Sleeping Dogs looks like a hell of a game, but it started out with a bad reputation. Due to company changes and acquisitions, the game originally had the name True Crime: Hong Kong, continuing an ill-fated and critically panned series despite the fact that the games were not really related. Once Square Enix stepped in to work with developer United Front Games, it was renamed Sleeping Dogs and as soon as I sat down with the title, the past was forgotten and I was hooked.
Sleeping Dogs is an open world game that has you playing an undercover cop in Hong Kong (and other locals) trying to infiltrate the Triad. The developer told me that the heart of the story is similar to the Hong Kong movie Infernal Affairs (or The Departed starring Leonardo DiCaprio which is essentially the same movie) and has the protagonist Wei Shen lose himself in his role somewhat. The game is steeped in Asian culture and really evokes a feeling of the country and it’s environments.
Sleeping Dogs is a sandbox game, but unlike the Grand Theft Auto series it obviously takes as inspiration, it tries to be as effective in as many ways as possible. Take the driving aspect of the game, much like GTA and similar titles you can take over any car you see, but the similarities end there. A number of members of the development team come from Black Box studios who made the successful Need For Speed games. This means the driving and racing is very well implemented, and having driven around like a madman and taken part in races in-game, I can assure you the driving is tight and most importantly, fun.
While driving is important, the meat of the gameplay is on foot, either chasing, fighting, or shooting it out with your enemies. Again, Sleeping Dogs does this very well. As this is framed as a typical Hong Kong action experience, a the protagonist, Wei Shen, is a martial arts expert and nearly superhuman in combat. Shortly into the demo I stumbled on a gang of Triad members and I had to take them on without weapons. Instead of being approached one-on-one, groups of enemies attacked, and much like the recent Batman games you could battle many enemies at once effectively.
You have light and heavy attacks as well as grapple and counter moves attached to the face buttons. If you string together button presses you can decimate your opponents with fluidly animated moves ranging from kicks to strikes. A better and more satisfying method though is to wait for the onscreen prompt (a mark over the enemies head) telling you a counter is possible. Much like Batman Arkham Asylum/City you can tap the counter button and watch as Wei Shen decimates his opponent with a block and brutal counter attack. I noted the similarity and the developer mentioned that Square Enix often consults with developers on programming and techniques and one of those developers was RockSteady, hence the sharing of techniques.
As great as the counter system is, grappling is far more satisfying. The first time I grappled someone I noticed a number of items like pipes, saws, and grills glowing red, the developer encouraged me to approach one of them with my enemy. Once there I was prompted to press grapple again and I brutally used the environment to dispatch my enemy. It was so effective and so gruesomely executed that I had no choice but to yell excitedly. I know it makes me sound overly violent, but it fit into the brutality of the world and action and it reminded me of the last gen Punisher game that had a similar but more limited option.
As satisfying as the hand-to-hand combat is, the gunplay is a key component of the game and one I found to be just as enjoyable. Unlike GTA and other similar games Sleeping Dogs has a very capable shooting system featuring sticky cover, blind fire, and contextual moves like leaping over counters or close quarter kills. It is obvious that a lot of work has gone into the combat for this game and it pays off with an enjoyable and satisfying experience.
The world itself is just as competent as the combat and driving as well. Detailed environments exist, bursting with people and objects. Stores can be entered, vendors can be interacted with, and the population reacts to your actions (whether it be getting in your face or running away). It all adds up to make a very immersive experience. I commented to the developer that the world seemed so full, and with humility he thanked me but stated he would have liked even more people and objects, but loves the look and solid feel of the world.
The story is key in Sleeping Dogs and will be used effectively to tie all these gameplay mechanics together. Think of examples from The Departed or even the Fast and Furious movies to understand. Wei Shen will need to commit crimes, race gang members, and fight his way up the ladder to get to his end goal. There are linear story missions, but you also have the freedom to take other jobs, customize yourself with outfits, or just explore as you wish. Not much has been described of the story but I was told it is not a simple revenge tale, although it starts off like one. The threads get more and more tangled until at the end you reach an epic conclusion.
Those are bold words, but I have to say that I really enjoyed what I saw at the demo. I was given a very long time to play the two story missions and some free racing, and despite that I wanted more. The look and feel, the combat and racing and the immersiveness of the experience had me hooked. Sleeping Dogs was no where on my radar before, now I am eagerly awaiting it’s release date. Sleeping Dogs will be released on PC, PS3, and Xbox 360 in August 2012.