The line between hero and villain is wonderfully blurred in the action role-playing game "Sleeping Dogs" (Square Enix for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, $59.99; for PC, $49.99).
As undercover mole Wei Shen you are tasked with infiltrating the Sun On Yee triad in a fictionalized and fantastically rendered version of Hong Kong. This simple premise sets up a series of moral dilemmas: Can you push yourself to the limit to gain trust and rise in the triad's hierarchy? Or will you waver and risk blowing your cover?
"Sleeping Dogs" is played in the traditional over-the-shoulder view of similar sandbox games such as "Grand Theft Auto" and "Saints Row." While I could stoop to calling this a "GTA" clone - the similarities are legion - the fluid combat, a few nice touches in the shooting mechanic and the exotic locale help it stand out quite a bit.
Finding the right balance to help the story progress is key, and the great voice acting - including Tom Wilkinson and Emma Stone, among others - and a solid script keep you engaged through a few clever twists and turns. Wei Shen's moral ambiguity and his personal stake in taking down the Sun On Yee begin to weigh on him as the game moves forward, making him one of the more well-drawn characters in the genre.
The role-playing elements consist of upgrades that fall under both police and triad skill trees. The more police tasks you complete, the more experience you gain to improve those skills; the same for triad tasks. This design forces you to choose certain skills at the expense of others, but you also need to maintain balance to throw off suspicion on both ends.
Completing minor tasks builds your "Face" meter, which determines how people respond to you and earns you passive abilities such as hints on the minimap and a lackey who will bring you a car whenever you want. Increasing your face level unlocks new apparel and vehicles, giving you great incentive to bolster your street cred and bag that sweet ride.
You can travel to various martial arts schools scattered throughout the city to fight, join the street racing circuit or just drive around listening to one of several radio stations. Kerrang Radio, featuring British alt-rock, was my personal favorite.
There is money to be earned betting on cockfights, and you can visit a massage parlor to, um, ease the tension. (Yes, this game is rated Mature.) And then there's a hysterical karaoke minigame: Let's just say there's nothing like a heavily tattooed mob enforcer belting out Air Supply's "All Out of Love."
The melee action, which borrows heavily from the free-flow combat of Rocksteady's Batman games, will make you feel like a martial arts master as you unlock skills such as spinning heel kicks and flying roundhouses. And without question the coolest outfit you can earn is Bruce Lee's yellow jumpsuit from the film "Game of Death."
The shooting is tight and features some John Woo-inspired touches, including an upgrade that gives you the ability to leap from a moving car in slow motion with handguns blazing. "Hard Boiled," indeed.
"Sleeping Dogs" is not breaking any new ground in the action-RPG genre, but with an engrossing story line and plenty of wild things to do around Hong Kong, it's an excellent title that shouldn't be missed.
Ratings: Three and a half stars out of four.