It's Grand Theft Auto set in Hong Kong, with added kung-fu. There isn't too much else that need be said about Sleeping Dogs, which began life as a sequel to the middling True Crime series before being snapped up and rebranded by a new publisher when original owners Activision dumped it. Despite the inclusion of chop-sockey, it's a deeply familiar bout of cars'n'violence - so the question is whether it does bombing around an open urban world well or not.
Yes and no. The setting is comfortably Sleeping Dogs' biggest accomplishment, as there's just enough of the otherworldly (to British/American eyes, at least) in Hong Kong's East/West cultural mash-up to ensure jaws occasionally drop. That wouldn't have been the case were this another visit to a US city, which really does seem done to death these days. This has noisy street markets and serene temples squeezed in amongst the more familiar rain-slick roads and towering skyscrapers - and, inevitably, gangs of thugs. Combat's an enormous part of the game, with the only distractions from it being driving and some vaguely irksome hacking minigames, but it's got a far more developed hand-to-hand fighting system than peers such as GTA and Saints Row.
It's a combo system reminiscent of Batman: Arkham City, where victory comes from timing attacks and counter-attacks carefully, interspersed with viciously throwing people off buildings or slamming them into phone boxes, and the number of simultaneous opponents thrown at you means it rarely feels too regardless of how many new moves you've learned. Guns have surprisingly little to do with things, outside of some late-game missions where they're pretty much mandatory, and that makes a refreshing change. Melee combat feels more satisfying too, that sense that you're connected to the world (even if it is in a brutal way) rather than just remotely making people's heads explode.
Sleeping Dogs also avoids the usual Scarface plot of similar open world games by starring a cop going undercover in the Triad, and at times it does thoughtfully explore the (a)morality of this. Then it'll apparently completely forget, and have Triads yelling at you that you need to prove you're really one of them by killing someone, oblivious to the fact you drove a sports car over forty people not five minutes ago. Not to mention that the plot's essentially a one-way road despite an illusion of law/renegade choice in how you gain new skills and upgrades.
Ramp up the expertly-dealt violence against rival gangs and you'll get more Triad points, but try not to harm civilians or smash any property and you'll gain more police points. They're only there to unlock new abilities, rather than any consequences, however. Perhaps that's the right thing to do - rather than have a game that's ultimately about killing people judge you for your actions - but the absence of consequence is felt.
There are a couple of vaguely shocking moments where the game reveals it is paying attention to what you're doing - they can't be revealed due to spoilers, of course - and it would have been great to see Sleeping Dogs do more of that. Oh well, ultimately it's 'just' an action game, and a well put-together one at that. Hong Kong feels enormous, the cars are a total but exhilarating departure from reality and there's consistently a wide range of alternate activities, even if most boil down to 'drive here quickly' or 'kill all those guys.'
It should also be mentioned that the PC version looks pretty incredible, thanks to an optional high-res texture pack that frees it from the blurry surfaces of the console edition. No doubt about, Sleeping Dogs' Hong Kong is a spectacular playground - it's just that we've played with all the toys in it a few too many times before.