Sleeping Dogs is all about revenge. Which in this case is more than just part of the the storyline. Built as a game steeped in the action and lore of the immensely rich Hong Kong movie scene United front had a title that was poised to reinvent and invigorate Activision's True Crime series. That was until they cancelled it of course.
Not to be put off by this United Front ditched the old True Crime: Hong Kong moniker went about searching for a new publisher which they found in Square Enix. Together both set about putting the finishing touches to Sleeping Dogs to make it the success Activision never thought it would be.
To that end it appears that revenge is sweet.
Sleeping Dogs drops players into the deep end of Hong Kong's criminal underworld as Wei Shen, an undercover cop with a troubled past seeking to bring the triads to their knees. Along the way he'll have to open old wounds, settle old scores regarding the death of his sister along with a whole bunch of new ones.
The story is as rich as you'll find in a sandbox video game, owing as much to noire epics like LA Confidential as it does to classics of Hong Kong cinema like the incomparable Infernal Affairs.
Unlike other sandbox games which rely heavily on fast cars and gunplay, Sleeping Dogs balances this out very nicely with a healthy dose of melee combat and free-running drawing influence again from HK cinema.
This is emphasized very heavily in the opening sequence where Wei Shen's dockside clandestine drug deal goes sour and he is forced to escape the Hong Kong police through kitchens and over houseboats in a scene typical of any modern HK movie you'd care to mention.
He gets arrested, providing Wei with a way into the dominant Sun On Yi triad through the young and somewhat wet behind the ears criminal, Jackie; who just happens to be a childhood friend of Wei's.
This helps to introduce one of the most interesting parts of Sleeping Dogs; the deceptively nuanced kung fu combat system. As Jackie leads Wei from their release they run into a rival gang and the need to fight their way out of trouble. The fighting borrows heavily from Batman: Arkham City with some interesting little additions and tweaks that add a sense of brutality.
One strike button, one counter button and one grapple button place all the moves Wei Shen will ever need to take down the triads from within firmly and impressively at your finger tips. This fighting system has been polished almost to perfection allowing a wide variety of moves and counters to be carried out with some careful timing and a minimum of button changes.
Grapples also have an array interesting options from slamming enemies into walls and throws to an spectacularly and gory selection of environmental attacks. These include things like fuse boxes, a furnace and the bloody ice crusher. Guns do feature in Sleeping Dogs but only in a secondary role in a nod to the strict gun control laws in Hong Kong. This actually makes Sleeping Dogs more brutal and United Front have really pushed the envelope, shedding the cutesy image they have acquired with their work on ModNation racers to create a game that is truly mature. This is underlined by a few exceptionally dark twists in the storyline that leave you wondering if you've accidentally guided Wei into the middle of a Tarantino flick.
A sandbox game is more than a storyline and a combat system and United Front have managed to flesh the game out well. Theres little touches like the healing street food vendors selling noodles, pork buns and fish ball curries. Theres the karaoke bars featuring a karaoke minigame that's actually fairly fun to dip into and even a myriad of underground gambling dens including several dockside cock-fighting arenas. All of these add colour and further authenticity is added by the fact that all the cars drive on the left hand side of the road, a feature that took a little bit of getting used to, even for someone who carries a valid UK driving license.
Finally a sandbox game would not be complete without street racing and Sleeping Dogs has that in spades taking advantage of the popularity of tuning cars in the Far East to full effect with some extremely fast cars available.
Bizarrely, despite United Front's extensive experience with racing games, the only thing that is a bit off with the whole game is the driving. The balancing is off with the steering on cars and bikes with too much understeer at low speeds and too much oversteer at high speeds. It all makes finding a decent balance more difficult than you'd want from the driving elements of a sandbox game.
This is just a minor issue though and it is overshadowed by everything else that United Front has achieved with Sleeping Dogs.
In Sleeping Dogs United Front has created a world that is faithful to its influences and setting while retaining a sense of its own identity. This is a feat rarely achieved by studios outside of Rockstar's stable.
While revenge is a heavy theme of the game's storyline, the true twit here is that despite Activision's misgivings, Sleeping Dogs is a game that can stand tall as proof that you don't need to be Rockstar Games to produce a world-class sandbox game. Surely that is the sweetest revenge of all.