Wei Shen where are you even going?
Shen is a criminal. Shen is a cop. He lives the life of a Hong Kong action movie. All the inconsistencies and demands that could create exist in his game world.
Missions give him Triad experience points but take away from his cop experience points with each mistake. And with Sleeping Dogs driving the missions often end in you not getting any cop XPs. Luckily there are all kinds of extra cop missions to take so you can load up on those when you don't feel like playing gangster.
What fundamentally sets Sleeping Dogs apart from other games is probably most well expressed in Shen's character's metamorphosis. He actually transforms as the story progresses. This is something the players get to experience as well. And as an open world sandbox game this narrative theme is handles very well.
Often sandbox games have a problem with narrative and character. (Don't even begin to mention ludo...psuedo-intellectuals) They don't just contend with open world game design problems but the fact that often a ramp or a rampage might make up as much of a gaming session as story missions. GTA V gets around this, seemingly, with the Trevor character who is a person with actual psychological issues.
Sleeping Dogs doesn't necessarily go that far so much as it's world and character is compelling enough and the narrative strong enough that players can actually experience this within the game. It's not just running through a series of story missions for ever greater status and money. That is there but the story is the point with the beauty of Hong Kong pulling players deeper into this world.
At first it's the streets. Driving on the left side, spotting all the signage in a mix of languages, people on the street using a mix of languages and clothing styles. Radio stations with advertizements in Cantonese and English. Vehicles that populate Sleeping Dogs Hong Kong are what you might expect. Food vendors sell what you might expect. Eventually this stops being what you might expect and just becomes your world.
Sleeping Dogs mastered the buy-in. It stands in direct contrast to GTA IV. We start with a dextrous character who has a variety of movement options, quiet but not without thoughts, Shen is a character moving through this space and his navigations both positive and negative are seen as real by the player. This story is somewhat farcical, the deep cover cop and all that, but Shen anchors us. He doesn't seem to totally buy into everything and the underworld of Hong Kong provides a sense of mystery that allows this. We can't know all of what's happening so Shen's journey makes way more sense. As a character he's conflicted, almost fragmented, and this makes this all the more sound as a journey. Honestly a masterful stroke.
A while back there was an article on TAY about how all action games should just accept it and move to the Arkham/Mordor style of combat. I disagreed but couldn't find a great example to explain why. Sleeping Dogs is the example. Yes lots of games give you a series of combos you never use or at least aren't rewarded for. But melee combat in sleeping dogs is so much more thoughtful than that. Through a variety of enemies in encounters players will find that a large chunk of the possible attacks are actually important to learn. However they're all strung together in a simple enough package that anyone can eventually get the hang of the combat. As a character you're always on the defensive as you start, until you go for the attack and that moment feels dramatic as you access the situation and strike.
This would be lost if any sort of Arkham style combat system was used. You are a martial arts scientist in this game. You do die in this game and generally not because of weird difficulty spikes with enemies.
Not a perfect game though. Driving can take a bit to get used to, but it's serviceable. Though playing a mission and dealing with constant cop experience point losses because you kind of can't help but smash into things gets old real fast. Either you end up loving or hating the driving sections in the game. Driving isn't necessarily bad at all, just how they decided to fit in some of these mechanics doesn't work totally. Like during a mission you might find yourself needing a vehicle, so you steal one because it's that sort of game, but that's an automatic -10 cop points. While it does make sense, it also doesn't. How else are you supposed to travel 800 meters in a timely fashion when the game won't let you call your personal valet?
The game is well designed though. The cramped sections of town have all these interesting rooftops to climb across not marked on the map, but the open city sections have larger plazas great for shortcuts or just tooling around in a motorcycle. But the world is weirdly designed for pedestrians. There is no jump button so if you can't find a contextual spot to press the button to climb over you might get stuck at times. Nothing worse than being stuck in a tiny garden trapped by topiary and a tiny cement lip.
And the world is weirdly structured. Not open in a GTA sense where you can drive over anything, ramp off anything. If there's a tiny bit of ground you will probably crash when you hit it whereas GTA would consider it a ramp. Maybe an odd point of contention but this is a game with walls around you constantly. Chain-link fences that can withstand anything you throw at them.
Though that weirdness is acceptable. In the end I found the game to be a really character driven story with an open world setting. You can, and should, experience as much of the location as you can. But it's the clear and developed story that sets this game apart from so many others. Shen's quest to find a home mirrors our own. To see the transformation is to remember we're all going somewhere.