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Let’s get the obvious comparison out of the way right up front. Sleeping Dogs is a hell of a lot like Grand Theft Auto, but thankfully it’s also a lot more than just a pallet-swap with occasional subtitles. I’ve put about 10 hours into it so far and I’ve been VERY impressed for a number of reasons, a few of which I’ll try to explain.

THE SETTING

The game definitely presents itself very well.

The game takes place in Hong Kong, and this means a lot more than simply seeing a bunch of street signs in Chinese as you drive around. The developers seem to have made a real effort to create an authentic-feeling city, complete with appropriate architecture, fashion, music, and culture. I can’t speak to the accuracy of the portrayal, but it comes across very well and the game does a good job of immersing you in the environment without going so far as to feel alien.

From a functional standpoint the map is laid out well and generally feels ‘full’ in most locations. It’s large enough to feel huge, but laid out in such a way that with a vehicle you can get nearly anywhere you want to go in a few minutes (provided you don’t follow the rules of the road). There are a number of secrets to find that encourage exploration, and all of the ones I’ve found so far feel authentically worth searching for without being so necessary as to make me drop the story to go looking for them.

The final big difference in the setting when compared to games like GTA has to do with the availability of guns and how the game handles them. I’m led to believe that guns are not as easily available in Hong Kong as they are in the US, and the game seems to reflect that. Police rarely use firearms, even hardened gang members almost never have guns on them, and (at least up to the point I’d played) your character rarely has a firearm for any length of time. And even when they DO have one, the only gun you can conceal is a pistol, and the most I was able to carry at one time was a single rifle/SMG and the pistol tucked into my pants. There are missions that revolve heavily around guns (and the gun combat works quite well), but at least early on you see them very rarely in missions, and even more rarely when wandering the city.

MELEE COMBAT

Mid-counter on a gang member.

This lack of guns would be a serious problem if Sleeping Dogs had borrowed GTA’s melee combat system, which can at best be described as ‘functional’. Thankfully, the developers managed to create a fighting system that is not only remarkably easy to use, but also fun, stylish, and creative. Describing the system in detail would probably be overkill, so I’ll touch upon some of the highlights.

Put simply, I want other games to copy this fighting style. I can’t think of another third person game that was this easy to learn and yet offered this many different options, and I think the reason for this is that the game’s combat follows a simple set of ‘rules’ that are easy to remember. Once you learn these basic rules (which take, at most, a minute or two to absorb) you’re no longer flailing or trying to remember complex attack patterns, you’re organically deciding in the moment what sort of attack you need for the situation, and adapting to new threats without the painful necessity of remembering complex button combinations.

Additionally, your attacks have effects beyond simply harming your chosen punching bag at the moment, and these effects have important strategic uses. If you do something particularly brutal or impressive, you can actually watch the other opponents nearby flinching in response, backing off and reassessing the situation as you get a brief window of safety. Not only is this useful, but honestly it feels a lot more realistic then going up against enemies that don’t even seem to notice that you’re slowly whittling down the number of people on their contact list.

Finally, when you grab hold of someone, the game will immediately highlight any objects nearby that you can use on them. If you can wrestle them over to the object, you essentially get to incapacitate them in one shot, and see a fairly over-the-top animation in the process. This not only adds some interesting variety to the fights, but acts as an important option for swiftly narrowing the odds when you’re heavily outnumbered.

THE STORY/CHARACTERS

A dramatic moment conversation. Not Picture: The excellent voice-acting.

In this game, you play Wei Shen, a man who grew up around Hong Kong but only recently returned after spending years in America. To the criminal underworld he’s a talented and dedicated man eager to rise through the ranks, and to the police he’s an undercover informant helping them bring down the gangs from the inside.

The reason I mention this dual-role is that it becomes a really big point in the game’s favor as the story progresses. The game rather quickly presents you with good reasons to empathize AND distrust both the gangs and the police, leaving you in a rather unique position of having justification for acting in almost any way you like. I found this really interesting, as it actually made me feel as though there was very little I could do that didn’t have some semi-reasonable explanation in the story, and it really helped maintain my immersion as I played.

This immersion is further assisted by the fact that the game bucks industry trends by having writing and voice-acting that ranges from solid to excellent throughout. I honestly found myself drawn in by the story and never hit a point where a line felt out of place or badly delivered, and at its best moments the game can honestly be quite moving. Characters come across as complex and human most of the time, and the game does a good job of fleshing out even bit-part characters enough to make you honestly care about them as the story progresses.

Finally, I just wanted to mention the issue of trauma, which I was shocked to see the game even remotely address. In GTA, especially during the later missions, your character may end up killing LOTS of people, and yet 20 minutes later he can be happily chatting up a girl at a bar. As Sleeping Dogs progresses, and especially after some of the more gruesome moments of the story, you actually see your character starting to have nightmares, having to shake off disturbing memories, and struggling to keep his face straight during some of the horrors of his position- not to mention helping other characters get through similar moments. Maybe it’s just my background in psychology, but even those brief moments honestly hit me really well, making the characters seem far more human than most other games manage.

BOTTOM LINE

Leaping out of cover to continue a gun battle. Not usually wise, but the temporary slow-mo helps.

Sleeping Dogs is very impressive, and I’m dying to play more of it. I’ve encountered a few flaws, some glitches, and a handful of odd design decisions here and there, but they never manage to significantly impact the overall experience. The impressive story, the immersive setting, and the astounding melee combat make for a unique and enjoyable experience that I would recommend strongly to any fan of this genre.