Sleeping Dogs [Preview] – Cops and Triads27 Mar 2012
Hong Kong is by no means the most common setting in videogames and, after a few hours in the world of Sleeping Dogs, it’s difficult to understand just why it has been overlooked for so long.
Visually, the streets, districts and mountainous backdrop are stunning. One moment you find yourself in the busy hustle and bustle of back street markets, dodgy garages and shops selling all kinds of ‘exotic’ meats. The next you’re downtown in the financial district amid near-futuristic skyscrapers, luxury underground private car parks and a sea of clean pavement and polished tarmac.
Perhaps it’s the difficulty in pulling off that diversity that has steered developers clear of the city in the past, perhaps it’s a lack of interest among consumers or perhaps it’s just New York and Los Angeles are more recognisable on the box art.
No matter what the reason, creating a virtual Hong Kong seems like an ambitious undertaking.
Although, what’s more ambitious is the game United Front Games (UFG) are attempting to cram into the city. The game formerly known as True Crime: Hong Kong, Sleeping Dogs is attempting to be open-world playground, sports car racer, third-person shooter, third-person fighter and free-running assault course all wrapped into one. Clearly, the trick here is how to blend all of those elements into one seamless whole. As soon as one element feels disconnected from another, it’ll feel as though you’ve suddenly moved onto a different game.
UFG seems to be confronting that issue by removing any potential barriers that might act as bookmarks between each gameplay scenario. Playing as undercover cop Wei Shen, you go from foot-chases through busy markets to fights with low-level triads to armed shoot-outs and car chases without so much as a cut-scene, loading screen or controller-layout change to separate the action.
Being thrown into the game as we were with little to no understanding of the controls or story is undeniably a daunting task, and we found ourselves struggling to get to grips with the pace and smorgasbord of gameplay mechanics. That’s not to say the controls are difficult, it’s just that there’s a lot to take in.
An hour or so later and we’re vaulting over obstacles, punching a guy in the face while we’re still in mid-air, taking his gun and shooting his buddy in the face. Jackie Chan eat your heart out.
Talking of eating hearts out…
Sleeping Dogs is one violent little terrier of a game. Over the course of a single five minute fight against multiple thugs we’d fed someone’s face into a circular saw, electrocuted another against an exposed fuse box, shoved someone else into an industrial-sized central fan and thrown multiple guys off the rooftop.
There’s no way around it, even in this day and age of ‘mature’ videogame content, the violence is shocking. However, and this will perhaps become a key point in the ‘feel’ of the game, it never feels gratuitous. At least, what we’ve played doesn’t.
Wei Shen’s kung-fu moves and monkey-like agility might look like something from a John Woo or Jet Li movie, but cinematically the violence has more in common with Quentin Tarantino or Howard Hawks. That’s thanks to a pace that prevents any lingering, gore-porn framing of busted heads or crippled bodies.
As soon as one guy has been dispatched it’s on to the next one, or it’s time to go free-running from danger, or hijack a car at 60mph while jumping from a moving motorbike or some other act of daredevil tomfoolery.
Like in real-life (and the movies of the aforementioned directors), violence is sudden and brutal rather than slow and celebratory. It’s that which gives it a feeling of maturity, rather than one of childish preoccupation with digitalised suffering.
As far as the combat’s gameplay goes, there are similarities to be drawn to Rocksteady’s Batman games. A simple input system of grabs, counters and attacks allows for a free-flowing pace that provides genuine opportunity to end encounters without taking a single point of damage. There’s no pretending that the combat we’ve seen from Sleeping Dogs thus far is as precise as the stringed combos possible when in control of the Caped Crusader, but then again, UFG have got time left to polish things up.
Where things don’t feel like Batman are during the free-running moments which seem to be going for a sense of drama and excitement over decision making or skill-based inputs. Mention free-running and we tend to gravitate towards comparisons with Assassin’s Creed, but there’s really no connection between the styles of Ezio and Shen.
Scrambling up fences and walls, sliding under railings and vaulting market stalls are all performed with the same single, well-timed press of a button. Many of these actions are accompanied by a change in camera angle designed to maximise the cinematic effect and/or to give you a better idea of where your target is heading.
When you’re not flying through Hong Kong on foot, tearing around its roads under the wheel or putting a beat down on its thugs, there are moments that allow you to sit back and simply enjoy the scenery and the open-world system. Between story missions there are plenty of jobs (read: side missions) to do around the community that will endear you to its inhabitants and raise your status as someone that can be trusted and relied upon.
The trick for UFG will be to incorporate these moments into the main narrative in such a way that makes them feel worthwhile. More than any other genre, open-world games of this type make themselves easy examples for the inability of videogames to successfully combine player choice and worthwhile narrative.
In Sleeping Dogs’ case, given the obvious cinematic influences, such a critique would surely be especially painful for the creative team.
What’s for sure, though, is that if Sleeping Dogs can provide an undercover cop story as engaging as Infernal Affairs, action scenes as thrilling as The Killer or Rumble in the Bronx and something as visually intriguing as anything by Wong Kar-Wai then it’ll be one hell of an accomplishment.
Sleeping Dogs’ ambition is so lofty that you can’t help but root for it.