Sleeping Dogs First Hands-on Preview -- Hard Boiled AffairsBy Miguel Concepcion - Posted Feb 17, 2012
If everything goes as planned, the game formally known as True Crime: Hong Kong, now renamed Sleeping Dogs and being published by Square Enix, will finally hit store shelves late this summer. It’s rather fitting that this gangster tale based in Hong Kong has shed the True Crime moniker since this project by studio United Front Games actually didn’t originate as a True Crime game. And even in reviewing two year old gameplay clips it appears little has changed from the studio’s early vision of the game. That’s certainly not a bad thing when you consider the myriad features and gameplay mechanics that the studio plans on delivering. And the best part of all this is has been this week’s opportunity to actually get hands-on time with Sleeping Dogs.
I’m the type of open-world player who prefers a relatively focused narrative over time-sucking random acts of sandbox antics. It’s the reason why I gravitate toward games like The Getaway and L.A. Noire. Sleeping Dogs looks to also have the same sense of direction; the kind that makes it easier to consistently empathize with the main character’s motivations.
Protagonist Wei Shen is a detective gone undercover, going through the unsurprising moving-up-the-ranks infiltration into a targeted Triad organization that goes by the name of Son On Yee. As a former gang member himself, some of Wei’s colleagues in the police force aren’t certain he can handle the assignment, especially after the exposition reveals he’s partly motivated by revenge. In other words, Wei’s your typical powder keg cop.
United Front has always noted that the gritty Hong Kong crime films of the last ten years or so has been a much larger influence on Sleeping Dogs than say, the over-stylized work of John Woo. So yes, this definitely won’t be a repeat of the Chow Yun-Fat-as-Tony Hawk adventure of Stranglehold; think more Infernal Affairs (or its English version, The Departed). We suspect that the risk of “getting made” should provide periodic moments of tension.
That said, there’ll certainly be a lot of gunfights, utilizing the same off-center camera angle and cover-based mechanics that have been popular in third-person shooters for the last several years. Again, don’t expect to slide down banisters or ride dim sum carts. There is some stylish flare, however, as the player can trigger slow motion sequences during the shootouts.
Despite the attention to story, United Front promises a wealth of side content and optional missions. Wei Shen will have many opportunities to do favors, whether it's to further endear himself with the gangs or help out friends and family. I just hope the game won’t have too many “errand boy” style missions, which was often a turn-off for me with many Grand Theft Auto missions.
The moment that I wished Sleeping Dogs would be some kind of Western-developed Shenmue III was during the melee combat. It’s a common feature in open world games, but United Front looks determined to give this combat a level of depth not that all different from Sega’s Yakuza series. While I only got a small taste of the move set, the studio assured me that Wei Shen can learn more abilities with periodic visits to his trainer. And as a bit of a handicap, exclamation point prompts appear above enemies, letting you know that they’re open for a counter attack.
Like Yakuza, you can finish off many of your enemies by grabbing them, then dragging them to a context-sensitive object for a finishing blow. When you’re on a rooftop, you have all kinds of ventilation ducts to shove enemies into. Parking garage? Impale them on exposed metal rods. Kitchen? You’ll have to button mash in a struggle as you try to force a guys face on an oven grill.
There are some nice added touches in detail when fighting on a rooftop, like being able to slam a thug on some skylight glass, cracking the clear ceiling in the process. Now if only United Front’s attention to detail extendws to showcasing a wider variety of sidewalk merchants. I mean, Hong Kong can’t possibly have that many t-shirt and bootleg DVD vendors, right?
Having many gameplay elements in a sandbox game obviously introduces the risk of spreading resources too thin. As a result, the game ends up with, say, an average fighting system with a sub-par driving component. It becomes all the more ambitious when gameplay changes up in the scheme of a story.
In Sleeping Dogs, you can go from city exploration to a heated foot chase to a brawl in the span of two seamless minutes. Having enjoyed the foot chases in last year’s Yakuza 4, the density of these Asian cities work well for this kind of gameplay, especially when the Hong Kong of Sleeping Dogs is relatively packed with civilians. Not only is it a fun challenge to weave through crowds, but it’s also amusing to see your target shove people aside, some even off railings.
United Front’s vision of modern Hong Kong takes the typical creative liberties that most open-world games take with real life locales; that is, it’s not Google Maps-accurate. They at least get the districts names right, including British colonially named locales like Aberdeen. The wealth of cars and motorcycles littered throughout the map are the best means of getting around.
And if you can’t get enough driving, street races make up some of the aforementioned optional goals in Sleeping Dogs. I just wish the trash talking between Wei Shen and his rivals sounded more convincing. The point A-to-B race I got to play was satisfying in that I won, but it was hard to tell how the A.I. functioned, sometimes with instant bursts of speed and sometimes with aggressive sideswiping.
Again, I’m all in favor of these kinda of story-driven sandbox games, not to mention all these different crime-based narratives from different time periods and settings. I’m of the opinion that Hong Kong is underused as a such a setting so hopefully United Front Games will make the most of this opportunity. Achieving a high level of polish isn’t the easiest thing to do in a game as large as this, so I’m all the more eager to check up on Sleeping Dogs prior to its release.