The open-world genre gets dark and gritty once more, with United Front Games’ ode to the Hong Kong crime drama; Sleeping Dogs. I’ve played it, and now I’m going to tell you all about it.
When talking about Sleeping Dogs, you can’t do so without mentioning its origins. Much has been said about its previous title of True Crime: Hong Kong, before it was cancelled by Activision in 2011, but before that, it was given the name Orange Lotus, making Sleeping Dogs this game’s third incarnation.
Developers United Front Games, are a studio consisting of former staff from Radical Entertainment (Prototype), Volition, Inc (Saint’s Row), EA Black Box (multiple Need for Speed titles) and Rockstar Vancouver (Bully). Assisting them with Sleeping Dogs, are Square Enix’s London Studio (Arkham Asylum, along with Rocksteady). With that level of experience in the open-world and driving genres, it’s easy to tell where Sleeping Dogs’ inspirations come from.
It wouldn’t be wrong of me to say that the likes of Grand Theft Auto, Saint’s Row, Crackdown etc. are all great games, but if criticism could be made of these titles (and the open-world genre in general), it would be that their approach to gameplay, mixing elements of driving, melee combat and gunplay, proves that the old adage of “jack of all trades, master of none” is a worthy description. What United Front Games have done, is used their team’s experience with specialist genres, and added elements of those to Sleeping Dogs, while sacrificing as little as possible in terms of playability.
Booting up an Alpha version of the game from January, we were given access to three parts of the game, offering a cross-section of what the finished game will offer, in terms of variety.
In the first section, simply titled “Night Market Chase”, our main character (undercover cop Wei Shen, a US cop sent back to his homeland of Hong Kong to infiltrate the Triads) is searching a crowded marketplace for a particularly nasty piece of work, named Wang. These densely packed streets are reminiscent of the Shanghai location in Deus Ex: Human Revolution. A festival is currently taking place, adding to the hustle-and-bustle of streets already filled to the brim with stalls offering noodles, DVD’s and electronics. Some of these stalls (along with some vending machines) provide food and drink, that offer temporary buffs such as damage reduction.
Upon tracking down Wang, a chase takes place. The mechanics of this will be familiar to anyone who has played an Assassin’s Creed title. The player must hold the Sprint button, while avoiding people and street objects. A simple tap of the Sprint button will make Wei Shun vault over small obstacles, and climb up others. As Wang escapes into an area of thuggish goons, I am given my first experience of the game’s melee combat.
Melee battles feel like a simplified version of Arkham Asylum’s combat system, with multiple assailants able to attack at once. A familiar exclamation mark will appear above the head of any thug who attacks you, a tap of the counter button will instantly use that opponent’s move against them. A standard attack is performed with a tap of the attack button, while holding it will (as always) result in a slower, but more powerful, attack. Finally, there’s the grab button, which serves to allow the player to indulge in some of Sleeping Dog’s more brutal moves.
You see, around any combat area are a variety of environmental hazards that can be used to dispatch any thug. When grabbing a victim, these hazards will flash red when nearby. A press of the grab button, and your poor opponent is dispatched in any number of ways. You can impale enemies onto exposed spikes, thrust their heads into fan blades, and slam their faces into table saws. During some of the open-world sections, I stole a car from an pedestrian, before slamming their head into the door (you can also put them into the boot of the car, should you be into that sort of thing). It’s incredibly brutal, and makes GTA’s incredibly stiff melee combat look as effective as attacking someone with an inflatable banana.
Upon dispatching these enemies, chasing Wang some more, then fighting more foes, the mission was over, earning money and three different types of XP in the process: Face XP, Police XP and Triad XP. It sounds needlessly complicated, but it’s all rather simple. Think of Face XP as your reputation, the more Face XP you have; the more people will recognise you, fear you or respect you. Police XP is relevant to your skills as an undercover cop, while Triad XP is given for loyalty to the criminal underworld.
These three different types of XP will unlock upgrades, relevant to each category, giving you the opportunity to not only customise your looks (via outfits) but also your abilities (unfortunately, these upgrades were turned off in the demo, along with the police, and death). Speaking of outfits, your choice in style will also affect Wei Shen’s abilities (but to what extent wasn’t made clear in this early build). I picked a nice little yellow jumpsuit, not so dissimilar to Bruce Lee’s in Game of Death.
The next section of the demo, “Election” takes an even more violent turn. After receiving a phone call from a mysterious Mr. Tong, asking to meet Wei, then, upon arriving at the meeting point, he is knocked out cold. In a following cutscene, Wei is tied to a chair and subjected to some horrifically painful methods of torture as his identity is discovered. Once gameplay begins you are immediately thrown into a quick-time event, as Wei attempts to break free from his bonds and escape.
After dispatching away with an unfortunate person in the middle of answering a call of nature (let’s just say that Wei gives the nameless enemy a close look at the toilet bowl. A VERY close look), further battles take place with various thugs. It’s worth noting that there are different “classes” of thugs, from hard hitting Brawlers, to body slamming Grapplers. Needless to say I relished in dispatching these enemies with liberal use of some of the more painful-looking environmental hazards (and a frying pan).
Escaping the building via a series of scaffolds and wooden platforms that regularly gave way, I encountered the first armed guard in the demo. As Wei was unarmed, you would think there would be no way of getting past this thug. Fear not, as when vaulting over an object that an armed enemy is standing near, you can actually tackle them and steal their gun. Which is good, as a ton of gun-toting goons were about to barge in.
In terms of gunplay, Sleeping Dogs is essentially a cover-based shooter. What I particularly liked was a nifty little bullet-time feature that kicks in whenever you hold the aim button while vaulting an object. It gives you a short few seconds of slow-motion that really helps to line up that perfect headshot, but also adds some of the Hong Kong cinema feel that the developers are clearly striving to achieve.
The final section of the demo was “Fast Girls”; It wouldn’t be an open-world title without some sort of vehicular racing involved. The cars handled well, and weren’t far off from the game feeling like a Need For Speed entry (There’s definitely a vibe of Underground in there). It wasn’t quite up to the standard of a dedicated driving game, but it is a marked improvement over other games of the genre.
That’s it in terms of what I played, but there were tons more promising information that I gleaned from a short presentation featuring sections of the game that weren’t playable. Other features that Sleeping Dogs brings to the table include the ability to choose a mission straight from the in-game minimap by clicking the left stick, rather than having to pause gameplay to look at a larger map.
There is an in-game mobile phone, used to contact other NPC’s, but this gadget serves another purpose. In one mission we were shown, you have to use this phone to find a position in the middle of three communication masts, so that you can triangulate a target’s location. Upon phoning the target, a call tracing minigame is opened up, where you first have to find what region of Hong Kong has the highest signal for your target. Once the correct region is discovered, you must hover a cursor over three comm masts on the map, when the cursor is over one of these masts, a series of icons appear on the map indicating possible locations of the target, which differ depending on which mast is being looked at. To find the right location, you need to compare the icons from each mast and find the one that is consistent between all three.
One more feature I did notice, was a an Autolog-style feature that keeps track of your progress in various different categories (such as the length of time driving without crashing, or air-time on a motorcycle). These scores can be compared with your friends and, like Autolog, challenges can be sent. A small addition, but a fun one.
Sleeping Dogs could be well worth a look when it’s released in August, it’s Hong Kong setting is a welcome change from the generic American cities of similar games, and the fact that it wears its inspirations on its sleeve is a good thing as far as I’m concerned. With Hollywood voice acting (Lucy Liu has been confirmed, but there are other big names involved that haven’t been officially confirmed yet), there is a real cinematic touch to the game, which extends from the cutscenes to the gameplay itself.
If you wished that GTA IV and Saint’s Row were a little more serious, then this is definitely a game you should keep an eye out for.