Wei Shen is an undercover cop infi ltrating the Hong Kong Triads. This puts him in a unique moral position. Every bone he snaps, every cap he pops, and every screaming face he presses into a furnace is an act of greater good.
Of course, it's a source of internal struggle for him - his dreams are haunted by convenient recaps of the plot so far. But while the violence and action is pure, disassociated action movie nonsense, where higher brain function takes a back seat to a 100ft flashing neon AWESOME, the story is full of brilliantly recognisable stereotypes that have been given enough extra edge for you to care about them.
At first glance, Sleeping Dogs might seem to be a straight-up GTA-style openworld game. A knowing urban title that plays around fondly with its subject matter. While it necessarily borrows a certain amount from Rockstar's genre-creating motherbeast, United Front's influences are more diverse. A magpie with excellent peripheral vision, there's some unexpected inspiration from a game that was generally overlooked.
True, Vin Diesel's Wheelman was neglected for many good reasons. But United Front has swooped in like an avian fun-surgeon and pecked out the ramming, shoot-and-drive combat, and leaping from one car to the next in a series of "action hijacks". And it's transplanted it into a game that's fun in every other way, too.
Another obvious and well-reported influence is Rocksteady's Batman. Wei's fighting style is a heavily tactile procession of thug-slugging beats. Boiled-down but still satisfyingly responsive, punching and kicking is restricted to a single button. Heavy attacks are delivered with a long press, and which heavy attack you use is modified by the number of preceding short, light attacks. Also, like Batman, attacking enemies give off a warning fl ash, offering you a chance to counter. Do it at the wrong time, though, and you'll be left paralysed for a couple of seconds. Understanding this, and learning to use the Y button properly is key to not screaming furious and incoherent streams of abuse.
The melee starts off satisfyingly simple, and develops into an even more satisfyingly complexity. New enemies demand different styles, and taking out a varied mob can eventually feel like a stylish triumph. Most impressively, the animations have Wei seamlessly fending off attackers from all angles and never missing an animation frame. It looks great.
New combos and boosts can be learned at the martial arts studio when you trade in jade statues you find. But while Batman's no killer, Wei Shen has to be to keep cover. Grapple a thug, and certain objects in the area will fl ash red. Run your hostage over to these areas, and you'll deliver an instakill move. Whether this is smashing their face into a sink or hoicking them onto a palette of swordfi sh beaks, it's the first thing you want to check out in a new combat arena. More gruesome kills are rewarded by enemies flinching, giving a chance to extend your carnage.
Pick up a gun, and the temptation to slip into traditional, tedious cover is immediate. Sleeping Dogs anticipates this, and dangles a carrot on the other side of the crate. Vault over it, and you'll be rewarded with seconds of slow-motion. Kill an enemy during this period, and your bullet-time will extend. With that auto-snap aim, it's possible to take out a whole room in one jump. This, along with generous checkpointing (something Rockstar still struggles with) and an essential storyline that occasionally challenges, but never over-tests, feels like United Front is on your side. Hong Kong is a pleasure to explore, with Wei's range of athletic moves giving him access to a good range of hidden places and objects.