See, it isn’t so hard to make a decent sandbox game. You need to have writing that doesn’t insult the player’s intelligence (this story is nothing original, but it’s written earnestly and makes sure to embrace all the cool clichés from the genre), and you need one major mechanic that works great. In Sleeping Dogs’ case, it’s the fighting: well balanced, allowing you to choose whether you want to mash a single button or learn complicated combos, with fights that can always be won, yet can always be lost as soon as you get careless. Gunplay is below average (as in, noticeably worse than even GTA 4), but it’s only available in a small fraction of encounters anyway. Driving is also the worst of any recent sandbox game — and there’s a lot of it — but you know what? That’s okay, because I’m gonna get into a fight when I reach my destination, and I’m gonna have fun, and I’m gonna hear more cool dialogue from cool characters (even if most of the acting is pretty dull, starting with the lead). Oh, and the environment looks pretty nice, and appropriately alive, but I can’t say as much as I’d like about it because I had to turn every setting to the minimum on my machine.
So I’m not asking for a lot — I know that making a sandbox game is a huge endeavor, and this genre more than any other will always require the player to make an effort of imagination in order to appreciate the fun parts. The game just has to have those fun parts.