Sleeping Dogs [Interview] – From True Crime to Hong Kong
For a game that hasn’t enough come out yet, Sleeping Dogs has seen its far share of drama. Originally developed under the moniker of Black Lotus, then (in Activision’s infinite wisdom) changed to True Crime: Hong Kong, it now finds itself under Square Enix’s umbrella as Sleeping Dogs.
We talk to Square Enix London’s Alastair Cornish about that very journey, as well as what changes the game has seen since being bought by Square and how well the game is likely to do in the ultra competitive ‘open world’ genre.
IncGamers: When Square Enix originally took on Sleeping Dogs it was known as True Crime: Hong Kong (a game that Activision dropped) , what has changed about it since you took over?
Alastair Cornish: Quite a bit. The first thing that’s worth pointing out is that when we first saw the title we were scratching our heads trying to figure out what Activision were playing at because we thought it was in great shape.
It’s also worth noting that the game didn’t start life as a True Crime title, it started as its own thing and Activision then went and put the label on it afterwards.
I think the principal thing we gave the developers (United Front Games) was more time, as well as help them identify the areas that were looking great – the crown jewels of the game, if you will. Sometimes when you’re too close to title internally you can’t see the wood for the trees and you don’t really recognise some of the core strengths.
Then, having just come off of Batman: Arkham Asylum and Just Cause 2, we brought some experience with open world games and how the world works. Really, though, they already had a great handle on that and it was just a case of little bits of advice here and there to fine tune it.
IG: Any specific features been added since Square’s involvement?
AC: The biggest thing is probably the social side, there wasn’t too much of that. Now you can see what your friends have done and challenge their high scores and best times in races or jumps or wheelies or whatever.
That means that whenever you’re messing around in the world or completing missions you’re also going up against your friends if you want to.
IG: Why no real-time multiplayer? Almost every other game now seems to include it in some form as a required feature.
AC: We just really wanted to focus on creating a compelling single player story, because story is a really big part of this. For some open world games, like Just Cause 2, it was less about story and more about the emergent gameplay and its sandbox nature.
This is a really gritty undercover cop story aimed at adults, and that’s what our focus is on and we want to make it the best it can possibly be. At the same time we’ve still got those social aspects, because we know some people want to be able to see how others are doing in relation to themselves.
At the end of the day though, any time and effort you put into multiplayer will take away from another mode.
IG: The combat is a little similar in approach to Batman: Arkham Asylum and there are some moves (jumping between cars, for example) that have an element of Just Cause about them, are those things that were there when Square picked up the game? Or are those things your influence?
AC: The free running elements (including sliding over cars, vaulting objects, running through crowds) were already there, but we did help bring it to the fore a little more. We thought that those things are not something you see all that often in open-world games, especially executed to this level of quality, so we encouraged UFG to bring that out more.
With the melee combat, the designers have fantastic heads on their shoulders (some of them worked on Jackie Chan’s Adventures back in the day) and the combat was looking great when we first saw it.
Really we just helped identify the strengths of the game and try to bring those to the front and help balance them with one another. Our experiences on the likes of Arkham Asylum and Just Cause have helped, but Sleeping Dogs is very different to those – it’s much grittier and I think people will be able to relate to it more given the modern day setting and the ability to improvise.
IG: With so much competition in the open-world genre, are you worried that it’s going to be difficult to stand out against established franchises?
AC: I think that’s a fair point, but there are areas of Sleeping Dogs that it does better than anyone else and I think we can own those.
The combat, for example, you don’t really get that anywhere. The same with the free running and how that flows into the rest of the game, both in and out of combat.
Plus, undercover cops as the focus of the story… that has been represented a lot in film but not so much in games, and that allows us to concentrate on themes such as the constant fear of discovery and trying to balance how deep into the criminal world you go while still playing the cop.
Same for Hong Kong, that hasn’t been seen much in games. It’s a great place to explore and doing it within our driving setup is great because our driving experience is, we think, second to none in this genre.
Don’t get me wrong, I love GTA as much as the next person but there’s a lot of compromise in open-world games. Often the world is really big but the melee isn’t good, or isn’t there at all. The same with shooting, in GTA the shooting has gradually gotten better as the series as evolved but the melee is still not as good as it could be.
In Sleeping Dogs we wanted all of those areas to be great and comparable to other games that really focus on them. For example, I think our shooting is as good as dedicated third-person shooters.
IG: How difficult is it to blend all of the game’s elements – melee, gun fights, racing, story etc – into a cohesive whole without it feeling as though you’re playing a collection of smaller games?
AC: That’s one of the things we’re proudest of, how it all flows together. At any point you could be running down a street, jump over some cover, kick someone in the face in mid-air, take their weapon, shoot someone else, take a seat in a car, hijack another car at 60 mph and escape. And that’s all completely one fluid thing, the controls don’t change in each moment and there’s no ‘locking’ you into a certain mode for each different bit.
Basically, there’s no thought process of “now I’m in the shooting bit, now I’m in the driving bit” when you’re playing, it’s all one thing.
IG: Roughly how big is the world in comparison to the likes of perhaps GTA or Just Cause? And are you locked into certain areas before you can progress to the rest of the world?
AC: You’re never locked into specific areas. The closest you get to that is the intro mission which teaches you the ropes and how to play. After that the whole of Hong Kong is open and you can go out and do whatever you like.
In terms of size I don’t have exact numbers, but it’s not as big as Just Cause 2 which was more about a giant open-world. Sleeping Dogs is more about having things very densely packed, which is just what Hong Kong is like – there are vendors to buy things from, thugs to sort out, collectables to find, missions to take, races to do, cars to steal and all manner of other things.
It’s not based exactly on the real Hong Kong, it’s more about providing the feel of the real place with different areas feeling very unique. The layout is more about making sure the gameplay is going to be as fun as possible, while looking very authentic.
IG: It’s a very cinematic approach that you’re taking with a focus on the narrative, characters, cut-scenes, specific themes and even the combat looks very much like a Korean or Hong Kong film from John Woo or starring Tony Lau. Any specific influences there?
AC: Yeah, in a lot of ways it is a love letter to Hong Kong cinema and it wears its influences on its sleeves. Infernal Affairs (later adapted into Scorsese’s The Departed), Triad Election, lots of John Woo stuff and, specifically with the kung-fu, a lot of Jet Li and Jackie Chan influences.
It doesn’t really base itself on one movie, it’s more influenced by the whole vibe of that scene.