We’ll never know what state the game that would become Sleeping Dogs was in when Activision execs pulled the plug on it last year, but it’s hard to imagine they aren’t kicking themselves right about now. Sleeping Dogs has already topped sales charts in several regions, and contrary to what that company said at the time, it does just enough to escape the enormous shadow of Rockstar’s open-world titles and carve out a niche for itself.

Wei Shen is an undercover cop whose past as a gangster makes him the ideal candidate to infiltrate Hong Kong’s Sun on Yee Triad. Once on the inside, however, Shen’s loyalties and focus are divided as he grows attached to several of his fellow gangsters while plotting revenge on others for parts they played in his now-distant criminal past.

The story may be boilerplate, but it is boosted by winking acknowledgement of its martial arts movie influences, as well as some great voice performances from a strong cast, which includes Will Yun Lee, veteran UK film and TV actor Tom Wilkinson, Emma Stone, and Lucy Liu. With their help, the narrative barrels along toward a brutally bloody, hilariously over-the-top finish worthy of its numerous cinematic influences.

Despite the Hong Kong of Sleeping Dogs being more abstraction than digital remake of its real-world counterpart, it oozes what feels like authentic atmosphere. This is assisted by the cast’s frequent slips into Cantonese, as well as background audio taken from the streets of its inspiration. It’s a grimy neon wonder, an intoxicating clash of the Chinese, European, and western influences that inform its heritage. Fish markets and docks sit adjacent to modern high-rises, while opulent shopping districts push run-down tenements towards the sea. A few walled-off compounds aside, all areas of the game’s four districts and satellite islands are accessible from the outset, and may be explored by boat, car, motorcycle, or on foot.

Shen is rather nimble on the latter, and holding sprint allows him to indulge in a spot of parkour, which is handy when chasing down criminals, or fleeing the police. Obstacles are traversed regardless, but a quick press of sprint just before they are encountered will see Shen deftly climb or hurdle then without losing pace. In this manner, fences are scaled, crates are vaulted, and improbable leaps are executed, although the game’s gymnastics are far more constrained than those of Assassin’s Creed—the obvious influence here. That game’s crowd-navigating mechanic is sound too; an unhurried Shen slides between bodies, or impatiently shoves bystanders to the ground as he sprints past.

Speaking of shoving, Sleeping Dogs’ much-hyped melee combat is certainly the best yet seen in an open-world game, as faint as that praise sounds. Again, Assassin’s Creed and Rocksteady’s Batman series are clear inspirations for the one button to attack, one to grab, one to counter layout. However, the tempo of the ruckus here is much slower, as well as much more idiosyncratic, and mastering the timing of both attacks and counters is a process that is frustrated by inconsistent or sluggish responses from Shen. Attempts to fight at a faster pace than the game is comfortable with simply leaves Shen motionless and vulnerable, almost like a petrified child whose parents are screaming conflicting instructions in either ear — the main difference being that said child doesn’t usually take a baton to the teeth for his inaction.

Several other peccadilloes make defensive counterattacking the superior melee tactic. Counters are both unblockable and unavoidable, as well as being equally effective against every single move and weapon in the game. Further, enemies are generally invulnerable when in an attack animation, so getting in first may just mean the player flails impotently as if attempting to punch a ghost before receiving some hefty damage for their trouble. Enemies that auto-counter certain attacks further incentivise a conservative approach.

Once the off-kilter flow of combat has been deduced, brawls do become a thing of stuttering beauty. Unfortunately, they also immediately become slightly too easy. The attack patterns of enemy combatants aren’t varied enough, which means that the moments when a counter will be required become possible to predict with startling accuracy. That foes gather in alarmingly large groups yet are content to wait their turn to be beaten to a bloody pulp compounds the problem.

However, grappling a hapless opponent and putting him down for the count permanently using context-sensitive environmental finishers such as electrical boxes, table saws, and other improvised weapons never becomes tedious. Nor does hurling Triads off buildings, or seeing a group of thugs wince as Chen breaks their comrade’s arm or leg, and not many games allow – let alone revel – in the gratuitous use of cleavers, tyre irons, and knives the way Sleeping Dogs does. There is a satisfying physicality to these slugfests, and throwing weapons into the mix makes things appropriately nasty.

Given the hand-to-hand focus, guns are much more rare here than in similar games. They can’t be purchased and don’t even make an appearance until well into the story. Despite this, a sizeable portion of the second half of the campaign is spent engaging in some classic John Woo-ery — minus the dual-wielding, sadly. It comes as a surprise, then, that Sleeping Dogs is a competent if easy shooter that features destructible cover, an intuitive and generally effective cover system, blind fire, and a slow motion mechanic that briefly engages when the player vaults cover, is falling, or is in a vehicle.

The face meter is combat’s greatest reward. Inflict enough damage while avoiding most incoming blows and the face meter activates, gifting the player various passive bonuses depending on Shen’s face level. Face experience is gained by doing anything that increases Chen’s street cred, and perks range from being able to disarm opponents quickly to combos being uninterruptible. The best non-combat perk is a car valet on speed dial, who delivers Shen a vehicle from his garage in seconds, regardless of his location. Cop and Triad experience meters work a similar fashion, awarding Shen perks such as new fighting moves as higher levels are attained.

Much like the fighting, driving in Sleeping Dogs is initially nebulous but ultimately functional. An odd shunting manoeuvre — where the player’s car lurches in a specified direction — may be used to ram pursuers off the road, and a less-than-intuitive drift mechanic eventually allows precision sideways travel after much trial and error. The vehicle camera, though, is a self-correcting menace, and vehicle handling is a bit ropey.

However, everything else is designed to facilitate high-speed journeys, from the wide lanes to AI cars that actually hold their line and indicate if changing lanes. In another nod to the game’s chop-socky action roots, it’s possible to jump out of one car and onto a car in front while both are in motion, which later in the game is an excellent way to confuse pursuing policemen. Not that losing the cops is tough to begin with, as a ramming or two quickly dissuades those who can’t be outrun.

There is no doubt that the best of Sleeping Dogs is found within the Triad storyline, and the sometimes-related cop story not far behind. Outside of these, the drug bust missions and gang member favours are generally entertaining, however the plethora of other minigames including the racing, dating, and collectible hunts are uniformly dull, and the lack of potential for unscripted chaos provides little reason to wander aimlessly the way it has in the Grand Theft Auto series. Fortunately, even avoiding the racing and item hunts, it’s a substantial game, with at least 15 hours of content to play through.

While it may not have the epic sweep and polish of a Rockstar title, Sleeping Dogs is refreshingly streamlined, serious, and contained, even as it pays homage to its sometimes less-than-grounded source material. It hasn’t completely nailed all facets of its ambitious gameplay, but it does transition between foot chases, melee, high-speed pursuit, and gunplay extremely well. It also looks great, with particularly impressive water and light effects, along with some satisfying environmental destruction.

Pair those qualities with a 100-song tracklist, seriously punchy sound, and a pulpy and predictable yet addicting narrative, and it’s no wonder that Square Enix snapped this one up. Fans of the genre are advised to do the same.