Whenever there’s an open-world sandbox action title set in a big city, it inevitably gets compared to the genre’s most prolific title, Grand theft Auto – and for good reason. As much as other games try pack in content, story-telling or seedy underworld crime action, few stand up to Rockstar’s flagship series.
Poor imitations and approximations come and go – and it would take something really special to knock GTA off of its perch. Sleeping Dogs, from Square-Enix and United Front Games could be it.
The game’s got a notable history. Starting its life as the third instalment of the True Crime series – one of those aforementioned poor imitations – it got the axe Activision cancelled a slew of games shortly after its merger with Vivendi games. I can’t say I was upset about the cancellation. The True Crime games have generally been uninteresting, uninspired buggy messes. Its developer, United Front Games – responsible for the mediocre Modnation Racers for Sony’s PlayStation didn’t quite inspire confidence either. Somebody at Square-Enix thought it was worth saving though. They resurrected the title, pumping development support and – because they hadn’t secured the rights to the True Crime - giving it a new name; Sleeping Dogs
A good thing, because after a bit of hands on with the title, I’m excited. In a story that’s pretty much lifted directly from the particularly excellent Hong Kong action flick Internal Affairs, you play as Detective Wei Shen – a street smart, tough as nails cop who’s gone undercover to infiltrate, and ultimately bring down one of the triad organisation operating within Hong Kong. Clichéd? probably, but there’s nothing wrong with cribbing the best bits from Hong Kong’s glorious action cinema and stuffing them all in to a single, action-packed game.
Like Grand Theft Auto (there’re those inevitable comparisons!), Sleeping dogs is a fully-realised, realistic open-world, crime shooter filled with pointless distractions and a peppering of racing elements. Sleeping Dogs’ most noticeable and notable diversion is its setting: The mean, glowing neon-lit streets of Hong Kong. Though we’ve travelled to Hong Kong in games before, running across Kowloon’s shanty rooftops in Black Ops, shooting everything that moves in Stranglehold and looking at Ruby’s behind in Wet, none of them have offered such an accurate, beautifully realised recreation of the place.
It really is magnificent – in one of the levels we played, upon exciting a dirty, dingy Chinese restaurant (which I guess my in-game Asian brethren would just call “a restaurant”) you’ll stumble out in to one of the city’s open night markets. They’ve nailed the city’s celebrated night life, capturing the spirit of Hong Kong perfectly. The attention to detail is astounding. Confetti lined the streets, walls and building punctuated with neon lights. Paper Chinese lanterns – the perfunctory sort that Chinese people really only hang up for the benefit of tourists hung from every corner. I could practically smell the chicken chow mein.
The night market’s street was lined with flea-market stalls, each owner trying to peddle their wares, yelling out in the short, sharp tones of Hong Kong’s favoured Cantonese dialect. Girls, fashionably dressed talk on their cellphones as they walk past. I took the opportunity to do what everybody playing games of this ilk do – I flying kicked one such girl in the back of head, abusing my Kung-Fu prowess – because that’s what it’s all about. When i tired of chop-socking every single pedestrian (about three hours later), I continued on with the mission at hand; finding some lowlife thug named Ming. Chasing Ming through Hong Kong’s narrow, claustrophobic streets was exciting – and shows another way that sleeping dogs differentiates itself from GTA; it’s much more visceral and cinematic – with the game switching, seamlessly, I might add, between gameplay and interactive experience. there are bits where you’ll be able to scale walls, slide under poles like a free-running champion. It’s more Uncharted than Assassin’s Creed in its execution – but it feels great.
Equally impressive is the hand-to-hand combat – an area in which GTA has always suffered. There’s a grace and flow to the game’s melee combat, which takes more than a few queues from Batman’s rhythmic fighting. It doesn’t seem quite as complex though; you have a singular button for attacking, which dynamically switches between punches and kicks of all sorts, a button for grappling and one for countering. Grappling an enemy opens it all up a bit – giving you a host of brutal, contextual options for killing guys – like shoving their faces in to industrial fans, decapitating them with roller doors or impaling their faces with spikes. Vicious. Personally? I thought the combat could do with a little more variation – but that could be coming in the final game. after completing missions you’ll earn experience points in three different categories – which unlock abilities and grant you additional resources. chances are some of those will increase fighting acumen. Just like your average action flick though, groups of enemies largely seem to wait around for you to beat them up, one by one.
Even armed combat is removed from what you’d expect of “GTA-like” game. Gunplay feels like a mix of Uncharted and Stranglehold. When you vault over a cover object, the game slows down, going in to a focus mode – not entirely unlike bullet time – that allows you put holes in yellow people with a previously unafforded accuracy; you wont see any doves flittering away, but you’ll certainly feel Hard-boiled. As you’d expect, the city’s open – which means lots of driving. In-car action was developed by former Black Box employees within United Front, bringing their Need for Speed expertise to the vehicular aspect . The game offers over 80 vehicles, none of which seem licenced, but all of which are fun as all heck to drive through crowds of pedestrians. Unlike other games in the genre which have you shooting from within your car, Sleeping Dogs takes over the driving for you when you whip out your guns, making for an ultimately fun, and far less frustrating experience.
From being nowhere near my radar’s second cousin, Sleeping Dogs is now firmly one of the games I’m looking forward to most this year. Adding a little more cinematic action to an established formula – and setting it somewhere refreshing certainly seems to have worked for Sleeping Dogs. I can’t wait to explore the Hong Kong setting – which for this game could be as important and integral as Rapture was to Bioshock – when the game sees retail in August. If you’re a fan of the genre, keep your eyes on Sleeping Dogs. Even in this early state (and already quite polished), it’s quite clear that the game will end up delivering far more than you expect.
Sleeping Dogs hits PC, Xbox 360, and PlayStation 3 on 17 August 2012. Oh yes, lest I forget – thanks to Megarom, Tritton, Samsung and Microsoft for making this preview possible.