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.
The reward for your crime and debauchery? Gaining Face lets you wear nicer T-shirts and improves an overdrive mode in combat, which triggers by itself once you've punched enough people. This mode enables Wei to do more damage and causes his enemies to cower in fear of his ability to complete fetch quests and pay for sex.
These levelling layers are less interesting than the game thinks they are. I'll never take Sleeping Dogs up on its offer to let me replay any mission to improve my score, but the extra combat moves are worth the effort. The combat gets better as Wei gains new ways to dismantle large groups of enemies.
These fights are the highlight of most missions, which are themselves constructed from a series of action sequences shuffled from a shallow deck. Foot chases lead Wei through narrow alleyways and over rooftops, where he vaults, climbs and jumps with parkour-inspired flair, but every manoeuvre is triggered by a timed press of the spacebar. The car chases are better, powered by an arcade driving model that almost glues your car to the road. You hit screaming speeds quickly and a ludicrous shunt move throws your vehicle suddenly sideways, making short work of anyone in pursuit.
Sometimes you'll be asked to 'action hijack' another vehicle ahead. This involves getting close enough for a cursor to change colour, at which point you press the 'action hijack' button and Wei action hijacks the hell out of whatever is in front of him, leaping unlikely distances to latch onto the hood. He hangs there for a few seconds before clawing open a door and swinging into the driver's seat. Mad, but fun.
Guns are supposed to be hard to come across in Hong Kong, so you won't often see them outside of contained mission environments. This gives Sleeping Dogs a good excuse to fall back on its superior melee system, but the gun battles aren't bad either. Weapons tend to spray wildly, but a handgun and a steady mouse hand let you line up some swift, fatal head shots.
Bum-sliding over objects while aiming down a gunbarrel kicks the world into slow motion. If there's an armed guard at the end of that slide Wei will punch and then disarm him. With the right upgrade you can use this to trigger another slow-mo killing spree. The sticky cover system causes some frustrating moments, but there's more style here than you'll find in any of GTA's plodding shootouts.
The story escalates from small-time crime to a street war, during which the police seem strangely absent. It's easy to forget that Wei is actually working for law enforcement for large chunks of the story. Fortunately, police sidequests offer a ray of light in a gloomy storm of wanton murder. These deliver satisfying multi-part mysteries that let you track down serial killers, smash people- trafficking schemes and generally make Hong Kong a better place for its citizens.
These missions are better paced, more varied and more worthwhile than triad missions, and even let you play with your all-powerful magic police phone. You can use this to hack street cameras to capture drug deals, then launch arrests from the comfort of the massive flatscreen in your apartment. Police missions let you dress up to infiltrate crime scenes – and also a hospital in one standout mission, where you play a cop pretending to be a triad member pretending to be a doctor.
Returning to the triads after those missions is a drag, and sadly they simply run out hours before the end. After that I was left to muddle through the story, baffled by Wei's dedication to his new crew and frustrated by my complete inability to shape a narrative that drove Wei further and further away from the Wei I wanted to be.
Pre- and post-mission cutscenes are a familiar storytelling device in the genre, but this game demonstrates how clunky and painful they are when contrasted with the freedom of an open world. Sleeping Dogs lacks Rockstar's eye for caricature, and has none of Saints Row 's knowing exuberance. We're left with a bland, bloody tale in a setting that deserves better.
The game does have good punching, though. Compared to its competitors, the action sequences shine. If you want to bike down a Hong Kong high street at night in the rain and shoot up gangsters, Sleeping Dogs does a pretty good job of that. If you're looking for story, watch Infernal Affairs instead.