For a product dubbed Sleeping Dogs, United Front Games’ debut open world adventure is decidedly grisly. The former True Crime follow-up – unceremoniously whacked by publisher Activision in 2011 – was resurrected by Square Enix earlier this year, promising much needed sustenance ahead of Grand Theft Auto’s as-of-yet undated sojourn to Los Santos. But does the Asian excursion have the muscle to outclass Rockstar’s rival franchise, or is it destined for a date with the fishes?

It’s no ordinary sandbox pretender, that’s for sure. Sleeping Dogs may be a derivative game, but its timely arrival feels oddly refreshing. With the industry’s attention firmly fixated on the modern military first-person shooter, the much more technologically demanding open world crime drama seems to have been left on the shelf. United Front Games’ maiden attempt at the format may fail to elevate the genre, but it prompts a judicious reminder of the formula’s underlying quality.

You play as conflicted protagonist Wei Shen, an undercover cop embedded deep within the ranks of a notorious Hong Kong gang. Your primary objective is to leverage your position to debilitate the syndicate from the inside, but as the narrative develops it becomes clear that Shen’s morals are blurred. Maintaining a sense of perspective must be difficult when you’re dealing with gangsters that answer to the names Broken Nose Jiang and Johnny Ratface on a daily basis.

Outside of the undercover influence, the rags-to-riches plot is nothing that hasn’t been tackled before. As such, it’s Sleeping Dogs’ rich Asian setting that really sets it apart. Situated upon a condensed reimagining of Hong Kong Island, the game boasts various recognisable districts from the Eastern nation. It captures the atmosphere of the location admirably, with an early jaunt through an overpopulated marketplace brimming with activity and intrigue. Traders promote their wares from the walkways, while street performers vie for your attention from afar. Like all of the best sandbox games, you could invest hours in simply soaking up the atmosphere of the world around you. United Front Games really has done a staggering job of creating a vibrant and believable setting.

Sadly, the visual presentation is let down by a handful of unnecessary quirks. A sub-high definition resolution means that the game looks frustratingly blurry when running on PlayStation 3 hardware, and the sub-par animation further breaks the immersion. Thankfully, those issues are offset by genuine moments of breathtaking beauty, especially when you opt to explore the city at night in the midst of a heavy downpour. Street lights bounce prominently off puddles in the pavement, and office workers slope home muttering obscenities about the weather. It’s easy to get lost in the moment.

Not that you’ll have too much time to act as a wide-eyed tourist, because Sleeping Dogs is brimming with things to interact with. The main campaign does an admirable job of highlighting these distractions, but you’ll also unearth them naturally by casually traversing the world. Illegal street races, undercover drug busts, and dozens of side missions fill the game’s mini-map with icons. Successfully completing any of these activities rewards you with Face points, which can be used to unlock new abilities such as enhanced damage and deadly special attacks.

The RPG mechanics don’t end there, either. Completing missions rewards you with both Triad experience and Police experience. The contrasting meters represent the protagonist’s commitment to both organisations, and unlock different abilities as they are increased. For example, the Triad skill tree focuses on more forthright manoeuvres, while the Police path augments weapon related proficiencies. Brilliantly, you’re judged on both elements regardless of which faction you’re working for. For example, if you’re engrossed in a car chase against a rival Triad gang, you’ll earn additional Police experience for limiting the amount of damage caused to the city. Smash up the streets, and your superiors won’t be impressed – but fail to act like a true Triad and your cover will be blown. It’s an interesting concept that adds to the complexity of the narrative.

Unfortunately, the storytelling isn’t always as effective as it should be. Voice acting is fine for the most part, but there are some serious low points. Some of the local accents, for example, are woefully performed. Furthermore, the game’s dialogue is vulgar to the degree of being offensive. We understand that the game’s characters are supposed to be dislikeable, but Sleeping Dogs can end up feeling a bit inappropriate. There’s one particular exchange towards the end of the game that will cause even the most hardened person to cringe.

The game’s use of language is a bit unusual, too. Most characters speak with American accents, which is a bit disconcerting considering the Hong Kong setting. To its credit, the narrative does come up with a reason to justify this in the case of the protagonist, but it never bothers to explain why the rest of the cast is speaking in English. When the local language is adopted, the immersion is broken by characters communicating in different tongues.

Missions hinge upon a selection of core mechanics: driving, chasing, fighting and shooting. Given United Front Games’ history with the ModNation Racers franchise, the racing model is unsurprisingly solid. It eschews the heavy handling of Grand Theft Auto IV for something a little more accessible, but it feels great. Cars move fast and drift with precision, ensuring traversal is always enjoyable. All vehicles are equipped with ramming techniques too, making high speed pursuits immensely satisfying.

In addition to smashing up your rivals, you're also able to switch cars courtesy of a Pursuit Force-esque takeover mechanic. Essentially this allows you to leap from the cockpit of one vehicle and onto the roof of another, before swapping positions with the driver and taking control of the car. The game’s clearly influenced by Asian action movies, and the game’s exaggerated – if clunky – animation really accentuates that style.

Shootouts are similarly ostentatious, with foes throwing themselves into the air upon impact. Weapon sequences are fairly straightforward affairs, but a slowdown mechanic – which is initiated when you vault out of cover – helps to add some originality to the proceedings.

You need to wait several hours before you actually get a gun in Sleeping Dogs, however. The game puts a much larger emphasis on hand-to-hand combat, which gives it a different pace to other open world games. The melee combat is heavily inspired by the likes of Batman: Arkham City, and rewards you for attacking carefully and taking advantage of counters.

The amount of moves you have at your disposal is limited, but variety is added via a handful of brutal environmental kills. Offing a foe by slamming his head into an extractor fan adds a violent elegance to the gameplay, and it all jives with the game’s action movie feel.

The problem with Sleeping Dogs is that it starts to run out of ideas. The opening half of the campaign is bulging with new mechanics, but it sets an unfair expectation for the rest of the game. Suddenly you’re forced to complete the same mission types over again, and the experience becomes a bit predictable as a result. While you’re always working towards furthering the story, it becomes frustratingly obvious that the developer ran out of time. Thankfully, the quality of the mechanics ensures that the title never gets too tedious.

There’s always the distraction of the world itself, too. Assuming you’re not ready to take on another story mission, the game is brimming with collectables and mini-games to occupy your attention. There’s karaoke, illegal rooster fights, and an obsessive array of costumes to collect. The game even boasts an Autolog-esque leaderboard system, allowing you to compete against friends in a variety of dynamic challenges. We’re currently the champions at long distance car jumping.

Conclusion

Not top dog, but not in the land of nod either; Sleeping Dogs is a predictable but thoroughly enjoyable open world romp. Its undercover narrative and atmospheric Asian setting help to augment the title with an original identity, even if it’s forced to sit a couple of places behind Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto franchise in the sandbox pecking order.