Sleeping Dogs review
Winston Chu has a bulging, tattooed body, a gold-plated gun and a massive square head. He’s a gangster, so that face is locked into a permanent scowl, a symptom of years of steroid abuse and a childhood under the fist of a psychotic mother with an unhealthy love of cleavers.
Welcome to life in the triads.
Mrs Chu is your mother, too, in a sense. You’re Wei Shen, undercover cop, on a mission to bring down the triads from the inside. The trouble is, once you’re initiated, you’re family. Another brother in a grotesque gang of crooks and killers. You’ll spend most of your time in this richly realised, open-world Hong Kong performing missions for thugs, the better to get close to the sharp suits who run the show.
It’s a good enough excuse to step into the slippers of every Hong Kong action movie hero of the last 30 years. There are shadows of Bruce Lee in Wei’s fighting style as he fends off knife attacks in alleys. In gun fights he channels Chow Yun Fat, vaulting over tables and hosing down enemies in slow motion. On rooftops, he trades on Tony Leung’s ability to look cool in a suit by putting on shades and standing still in front of sunsets. Sleeping Dogs occasionally delivers these moments with more style than any other member of the Mafia/GTA family, but they’re folded into a humourless and predictable tale set in a Hong Kong that often feels like a beautiful backdrop rather than a bustling, interactive city.
The main storyline follows an emerging gang war that threatens to overrun the city. A linear series of missions inches the plot along, triggered by you visiting shifting location markers on the map. You start out shaking down local vendors for protection money and beating up enemy gang members to bolster Winston’s monstrous ego. Before long you’ll be angling for promotion, and occasionally meeting up with your police handler, Raymond, to hear the same lecture about not getting too emotionally attached to the monsters you’re working for.
Inevitably, as much as you might not want him to, Wei gets too emotionally attached to the monsters he’s working for, but at least there are plenty of opportunities to beat them up before that happens.
The sharp combat system makes this especially satisfying. Punch-ups are heavily inspired by Batman: Arkham Asylum. Wei can counter incoming attacks from any angle, grabbing wrists, elbows and shoulders and wrenching foes into painful new shapes. This display of violent human origami lacks the satisfying Kevlar-on-bone crunch of Arkham City, but fights are satisfying enough, especially when you throw in some of the gratuitous execution opportunities scattered around.
Once you’ve grabbed an opponent, you can drag him around the city at full sprint by the scruff of his neck looking for an interesting way to finish him off. Useful props glow bright red thanks to an effect best described as ‘sadism vision’. You ram heads into industrial fans, throw people into ice chippers, impale them on meat hooks, toss them bodily onto convenient warehouse palettes of severed swordfish heads and, in once instance, kick them into a wide open furnace.
If you don’t have the stomach to painfully annihilate every enemy, you can merely break all their bones with a well applied hold, or use a combination of light and heavy strikes to knock them out. Applying a variety of takedowns will boost your triad performance rating for each mission. Levelling up pushes you up the triad skill tree, which lets you boost melee and weapon damage and unlock new moves.
There’s a cop skill tree, too. That’s driven by a police rating awarded at the end of missions. It’s knocked back by any instances of theft and property damage. Murdering innocent civilians is also frowned upon. That sits alongside your ‘Face’ rating, which can be increased by completing side missions for minor gang members loitering about Hong Kong, and by visiting ‘massage parlours’ which, it is heavily implied, are actually brothels.