It was only a few months ago that I’d begun to reach the conclusion that visually magnificent games just can’t follow through with equally magnificent gameplay. The theory was partly because of a trend in luke-warm video-games from late 2011 and early 2012, and partly because it just seemed financially impossible to put all your money into one area, without falling short in others. Then Sleeping Dogs arrived, proving me completely and utterly wrong. Sleeping Dogs is magnificent.

Do you remember True Crime? The PS2 generation GTA clone that, whilst fun, was about as polished as the Titanic in its current state, wasn’t held with high critical regard, but it offered enough unique grit and street-smarts to merit its own recurring franchise. Well, in 2009 a sequel to True Crime: Streets of LA was announced: True Crime: Hong Kong. The project rapidly grew in scale, and with the depth and cost of the franchise exceeding the success of the prior games, Activision had canned the project by 2011.

Square-Enix came to the rescue later in 2011, and bought the publishing rights and reannounced the new IP as Sleeping Dogs. Boy am I glad they did.

The city is easily the most dynamic and highly detailed I’ve ever seen

I know what you’re waiting for: you’re waiting for me to remark on the likeness of Sleeping Dogs to GTA – but the comparison is superfluously disingenuous. Sleeping Dogs isn’t just GTA, it’s everything. With the combat of Assassins Creed, the brutality of Splinter Cell: Conviction, and the vibrant attention to detail of Kane and Lynch 2 or Yakuza 4, Sleeping Dogs takes the best of everything, polishes it up, and sets a new standard in almost every aspect of gameplay. For good measure, there’s also some Just Cause 2 style car-jackings, just to… you know… beat all the competition at their own game. A cynical gamer might call this a GTA clone, but GTA has got a hell of a lot of catching up to do.

You play as Wei Shen having recently arrived back in Hong Kong after living as a criminal-expatriate in the USA. After some nasty drug swap goes horribly wrong, you find yourself sprinting through the vibrant and richly detailed harbours of Hong Kong, only to be picked up by the police and reunited with al old friend. Turns out Wei is an undercover cop, but your friend, Jackie, doesn’t know that – securing your place within Hong Kong’s own proprietary Mafia: The Triad.

As an undercover cop, you’ve two main factions for which to acquire and carry out missions. The city map places two green and blue shields at locations around the huge and intricate Hong Kong cityscape, indicating the location of both Triad (green) and police (blue) missions. As well as these, there are friends of friends, or strangers you’ve yet to meet who, with a yellow indicator, show up on the map when they’re in need. These missions vary extensively, with one woman asking me to run her car into the docks so she could get insurance money to pay a hospital bill. Another guy asked me to help him escape from the police, because he’d beat a cop up for sleeping with his girlfriend (who he’d never met, and had never spoken to!) These side-quests are varied, funny, and genuinely thrilling to undertake. You’ll naturally find them as you drive around Hong Kong – which you will want to do, a lot. Aside from these quest indicators, there are rival gangs around the streets who you can take out to earn Triad XP and “face” which is a sort of notoriety.

Cut-scenes out-do the console versions, with advanced depth of field and high-res textures.

One could argue that the story isn’t exactly ground-breaking, but as I ran through the bamboo alleys and vaulted over commercial sign-posts and stair-wells as old ladies threw buckets of water out of their windows, and women argued in the streets with men on phones and labourers on lunch breaks, I felt as though I was in a world where the story was merely context for the already fantastic immersive experience. Hong Kong felt like a real, breathing city. Not in a Bethesda ‘we’ve made a real breathing city’ kind of way, but an actual living breathing city. As I ran through the streets of this richly detailed and vibrant crime-drama, I couldn’t help but ask my self how the hell Square-Enix pulled this off? It seemed – at risk of sounding a bit whimsically mad – too good to be true.

Combat in Sleeping Dogs is somewhere between Assassins Creed and Batman Arkham City – but more satisfying, and better polished than both. It’s meaty, awesome, and looks and feels impressive. Much of the combat in Sleeping Dogs is melee, which might surprise you, but with a little nod to GTA in the form of “you might have noticed there’s not many guns in Hong Kong, unlike in the US” you realise that they really wanted to try something different. By no means is this a bad thing, although if you expected great controls with a mouse and keyboard you’re in for a rough ride. It became blindingly obvious as soon as I was running in the harbour that this game is meant to be played with a game-pad. If you’re someone who’s comfortable playing the aforementioned games with a mouse and keyboard, then you might get on quite well with Sleeping Dogs, but at best it’s a little awkward, and at worst super annoying.

Much of the game will have you fighting without any weapons at all, but in true Streets of Rage fashion, if you find yourself against an enemy with a knife or blunt weapon, you’ll be able to take him down and pick it up, using it to your advantage. You don’t really have an inventory a-la GTA, but there are perks that will allow you to take guns from the trunk’s of cop cars, and other ways to acquire them.

Fighting will earn you exp, which in turn helps you level up. At each level you can pick a perk, which can be anything from letting you break into cars easier, or taking less damage. The levelling system is just right for a game of this type, with no huge and intricate trees system so much as a two step linear path of progression. It’s easy to follow, and offers enough to allow careful and slow progression so you don’t get everything at once and burn out on killing the entire citizenship of Hong Kong like a crazed Jackie Chan.

It wouldn’t be complete without a little whimsy

If you’re tired of spending too much time in the Dojo, learning new combat moves in exchange for returning stolen ancient statues, you can slack off and sing a little karaoke. I had a sing of The Clash in order to impress a hostess, to allow me to enter the VIP suite of the bar to progress on a mission. In total there are around 14 songs, which makes for a great little mini-game and gives the world a sense of realism.

Aside from this mini-game, there are mini-bastard scenarios where a damsel in distress will try and jip you out of your hard-earned cash. For instance, I interacted with a woman who claimed her “shirt was too tight” as her boyfriend ran up behind me from an over-pass and stole my cash. I ran after him, with use of the fantastic vault and sprinting mechanics through a winding and lengthy string of alley-ways, where I finally caught him and his friends – and killed them. I headed back to the underpass, but the woman was gone. I wanted to throw her off the top of that over-pass into the traffic (you can actually do that).

This brings me to my next important topic: ultra-violence. Sleeping Dogs is unapologetically violent. The combat mechanic features a Splinter Cell: Conviction style interactive face-smash system (that might not be the proper name) whereby you grapple an enemy, march him to an object, and either beat him with it, smash him into it, put him in it, throw him over it, or burn him with it… oh, or electrocute him on it. At one stage, I threw a guy into a fish tank and picked up one of the fish that fell on the floor, then proceeded to beat them with it. It all sounds a little Saints Row: The Third but it isn’t – it’s serious business in Sleeping Dogs. A well acted, well voiced cast in a quite sophisticated and serious plot makes all gratuitous violence certainly within context, but not so much that it isn’t also just a good laugh.

Don’t forget… you are actually a cop

Being a policeman (albeit an incredibly stylish one in a Panama hat) you are sometimes set to bug security cameras and survey activity from the comfortability of your crappy apartment. During these sequences – which sometimes require a hacking mini-game, a pick-lock mini-game or other little mini-games – you’ve to spot the perp of a drug-swap and call in police to arrest him. You get to watch the whole thing from the couch, and every time it’s a little bit awesome.

Being a bit of a sand-box, you’ll expect quite some driving. Driving feels good, although it feels both different to GTA and Saints Row. Where the former offered a lot of drift and slide, and the latter a lot of simply clipping round corners, Sleeping Dogs is somewhere in the middle. Cars are grippy, and most of them are very fast regardless of what you’re driving. There’s one mechanic which is both very cool, but also very odd: the ability to shimmy-slam into other vehicles. Pressing the directional pad and X (or the equivalent on PC) will literally shift your car left or right, or in front, and slam into the car beside you. It looks a little stupid, but the end result means great police chases, with you able to flip their cars or smash them into other objects. It doesn’t look realistic by any stretch of the imagination, but it sure as hell makes for some fun driving.

If you don’t like the car you’re dealt with, you can buy a new (stolen) one from a Triad dealer. You’ll also be able to upgrade and change the colour in true Need for Speed: Underground style. This goes for your wardrobe, too. You can buy knock-off clothing (being Hong Kong) or legit clothing, depending on your “face” (notoriety) which scales with all of your achievements. My Wei (no Frank Sinatra pun intended) did things his way, with a dashing Panama hat, red sunglasses and red jogging bottoms to match. Like an Asian Johnny Depp, I was ready to kick some… civilians.

Fear and Loathing in Hong Kong?

Sleeping Dogs means a lot to me as a PC gamer. A very competent port with a great high-resolution texture pack and advanced PC graphical options, Square-Enix showed us some love. On top of that, the game excelled in almost every single aspect other than the controls for mouse and keyboard. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with them, it’s just that being the type of game that it is, it’s a little clunky using PC peripherals. A little gamepad compassion though and that all goes away, leaving you to enjoy what is genuinely an incredible gaming experience which shows that there really is light at the end of the tunnel.

There is so much to do in Hong Kong, with the scale, depth and detail of the city far surpassing anything I’ve ever seen before. This is a true all rounder, enjoyable for everyone, but compromising on nothing. With a wonderful eclectic soundtrack and fantastic game-play and visuals to boot, this is the new archetype for games in the genre; Sleeping Dogs will be remembered as the game that set the benchmark for the end of this generation, laying the foundations for the next. Let’s see what they could possibly do better.