Platforms: PC | PS3 | Xbox 360 (reviewed)
Developers: United Front Games
Publishers: Square Enix
It's been a long, long road for The Game Formally Known As True Crime Hong Kong to get here. Originally an original IP with the title Black Lotus that emerged in 2009, Activision slapped the True Crime label onto the game, only for the publisher to drop the game two years later as a result of numerous delays and high development costs. Six months in the self-funded wilderness ensued before the game was eventually picked up again by Square Enix, and re-branded as Sleeping Dogs.
It's a twisted narrative that almost seems good enough to be movie-material, but the final chapter is yet to be written, and there are still obstacles in the way. The studio's first open-world title, Sleeping Dogs has taken a stuttering route to get here. But does the glass slipper fit? Is it the (fairly large) little game that could? In Activision we have the perfect pantomime baddie (only EA perhaps would have been better cast as the villain), a resurgent Square Enix attempting to play the role of talent-spotting saviours. But the epilogue is everything. Is the game actually any good? And will it sell?
However, we reviewers only have to concern ourselves with the former, and in order to do just that it's important to set aside Romantic notions and try to ignore this fairytale backstory. Thankfully, Sleeping Dogs looks set to give summer gamers something to be excited for.
At the game's core is the same basic formula by which all open-world games are made. To echo the word's of one of the game's producers, you run, you shoot, you drive, you fight. The fictionalised version of Hong Kong island is laid open for exploration - there are no boundaries in terms of where you can go from the start of the game - but the area itself is smaller than that of GTA IV. Those expecting an opus on the scale of Rockstar's will find themselves disappointed. Those of you, however, looking for a game with a little more character to it, are in for a treat.
Though the basic structure of Sleeping Dogs will seem familiar to most open world veterans, the focal points of development might raise some eyebrows. Though the lacking the fine details that one might associate with other pillars in this genre, and in spite of the fact that most of the missions require you to drive somewhere, or shoot people, or rough up others, or all of the above, the moment-to-moment gameplay feels, well, better than many of its competitors. No, you can't beat up a policeman with a purple dildo, but you can take on twelve guys at once, using the environment around you to your advantage, channelling the spirits of Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Tony Jaa, and Tony Cheung all at once.
The game eases you into it, with a combat system that will instantly put smiles on the faces of those who adore Rocksteady's Batman games. The X button in your main point of attack, with a grapple set to B, and a modifying sprint option available on A. But it's the Y utton that becomes your greatest friend, offering up the opportunity to counter the attacks of surrounding foes, before unleashing combos of your own. When your target is groggy and dazed, then comes the opportunity to grapple and drag them over to a glowing red point of interest, where a further tap of the B button with see you throw them into an electrical generator or bundle them into a dumpster, or later on in the game grind their faces into a circular saw or hang them from a meat hook.
There are people in the development team who've worked on Max Payne before, and it shows when the bullets start to fly. The cover system isn't perfect, which is a shame, but you'll only ever use it momentarily before timing a vault over your barricade, slipping into slo-mo bullet time, and using the lessened pace to line up a quartet of headshots. When you later unlock the ability to fling yourself horizontally out of vehicles, pumping bullets ahead of you in half-time as you glide through the air, odds are that you'll break out an a huge grin of satisfaction.
Oh, and then there's the vehicles themselves. The time spent working at Black Box on the Need For Speed series for some of the staff at United Front has not been wasted at all. For the first time in an open world game, the races are actually fun. The game basically spells it out for you too, in a similar manner to Ridge Racer Unbounded: hold the B button if you want to engage in some ridiculous drifting. This increase in core quality, combined with an ability to do a Rico Rodriguez-esque "action hijack" in which you leap from your car to a neighbouring vehicle, and the fact that shooting someone's tyres out immediately triggers another bubble of cinematically-framed slo-mo makes for some thrilling road-based encounters.
United Front have clearly done their homework, then; taking established trends and tuning them up a bit. But they break the mould when it comes to the story and its setting. It's nice to see a city like Hong Kong reimagined in HD, on a scale that promotes exploration both in terms of player activity and developer design. It's an area that feels alive and somewhat alien, a feeling aided by snippets of unexplained Cantonese here and there, diverse architecture that mixes ancient temples alongside vast, modern monoliths. Massage parlours sit down shady alleyways, with cooing girls outside; pork bun vendors will loudly tempt you to try their wares from their portable stalls on street corners; and, as you become more prominent in the local area, citizens will shout your name breathlessly before asking you for favours.
That name is Wei Shen, and it belongs to an undercover police officer, who has returned from a long stint in the States to the place where he grew up, tasked with the difficult mandate of helping to take down the Sun On Yee Triad from within. The duality of Wei's character permeates everything that he does. The Triad missions are fairly familiar, although there are one of two nice little twists such as rearranging the home of a heroin-addicted paranoiac, trading on his obsession with feng shui to make him believe that the spirits from beyond are displeased with him. After smashing a few vases, rotating his piano, and changing the time on his large clock, you have to sneak out past the guards, fast-talking your way past them with little QTEs.
The police missions, however, come in the form of multiple-part cases. You may have to break into a crime scene to photograph evidence, or triangulate a phone call to get a trace on a target, or break into a hospital in a doctor's uniform, persuade an official to go on break, and crack a safe containing medical records before that official returns. Each of the large districts – there are four: North Point, Aberdeen Island, Central, and Kennedy Town – are littered with areas notorious for drug busts, and one of the many little side missions involves going to these areas, clearing them of goons with your fists, hacking the security camera overlooking the meet point, and later identifying a supplier during a drug exchange.
It's easy for a man with two starkly contrasting masters to lose sight of himself – and indeed that forms much of the central conflict at the heart of Sleeping Dogs' - but although the player cannot directly affect the linear narrative with their choices, both a Police score and a Triad score will be issued at the end of relevant missions. Brutal kills, imaginative incorporation of Wei's surroundings, and general hellraising well boost the latter, with the former relying on you sticking within the confines of the law, penalising you for property damage, and the injuring and killing of civilians. It's a simple system that changes the way you play as there are ranks to be earned on both sides, and unlockable rewards as you rise through the levels. Side missions and favours done will boost your Face-ranking too, with increased levels of popularity bringing further enhancements. Wei's old kung-fu mentor will even offer to teach you new tricks, should you return his missing Jade statues, of course.
There's plenty to do, then, in the open world. But Square Enix have clearly made their mark too, pressing upon United Front games the importance of social online elements. If your friends have the game too, then there'll always be a score to beat or a lead to maintain. Every clean drive or speedy wheelie or pedestrian killing spree or consecutive abuses of parking meters will trigger a little alert in the bottom right hand corner, constantly encouraging you to just have a little play, and try to hit medal targets.
Sleeping Dogs is not a funny game. It makes no pretence at parody, and doesn't try to over-extend itself. Its world is an homage rather than a piss-take, and so it might be accused of taking itself a little too seriously at times. But it's also heavily engrossing, stuffed full of character, and, most importantly, lots of fun. There are rough parts that are to be expected with a debut in such a challengingly expansive genre. Wei's inability to holster a weapon, or indeed carry more than one, is a slight irritation, as is not being able to steal and stash cars (though that makes sense given his role). The free-running is pretty excellent, and pleasantly weighty – Wei feels solid and robust rather than lighter than air – but the lack of a dedicated jump button feels wrong at first. The combination of a locked-tight story and a central character with split-loyalties makes for plenty of player choice when it comes to gameplay, but little of any consequence outside of basic upgrades. The choices you make will affect Wei's efficiency, but little else that hasn't already been mapped out.
But these are minor criticisms, more than offset by the game's impressive list of positives. For every derivative moment, there's a pleasant surprise. For every core facet of gameplay that's been seen elsewhere, this game tries (and often succeeds) to do it better. It helps that the game is tighter than many of its peers, with the main story and major side missions clocking in at around 15 hours, but there are still plenty of things to find and favours to complete beyond that. It means that the pacing works nicely, that you never get bored and wander off – something that I'm not sure I could personally say about GTA IV.
Sleeping Dogs is not a game that will make your jaw drop, but it's more than just a summer diversion. You get the impression that a follow-up from United Front Games, and the developers admit that this was a learning experience for them, could be something really very special indeed, but that shouldn't put you off of this game. If you've ever moaned about the driving or the shooting or the hand to hand combat in an open-world crime title, this is going to be your salvation. Yes, there are still areas for improvement, and things can be further developed; no, it may not come with an enormous level of marketing bombast or a big name to help boost its credibility; but this is a game that quietly defies convention to deliver an open-world title that succeeds in making the everyday gameplay gripping - a taut timesink that delivers on all fronts.
- Fantastic core elements
- Cop/Triad ratings and social online features are fantastic
- Hong Kong is wonderfully realised
- Police case missions are great and varied
- Though some elements may seem awfully familiar to genre fans
- The main story itself could perhaps be a little better
- Navigation trail occasionally misleading
The Short Version: A mash-up of Infernal Affairs, the Yakuza series, and Streets of Rage, Sleeping Dogs is a rare beast: an open world game with a cracking combat system and excellent driving mechanisms. True, it might lean a little too heavily on its core systems at times, but an Eastern setting, fresh takes on familiar mission structures, and plenty of score chasing makes for a game that delivers where it counts. If there's any justice, it'll be a riotous summer smash hit.