A friend who is really into Hong Kong gangster movies told me there are two things an undercover cop needs to do in order to successfully infiltrate the Triads: Learn how to effectively slide across flat surfaces while shooting two guns at once, and kill a cop as soon as possible. Surviving in Sleeping Dogs requires a slightly wider skill set—wearing the right muscle tee, knowing the best street food vendors, learning creative ways to snap limbs in twain, and driving like you’re an extra in 2 Fast 2 Furious.
In Sleeping Dogs, you play the role of Wei Shen, a cop with a murky past who is recruited to help take down some local crime lords. Shen has been in America for several years—his law enforcement identity isn’t common knowledge in Hong Kong—so on his return, he’s tapped to infiltrate the feared Sun On Yee Triad. After linking up with an old criminal friend and getting an introduction to the local boss, Shen begins his new double life.
In addition to proving his loyalty, Wei Shen must also show his criminal worth. He does small favors for locals, like paying hospital bills, facilitating insurance fraud, and delivering lunches. He also gets Triad brownie points for beating up rival gang members. Helping out around the community gets Wei Shen “face” points, which translates to Hong Kong street cred. Get enough face points, and you get access to all the perks of gangster life—fancy restaurants, fancier clothes, and flashy rides.
You do a lot of driving in this open-world game, and it’s great. I say this as someone who A. generally hates driving games and B. lives in New York and champions public transportation. For Wei, sometimes it’s just aimless joyriding down by the water. Other times, it might be steering with one hand and firing an Uzi out the window on the way to collect gambling debts (payable in the universal currency of a trunk full of heroin). Wei Shen is down for whatever, and that attitude, combined with a reckless disregard for basic driving safety, is going to take him a long way in his chosen fake profession.
Hong Kong is a much wilder place than John Marston’s old west ever was. When you shoot innocent people in Red Dead Redemption, the law comes down on you like a farrier’s hammer on your big toe. In Hong Kong, if you run people over or take them hostage, the police will give a cursory chase, and soon enough you’re back to being a criminal big shot. You get docked a few “cop points,” but that’s about it. Counterintuitively, this tacit condoning of violent crime cheapens human life in the game to the point where a killing spree doesn’t seem worth the effort. After a couple of early vehicular manslaughters—backing over food cart vendors, mostly—I now generally follow traffic laws. I even prefer hailing a cab to carjacking a Honda.
But sometimes Wei Shen must fight, and he can’t always just run his problems over with an out-of-control sedan. Wei’s martial arts skills are considerable, and he must use them all. Often. Whether it’s beating up junkies under the overpass and hacking street-level surveillance equipment while wearing his “cop” hat, or impressing his new Triad buddies by muscling rival gangs out of the local karaoke establishments, Shen’s survival depends on your mastery of counters, strikes, and grapples. Most of his moves are simple—not unlike those employed by Batman in Arkham Asylum—but it takes a bit of practice to groove the moves well enough to take on small gangs singlehandedly. You can learn new moves by discovering stolen jade statues and returning them to your old kung fu master at a local martial arts club. My favorite technique is the grapple/face-punch/leg-break combo, meant to intimidate nearby attackers with the spectacle of their buddy’s screams and shattered tibia.
Comparisons to the Grand Theft Auto franchise are natural, and warranted. I’m not going to sit here and tell you that Wei Shen would trash Niko Bellic in a fight, and I’m not saying he wouldn’t. But he would.
As Kotaku comics guy (and friend of Gameological) Evan Narcisse points out, Sleeping Dogs owes its soul to a long, bloody list of Hong Kong gangster movies. The game is inevitably cinematic, but not laboriously so as in, say, Max Payne 3. It follows the Woo formula—you can’t trust the bad guys, and you definitely can’t trust the cops. I think Wei Shen should’ve been made less pretty and more hard-bitten and haunted, but the formula is still a compelling one. Cheap, rumpled cop suit or expensive, bright yellow gangster tracksuit? The battle for Wei Shen’s soul has begun.