewing, mafia flicks.  There’s even a Hospital scene reminiscent of over-the-top, bullet ridden, cops & robbers movie Hard Boiled, and much like the climactic ending to Woo’s masterpiece, is an explosive thrill ride that would see any fan of Hong Kong cinema drooling.

Like many of Hong Kong cinema’s violent thrillers, the action is unflinchingly brutal.  As a skilful practitioner of the martial arts, Wei, through a series of scripted moments, has no qualms about ramming a foes head into a dumpster then slamming the lid shut to the sound of an almost sickening crunch, or pushing them face first into a bar, knocking half their teeth out in the process.

Windpipes snap and bones pop as Wei uses a combination of punches, kicks and throws combined with bloodthirsty counters and takedowns.  While some may find the visceral nature of Sleeping Dogs’ combat a little too much to stomach, there’s no question that it’s one of the games many highlights.  As you ‘level up’ via the RPG-lite progression system, you’ll learn an array of bone-crunching new moves, reversals and disarm techniques with which to unleash bouts of unbridled pain.

 

 

While maintaining the façade of being a hardened criminal is paramount to Wei’s survival , the constant reminder throughout that you are a cop relentlessly needles at your subconscious and as a result there’s a reluctance to beat innocent bystanders to a bloody pulp before making off with their vehicle and/or money.  Much like ambitious police officer, John, in cult British football hooligan movie, I.D, Wei is constantly reminded by his superior “When you go undercover, remember one thing…who you are”.

On those few occasions I did willingly commit acts of random violence, or shot down an innocent bystander during a fire-fight, I felt genuine pangs of guilt and unease – a rarity for open world games where anything usually and often does go.

Interestingly, what really drives the narrative far better than most is that Wei Shen is a likeable character that genuinely cares about what happens to people – even those childhood friends who have fallen in with the Triads.  As Wei rises through the ranks of the criminal underworld, you’re always consciously aware that beneath the dangerously cool exterior lies an honest man, one whose motives, while not always clear, are predetermined by his need to do what is right by the very people he’s paid to protect.  It’s because of this constant shifting between criminal and hero that Wei Shen has a far deeper, more believable edge to his personality than many other lead roles found in games of the same génre.

 

 

As with every sandbox video game there’s the usual array of mini games and side quests that flesh out the experience; from helping out people in need,  going on a series of random, and sometimes bizarre dates to up your ‘Face’ status – all of which unlock new clothes, vehicles and character bonuses. There’s drug busts that range from simple fist fights with the local hoods, to big shoot outs between rival Triad gangs.

Naturally there are also the obligatory street races using a variety of cars and bikes, with the former being reminiscent of the early Need For Speed games, (which in itself is a testament to how well vehicle physics within the game gave been implemented).  Very much like GTAIV, all these side quests interlink, to some degree or another, with the story proper making for far more involved, rounded experience.

In terms of visuals and sound Sleeping Dogs is, quite simply, excellent.  The fictional Hong Kong where the story is set is a beautifully realised world that buzzes with all the electricity and decadence of its real life counterpart.  From the Night Market where street vendors call out their wares, the dimly lit back streets where local hoods prowl menacingly around their turf, to the neon drenched city streets of night time Hong Kong, Sleeping Dogs pulsates with life in a truly believable world, one that’s familiar, but ultimately alien in the same breath.  With Rockstar seemingly unwilling to move the GTA franchise away from American shores, it’s been left up to someone else to offer gamers something of an open world experience with a more exotic, foreign nature, and in that respect United Front have succeeded in spades.

 

 

There are a few niggles, but none that warrant any real concern beyond mild frustration, however, Sleeping Dogs greatest failing is the inability to share this rich and vibrant world with a friend.  If Saints Row taught us anything, then being able to wreck havoc in your own, personal playground with a friend is an absolute must for any open world adventure.

Sadly, Sleeping Dogs’ only social interaction is a statistics log that compares your achievements with other gamers – in truth, not much more than a glorified leaderboard.  Such a shame as being able to star in your own John Woo movie with a buddy, gunning down bad guys in a tea-house shoot out, would’ve been spectacular, but I guess it wasn’t meant to be.  One can only hope that should there be a sequel, (and given the games roaring success it’s highly probable there will be), some form of co-op mode will be implemented.

With games being canned left right and centre, publishing deals falling through and in-house fighting amongst developers and publishers finding their way into the court house, the games industry is in a strange place at this moment in time.  With that in mind, it’s without question that had Activision had their way Sleeping Dogs may have never seen the light of day.  Thankfully, not only did Square Enix see obvious potential where the American publisher did not, they gave United Front the freedom to develop one of the most surprising and playable video games of this generation.