Did you know John Woo made his own game, called Stranglehold? Well, he didn’t make it exactly – asking a film director to make a game is like sending Rex to the taxidermist for a check-up – but it was a sequel to Woo’s classic movie Hard Boiled, with his name and style attached. All the doves, duel pistols, sideways diving, bannister riding, and table sliding made for an amazing movie yet, unfortunately, a less stellar game. It came and went, and it wouldn't surprise me if I'm the only one who remembers it.
Sleeping Dogs can also be traced back to Woo and other Hong Kong action movies like Infernal Affairs. Like those films, you could do serious damage in a drinking game — drink every time trust, loyalty, family and brotherhood are mentioned in Sleeping Dogs. You play Wei Shen, an undercover cop in Hong Kong who's torn, of course, between duty and friendship. You infiltrate the triads while occasionally doing freelance police work on the side.
Sleeping Dogs feels more confident than its history would suggest. An aborted sequel to the middling True Crime series, it was picked up by another publisher to save it from getting lost forever. It's easy to see why it earned its second life: in a genre dominated by the Grand Theft Auto series and its large, operatic and cluttered template, Sleeping Dogs doesn't indulge in tedious asides. Everything is built with a focus on the genre that spun it: there are stylized gun fights a la Woo, the parkour-before-it-was-called-parkour from Jackie Chan's 1980s flicks, and the Sammo Law-style that emphasizes hand-to-hand combat and using objects in the your immediate surroundings. It knows what it's trying to tap into to and creates a very specific experience.
In between missions the player can take up street racing, join a fight club or engage in small missions for profit. They're repetitive, but all things you'd want to repeat. Everything feels right, which is a hard task in a normal game, but almost staggering to think about when the scale of Sleeping Dogs' Hong Kong is taken into account. Sleeping Dogs wants us to walk the streets of the city. Free-running is encouraged: Scale walls, jump over railings, make daring rooftop jumps. The combat, most of it hand to hand, makes it feel like Wei is connecting with his enemies and performing elaborate moves. There is simply so much more that could go wrong, but little of it does.
Games like Grand Theft Auto 4 can be unwieldy messes and they're memorable, in part, because of that messiness — because they overreached and fell hard. Sleeping Dogs' ambitions are modest in comparison. It tells a story with little pretension. It makes for a solid experience, and the setting is a novelty. It is easy to recommend, however, its best ideas come from other games - or movies. Sleeping Dogs is good, but it is exactly the sum of its parts.
Developers: United Front Games, Square Enix London Studios
Publisher: Square Enix
Platform: PC, PS3, Xbox 360