(CBS News) It's never easy standing out in a genre that is known for some of video games most memorable franchises. But Square Enix's ambitious open-world title Sleeping Dogs does just that by putting an emphasis on cinematic action while weaving a hard-boiled tale that keeps you guessing.
You play as protagonist Wei Shen, a Chinese-American undercover cop in Hong Kong who is assigned to infiltrate the Sun On Yee, a triad organized crime faction. As Wei delves deeper into this seedy world, the intoxicating appeal leads him to question whether he's more cop or criminal. It's a tale that pulls from undercover cop movie classics like The Departed, keeping the player intrigued as the story unravels. Square Enix also spared no expense on voice acting, bringing in Hollywood talent like Lucy Liu, Emma Stone and Tom Wilkinson.
But the real compelling aspect of Sleeping Dogs is the gameplay. The care and precision developer United Front put into the hand-to-hand combat is unmistakable. Utilizing a system similar to the latest Batman games, players can string together intricate melee moves using the square button (X on the Xbox 360). Enemies will glow red right before attacking, allowing you to counter and pull off a variety of combinations.
Grabbing a foe opens up another avenue to dish out pain. Once you grapple an enemy, some objects will glow red as a cue that they can be used to administer punishment. From throwing enemies into cars to heaving foes into massive fish tanks, these stylish finishing moves add another layer of depth to a fighting system that succeeds in making the player feel like a master in the martial arts.
The developers have also sprinkled in some RPG elements. Experience points are doled out after each mission. These points are broken up into two categories -- police and triad. The more mayhem you commit during missions, the less police points you are awarded. Once you level up either of the categories, you can choose a number of upgrades. Other side missions afford face points, which unlock the ability to wear specific outfits that grant XP bonuses.
If you want to take a break from the main story, there's a wealth of side missions and almost an overwhelming number of collectibles sprinkled throughout the world. The developers have done an impressive job adding a Hong Kong feel to the collectibles. Health shrines, lock boxes and jade statues, the latter of which unlocks new hand-to-hand abilities once they are returned to Wei's former martial arts teacher, are just a few of the knickknacks. The health shrines increase your overall maximum health while the lock boxes provide cash and sometimes clothing options.
Getting around town is also handled well. Part of the development team has worked on the Need for Speed racing games, and their influence is unmistakable. There's a respectable roster of cars and motorcycles. The handling is tight, but one of the drawbacks is the cars seem to take an inordinate amount of damage. The camera sometimes also pans in too close when making three-point turns. But the racing side missions -- that can be frustrating in other open-world games -- is exciting and rewarding because the controls are responsive.
If you're bored with your current ride, you can leap to another moving car to add a bit of flair to an experience that has become very familiar in the video game world. Vehicle shootouts are also more cinematic. When you aim at an enemy vehicle while driving, time slows down to allow the players a chance to mow down foes while maintaining control of the car. It's a shame that gunplay takes a backseat in the world. Guns acquired during story missions but for some odd reason you don't keep the weapons to build your arsenal, and there's no way to purchase additional guns in the game.
With a heavy emphasis on over-the-top action, Sleeping Dogs makes hits the mark on most of its lofty goals. Hand-to-hand combat is cinematic and satisfying, driving (though a little Arcady) is enjoyable and the story maintains a good pace. The developers have taken great care to breathe life into the Hong Kong world they've created, adding a unique twist to a popular video game genre. Despite some minor missteps, Sleeping Dogs offers an experience that you won't soon forget. Sleeping Dogs is available for the PC, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360.