I know Vancouver-based studio United Front Games for its less-cuter-than-LBP racer, ModNation Racers. They show that they’re nothing if not versatile with their latest game, the open-world action-adventure game Sleeping Dogs. With many of the game’s mechanics reminiscent of Grand Theft Auto, Batman, and Assassin’s Creed, does the developer combine these ingredients into a hearty tale of crime and punishment? Or is it more of a dog’s breakfast? Find out as my review continues after the jump.

Sleeping Dogs pays homage to Hong Kong action cinema made famous by personalities like John Woo, Chow Yun-fat, and Andy Lau. In fact, our hero Wei Shen bears a likeness to the latter, in this story of a Chinese-American police officer who infiltrates a notorious triad organization in Hong Kong. Shen must try to ingratiate himself into the organization while passing important information back to the police to take the same criminals down. Naturally this is a dangerous game and these situations seem to bring out the pottiest of mouths. The dialogue in Sleeping Dogs is riddled with as many swear words as a Swiss cheese has holes. It’s not like I’m a prude or anything but I found it gratuitous and not adding much to the story.

For a large portion of the game, Sleeping Dogs relies on its combat mechanic. Aside from standard punches and kicks that Shen dishes out, the environmental attacks are the most bone-crunchingly satisfying to perform. He put his enemies in a headlock and directs their craniums towards dumpsters, car doors, telephone booths, table saws, and air-conditioning fans. It makes quite a bloody mess. In the beginning, Shen is restricted to simple moves and spamming the buttons usually gets the job done, but it’s not long before the importance of timing is made painfully clear. Shen needs to counter attacks at the right time lest he leaves himself embarrassingly open to attacks. In fights with smaller gangs, this is easier to do, but with larger numbers, failing to time your counters is a sure-fire way to land up in the hospital. It can become quite frustrating, considering that new combat moves only become available to you when you recover your sensei’s missing Jade statues. You may miss these statues during the heat of a mission so you may go a while without unlocking new moves. Wei can also use weapons dropped by his enemies against them. While he can demonstrate his dicing skills using knives and machetes, guns are a rarity in Sleeping Dogs and the moments you do get to use them, while intensely fun, are fleeting.

Whenever you complete a story mission, how well you perform the actions determines how two different experience meters fill up. There’s the Triad meter and the Cop meter. Being especially brutal against your enemies with flowing attacks and environmental kills fills up the Triad meter quickly, but knocking over a parking meter or an innocent bystander in a hasty escape will have a negative impact on the Cop meter. It’s easier to fill up the Triad meter, proving that crime does indeed pay better. Going up in the cop and triad levels nets you the ability to buy different upgrades to aid you in your missions. You can also buy clothes from the different merchants and purchasing the right shirt-pant-shoe combination can help to increase your melee damage, or gift you more police XP, or give you a discount when you purchase vehicles. Aside from Cop and Triad, there is a third type of experience to gain. Doing favors for the citizens of Hong Kong fills up your Face meter, and progressing up the Face levels results in different outfits and vehicles being unlocked.

Speaking of vehicles, there is a large selection of motorbikes and cars that range from the slowest of scooters to the fastest of Koenigsegg-esque supercars. While you can steal vehicles, you can’t hold onto them. The only vehicles that show up in your garage are the ones that you buy from the sellers dotted around the city. To accompany you on your drive, Sleeping Dogs provides a variety of radio stations to listen to. While they are not quite up to the standards of GTA, there is a decent selection of tunes including Asian hip hop, rock, classical, and soothing instrumental Chinese music.

While the story missions come with a fair amount of driving from point to point, they involve chasing down suspects, picking locks, planting bugs, and action-hijacking vehicles. The tasks are varied enough to not get boring. There is a junk load of side quests too. Drug busts require you to beat up gangs and then hack the video camera in the area to nab a dealer. You can help random citizens when they ask for favours. You can compete in races, and take part in a fight club, going six rounds with ever increasing numbers of assailants. And when you’re not busy handing out knuckle sandwiches, you can try karaoke at the local clubs, or even bet money at the cock fights.

While Sleeping Dogs has no online multiplayer component, there is a social hub that tracks all manner of metrics and milestones in your playthrough and enables you to compare these statistics to that of your friends and a global leaderboard. When you’re not dogged by the “Social Hub service is not available. Please try again later.” message, the social service worked as intended.

The four districts in the fictionalized Hong Kong look and feel different. The city is alive with people from the cacophonous street markets to the sophisticated tree-lined suburbs in the upper-crusty areas. The city is nicely rendered but it’s not outstanding. Perhaps it might be different if you played the PC version with the HD texture pack, but it seems the console versions are a tad lacking. The 360 version fares a little better than the PS3 version according to the Lens of Truth. Yes, there are small graphical issues popping up here and there. And yes the facial animations aren’t all that great, but these aren’t game-breaking. There is much more to Sleeping Dogs than its looks.

I wasn’t expecting it to be that lengthy a game. I completed the story in a little over 17 hours. There were yet still upgrades to obtain, one melee trick to pick up, and multiple favours and camera hacks to perform. For a completitionist, Sleeping Dogs does offer good value for money. The location is different and the characters are fleshed out well. There is a rewarding combat and level-up system, and the over-the-top action is just that. While it may feel familiar in some ways, Sleeping Dogs is one of the most unexpectedly engaging and entertaining surprises of the year.

Final Score: 8 sweet and sour prawns out of 10.

Detailed information:
Developer: United Front Games
Publisher: Square Enix
Platform: PS3 (reviewed), Xbox 360, PC
RRP: R499
Release date:  17 August 2012
Websitehttp://sleepingdogs.net/