It used to be that if you were talking about open world crime simulators that there was Grand Theft Auto and everything else. Rockstar’s storied franchise was king, and it was unfathomable to think it could possibly be unseated. Today, there is most certainly a place for Claude, CJ, Niko and Tommy, but other developers are taking the core concepts and moving the genre in new exciting directions. Volition has done amazing things with Saints Row, creating a hilarious experience and filling a gap in the market with its hover bikes and giant purple marital aid weapons. Now, United Front Games is focusing on the oft-neglected melee piece of the equation, woven through rich storytelling and character development that makes Sleeping Dogs a must-play.

The Hong Kong setting provides an interesting back drop for the adventure, with slums, upscale urban environments and traditional temples and gardens intermixed as you drive around the city. The story follows police officer Wei Shen (voiced by Will Yun Lee), who returns from years of living in San Francisco to go undercover, work his way up through the ranks of the Triad and take the organization down from the inside. One of the things that makes Sleeping Dogs such an enjoyable experience is how well it portrays our expectations of the life of an undercover officer.

It’s very easy for players to forget that they are playing a member of law enforcement while beating up thugs, stealing armored cars and getting into violent shootouts. It would be just as simple for United Front Games to fully segment those two halves of the experience, but subtleties in the gameplay and UI design serve to remind us. After driving around Steelport and Liberty City, running over pedestrians and robbing stores with no long term in-game consequence, Sleeping Dogs had the deck stacked against it.

While in-mission, players are ranked separately for their Triad and Police actions. The criminal meter fills by inflicting harm against foes, with brutal strikes and intense vehicle takedowns rewarded greatly. The police bar works in reverse. Harm to innocents (not including aggressors), property damage and other unlawful actions take points away. At the end of each mission, your performance translates into experience. Even when on Triad missions, you’ll be held to the same standard by the police. It’s a gentle reminder that you’re a good guy playing a bad guy and not a truly hardboiled criminal.

For the first half of the game, you’ll use your fists and feet to mete out punishment. The combat isn’t entirely unlike that found in the Batman games from Rocksteady. Light attacks, heavy attacks, dodges and counters are all necessary pieces of the puzzle. Enemies will conveniently glow red as they are about to attack and tapping the counter button executes a number of different, flashy surprise reactions. Enemies will wield knifes and blunt objects, which can be used once pried free, whether by felling the foe or performing an advanced disarm move. Some thugs will have symbols at their feet denoting uninterruptible attacks or grapple experts. Taking these on requires smarter thinking, but if you manage to get one in a hold, you can execute an environmental finisher to throw him in a dumpster or knock him out in a phone booth.

I enjoyed the enemy reactions to the fight, especially once you upgraded my combos. Pulling off a leg break to make the other thugs wince in pain and back off for a second was always entertaining. Following that up with a brutal kick to the back of the reeling foe’s head was both brutal and efficient.

Once I gained access to guns, it was interesting to see the gameplay change up. Scenes are typically firmly divided into melee and shooting. You’ll have an idea going in which you’re facing based on layout of the environment.

With gun in hand, you can grab cover and vault over it. Holding the fine aim button (left trigger on the Xbox 360), you’ll go into a slow motion mode that can be extended by killing enemies. It’s a touch of Max Payne that spices up the melee combat and driving sequences.

There are multiple upgrade types available, each with two different sub-trees. Police experience translates largely into firearm expertise. Triad work enhances your proficiency with melee combat. Finding one of the twelve hidden Jade Statues (just one of many collectible types) will earn you a new melee combo when traded in at a gym. Additionally, you’ll earn “face” by completing side missions that gives you an enhancement at each of the ten levels. The first gives you access to the combat-based face meter. Once filled, Wei enters a state that intimidates foes and regenerates health. Later buffs allow you to get cars delivered, disarm foes and get discounts on new cars and clothing. One of the most useful sets extends the life and potency of of any food-based upgrade.

This brings me to one of the more frustrating aspects of Sleeping Dogs’ design. For all it does right, the challenge of the game often necessitates the buffs to health and damage provided by tea, energy drinks, food from street vendors and the company of “professional” women. Restarting a mission or dying and heading to a hospital negates those bonuses, which means seeking out vendors and drink machines before trying again. Given that your health won’t fully regenerate unless you’ve recently eaten, a lot of time is wasted seeking out food stands. The cost isn’t typically an issue, as money flows easily, but wasting the time (especially on the prostitute animation) gets old fast.

Benefits provided by clothing are a little easier to swallow, but putting together full sets for bonuses might mean visits to a number of retailers. There are a lot of options available, but changing your attire can only happen in one of your apartments. Allowing players to access their full wardrobe from a store would have made things more convenient (at the cost of logic, but hey, this is a video game).

One of things I do enjoy is the approach to collectibles. Most of the different types of objects have a gameplay-related purpose. Health shrines will boost your maximum life and the aforementioned Jade Statues allow you to learn important new moves. Lockboxes always have money, but might also reward players with new clothing items. Security cameras, many of which are tied to drug bust side-missions, can be hacked for bonus experience.

While finding them is random during the early going, taking love interests on dates will make them available on the map. This is a convenience that outweighs even the cumbersome food hunting. The side-quests are also home to a number of the mini-games you’ll encounter.

Karaoke plays out like a controller based vocal track in Rock Band, lock boxes might require you to use your ears to find the right combination, security cameras have a Mastermind style number guessing game and there are traditional locks to pick and listening device frequencies to tune. Other than the number game on security cameras (which a simple approach will make impossible to fail), these don’t pop up too often.