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Sleeping Dogs review: Triad true

Xav de Matos, @Xav

Sleeping Dogs has been through a heap of concept and name changes throughout its development, but the Vancouver-based firm United Front Games has finally unleashed its latest creation.

It's worlds apart from the developer's first game Modnation Racers, but Sleeping Dogs isn't completely unfamiliar. From its narrative to gameplay features, Sleeping Dogs is an amalgamation of other people's good ideas. It's not inspiring, it's inspired.

Gallery: Sleeping Dogs (5/24/12) | 12 Photos

Sleeping Dogs takes place in the "based on reality" world of Hong Kong, inspired by the city but not recreated street by street. You play as Wei Shen, an undercover cop from San Francisco on loan to the Hong Kong Police to infiltrate the seedy, tattooed Triad underbelly. Despite its been there, done that story, Sleeping Dogs manages to offer a few surprises throughout Shen's investigation.

'The seriousness almost makes [Sleeping Dogs] more absurd, especially when Shen is engaged in somber dialogue one minute, and burying someone's face in a furnace the next.'

The focus in Sleeping Dogs is its hand-to-hand combat system. Inspired by kung-fu movies in look and Rocksteady's Batman series in execution, the fighting system offers a good counterweight to other games in the genre that lean on weapons for all confrontations. And the fighting system has a few tricks up its sleeve: one combo breaks an enemy's leg, scaring (and thus stunning) adversaries in the area for a few seconds, opening the door to more strikes. Then there are a multitude of gruesome environmental kills (all of which seem super violent for a guy with a cop's conscience). Soon you'll be facing off against dozens of thugs without breaking a sweat during regular missions or hidden underground boxing matches.

Despite being fairly easy once mastered, hand-to-hand combat never got stale for me. Part of that is because Sleeping Dogs does a pretty good job of doling out new combos throughout the story. You unlock these combos by collecting a set of statues and returning them the dojo that had them stolen over the years. To control the distribution of these moves, statues typically appear in areas specific to your mission and are almost impossible to miss.

Weapons, like guns and melee items, almost act as power-ups. The first time you are given freedom to handle a pistol, for example, is hours into the story mode (unless you wrestle the steel from a roaming cop). It's refreshing that many missions don't rely on gunfire as a crutch for action or excitement. But guns become more prevalent by the end and, when you are finally strapped, gunplay feels loose and not nearly as well-conceived as unarmed combat. Sparse gunfights (at least in the beginning) help to conceal that the A.I. enemies in Sleeping Dogs are rather dim – running directly at Shen as he blindfires over cover, for example. Some of the hand-to-hand combat suffers in crowds, too, as no more than two enemies will attack Shen at once. Everyone waits their turn to be countered and killed. (Wouldn't you all have better luck rushing him at once? A silly question to ask of a video game, perhaps.)

But Sleeping Dogs suffers the same disconnect as many other games, in that its narrative and gameplay often contradict each other. This "Ludonarrative Dissonance," as Clint Hocking calls it, shows best when you consider Shen is supposed to be protecting the public interest. In one of Sleeping Dogs' optional (and awesome) police investigation sidequests, an Inspector asked that I look into the killing of six gang members. "It's a serial killer," she told me. "Six?" I thought. "I hit about nine people with my car on my way here!"

That disconnect doesn't go away. You can beat up civilians in the street if you want, even kill them. You can kill police officers and gang members. There really isn't a difference unless you're on a mission, when Sleeping Dogs ranks you as a cop and Triad gang member (unlocking special abilities in both categories). Hit a few lamp posts on your way to complete an objective? "You've just damaged public property, mister, and we're not giving you three gold stars anymore!" You can even steal a police vehicle, turn on the sirens and then drive to your next objective for the Triads. None of your gang buddies flinch when you roll up behind the wheel of a howling cop car.

It's absurd, but it's a video game. It's also a distraction, but it hardly destroys the experience.

The story of Sleeping Dogs won't take too long to complete, but there's plenty to do after. Basic quests like races exist, and I was such a fan of the driving in Sleeping Dogs that I actually looked for those quests. Other mini-quests are here too, like doing favors for people throughout the city. Completing these tasks increase your social rank – called "Face" – with each level unlocking new buffs for Shen (like increased health regeneration from food). You can also manage buffs by wearing matching sets of clothes, but it was never a system I paid attention to. The economy in the game is another throwaway. You can buy cars and clothes, but I rarely ever felt compelled to do either. The system would work if the game was more difficult, but I never felt like I needed to worry about the buffs to help me complete my mission, and I ended Sleeping Dogs with nearly one million HK dollars lining my (obviously deep) pockets.

The real treat of Sleeping Dogs is fighting – something I don't think I could say about any other game that would be considered a competitor to United Front's second effort. Driving and hijacking vehicles on the move ala Pursuit Force is fantastic, as is sliding over surfaces in slow-motion and firing into cowering baddies.

If the balance in the open-world, crime-focused genre is the (now) serious Grand Theft Auto series and the (always) absurd Saints Row, Sleeping Dogs leans heavily to the side of GTA. It's a serious story with serious actors speaking in serious ways. There are a few funny moments, but like its narrative inspirations, the story in Sleeping Dogs is all business. In a strange way, the seriousness almost makes the game more absurd, especially when Shen is engaged in somber dialogue one minute, and burying someone's face in a furnace the next.

What struck me about Sleeping Dogs is how unoriginal its major components are. Fighting, driving, shooting, story, characters, sidequests: it has all been expertly sliced out of other media and put into place here. Other games are built on a similar "borrowing" philosophy, but it's rarely as obvious. Thankfully, Sleeping Dogs only encroaches the line of being completely derivative but – because it blends so many different ideas – it never crosses it. It's a good game, but Sleeping Dogs mostly leaves you remembering the media that inspired it and probably won't remain in your thoughts over time.

This review is based on a final debug PlayStation 3 and PC version of Sleeping Dogs, provided by Square Enix. The game was played to completion on the PlayStation 3.

Joystiq's review scores are based on a scale of whether the game in question is worth your time -- a five-star being a definitive "yes," and a one-star being a definitive "no." Read here for more information on our ratings guidelines.

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