Undercover cop Wei Shen allows gamers to infiltrate the seamy world of Chinese Triad gangs in the third-person action brawler Sleeping Dogs (Square Enix, reviewed for the Xbox 360 and PS3, Rated M for "man is this mature," $59.99).
Resurrected from the development dust of Activision's True Crime franchise, Square Enix picked up the publishing rights to the game in 2011 and kept the original programmers, United Front Games (creators of the child-friendly ModNation Racers), on board to complete this incredible, open world adventure.
Familiarity abounds for the solo player embracing this crime drama melding elements of numerous gaming franchises within a satisfying homage to 1980s Hong Kong action cinema. Our detective engages in slow-motion gun battles just like Max Payne. He builds his skills to take part in a free-flowing, close-combat martial arts style reminiscent of Batman: Arkham City (think the Dark Knight without a conscience).
He encounters excessive urban violence within objective-based missions spread out across the city just like Grand Theft Auto. The player even finds himself caught up in vehicular high-speed pursuit and evasion similar to Need for Speed.
It's an irresistible combination with a Jet Li-inspired hero that builds into the most visceral and violent elements of an R-rated John Woo classic in-the-making.
The story places the player in a gangster civil war where he must balance using the brutal practices of the Son On Yee gang with enforcing a stance against criminal activity enlisting help from the Hong Kong Police Department.
A mixture of easy-to-find missions (access a detailed, icon-loaded map and navigation tool to chart a clear course) tied to helping the Triad, cops or citizens (and collecting cash for Shen's efforts) sets the stage for hours of action and interaction around China's bustling city.
Lively neighborhoods, in both day and night, with folks chatting at street corners and vehicles clogging up streets mix into the action. The Chinese gangsters run amok in neon-lit alleyways, downtown districts and in locations loaded with local flavor defined by noisy fish markets, knock-off clothing stands and food vendors.
And, just like any good martial-arts-themed film, bad guys arrive in bunches, attack mostly one at a time and then come in more bunches as Shen brilliantly fights them off.
Control of the lethal detective, who is as adept at dealing deadly blows with his feet and fists as well as disarming opponents, requires methodically pressing a limited selection of controller button combinations.
Shen's successes for either side of the law lead to spending XP points on numerous slick moves, such as climbing up an enemy and delivering an elbow smash, a double jump kick and having a lackey deliver your car (instead of finding a garage).
His tools of the trade can be a simple as wrestling a knife away from an assailant and using it against others, grabbing an assault rifle to target multiple enemies in slow motion, shooting out the tires of a vehicle to cause a crash, and using objects around him to take out an aggressive foe.
Living in the open-world epic may be familiar to veteran gamers, but I enjoyed nearly every one of the moments displaying plenty of blockbuster personality and nuances to spare. Some of my favorites include:
• Early on, Shen uses his 270 DX motorcycle to drive an American named Amanda around town to not only show her the sights (the Temple of Fists is stunning), but also to visit a martial arts studio for some training from an old teacher.
• During much of the game, the player can unlock surveillance cameras stationed around the city (it's a four-number combination lock that will cause puzzle lovers to giggle). Shen then can go to his apartment, monitor activity from each of the couple dozen zones and actually target and watch a criminal being picked up by the police.
• A player controls the radio while using any vehicle he owns, borrows or steals. He can pick from the half-dozen or so stations to really add to the adrenaline rush during any high-speed chase. I especially appreciated Sagittarius FM and its eclectic classic and alternative rock from bands such as the Who, XTC, the Jam and Siouxsie and the Banshees.
• Even the optional minutia of life for a criminal or cop kept my interest, be it taking a potty break, buying new clothes, sleeping, bowing before shrines to increase my health meter, stopping to eat a bowl of noodles (for a price), and using my cellphone to call acquaintances, take surveillance photos and check mail.
• Now, let's talk about jaw-dropping. I drove a motorcycle toward two armed drug runners, jumped off the bike at full speed and, as the bike slid, shot the gas tank to give the bums a face full of flames while I safely rolled to a stop on the ground.
• Side missions offer some strange requests, such as driving a car into the harbor so an unfortunate citizen can collect the insurance money and pay her husband's hospital bills. Yes, Shen can swim.
• Driving is a very exhilarating and integral part of the game. I was impressed with the ability to jump out of a sports car at high speeds and onto the outside roof of a panel truck, then climb along the side of the vehicle in motion until I could toss out the occupants and continue driving.
• Perhaps the oddest fun comes with a visit to the famed Club Bam Bam featuring the best karaoke bar and VIP rooms in the city. After quickly flirting with the hostess, I had Shen singing off-key to the Clash classic "I Fought the Law" (use the controller stick to follow a moving floating bar across the screen) while the friendly female seductively danced behind my character.
• A mission for my boss Winston Chu involved driving a bus around the city, dropping thugs off to beat up rival gang members and then forcing a rival minibus off the road. It concluded with transferring unsuspecting citizens to my bus and escaping a vehicle ambush with the passengers screaming.
Bundled in the gritty story, realistic characters design and beautiful locales (look for the hint of "Blade Runner" during the rainy evenings) are vocal performances from a selection of familiar actors. They include Tom Wilkinson as Pendrew (the head of Hong Kong's organized crime bureau), Emma Stone as Shen's new best friend Amanda, and Kelly Hu as Officer Teng. Will Yun Lee (soon to be the Silver Samurai in the next Wolverine movie) stars as Wei Shen.
Buyer beware, however, this game pulls no bloody punches. Firefights, fistfights and tire-iron fights (check the trunk of nearly any car to find one) all are brutal. That means stick an enemy into a lit furnace and watch him burst into flames (while he screams and writhes in pain), take a goon's coconut and pop it into an air conditioning unit's spinning fan, bash a foe into a wall (head first) with a bloodstain left behind him, and an assortment of devastating head shots using high-powered rifles.
Additionally, intentionally running over citizens or causing mass chaos is always available, but the cops will pursue you (and shoot to kill) until Shen outruns them.
Decidedly, mature gamers will embrace the Sleeping Dogs experience and demand more from Wei Shen in the future. The game is a wonderful late-summer treat, if not one of the wildest rides of the year.
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