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Sleeping Dogs [Preview] – Undercover in an open-world

23 May 2012  by   John Robertson
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The last time we saw Sleeping Dogs we were walked through specific areas of the world in a very hand-holdy fashion, shown bits of the game that displayed its supposed diversity and ticked the open-world boxes. We were privy to snippets of story missions, the combat, the street racing and the basics of the reputation system.
For a game quick to boast about its open-world, go-anywhere-do-anything elements, the demo (while interesting) failed to provide a taste of freedom. This new demo aims to set that right. Set loose in the North Point area of Sleeping Dogs’ part-reality, part-fictional Hong Kong we’re given free rein to do as we please.
One of four major districts in the game, North Point is home to those less affluent members of the city’s society. Markets flogging knock-off brands, shops selling knock-off pharmaceuticals, dangerous alley ways, congregations of gangs and seedy massage parlours dominate much of the area’s scenery, while the bright lights and skyscrapers of the commercial district stand like titans in the background; reminding you of who are the haves, and who are the have-nots.

As undercover cop Wei Shen we indulge in North Point in roughly two hours of soaking up the sights. Like the majority of open-world games, Sleeping Dogs uses a map (and mini-map) to show the location of events, missions, side-missions, shops, mini-games etc. North Point being an area of Triad activity, and us being an undercover cop, our first port of call is to bust a drug dealer thought to be operating on a certain street corner.
This involves beating the crap out of the thugs that guard the place, before hacking a security terminal to get the road’s CCTV camera up and running again. In a nifty bit of tech-adoption, Wei can view any re-activated cameras from the comfort of his own safe house on a fancy flat screen TV. After watching a drug deal go down, we pin point the dealer and watch as uniformed officers arrest him.
Our TV showed nine camera spots for North Point, so other CCTV based missions are sure to feature. Busting the dealer earned us ‘cop points’, which can be used to unlock abilities on the cop portion of the skill tree. Cop skills seem to focus on, unsurprisingly, your ability to perform your undercover duties more effectively. We unlocked a perk that meant cops would call off pursuits involving Wei sooner than they otherwise would. Remember, your average Joe cop doesn’t know were undercover and one of the good guys.

There are also skill trees for melee (new moves), Triad (improved weapon damage), Face (reputation around town – leading to cheap prices in shops) and Health. How you unlock items in each tree differs; melee moves, for example, are unlocked by finding hidden jade statues around town and returning them to your kung-fu master who repays you by teaching you a new attack. Triad skills are unlocked by completing Triad missions, while Face EXP is awarded for going good in the community (i.e. getting rid of criminal activity on your own time, away from main missions) and changing your attire to blend in with the area you’re in.
But who cares about all of that when you can grab yourself a happy ending from a massage parlour, bet on cock fights and go clothes shopping? Sleeping Dogs steers clear of showing any actual ‘action’ but a visit to a massage parlour does reward you with an increase in Face and recognition from the girls that work there if you return. It’s always nice to be wanted, even if it’s for your money.  
Cock fighting is a simple mini-game in which you bet on one of two cockerels and watch them battle to the death. Precede it with a trip to a massage parlour and it makes for a nice combination of pleasure of pain. There are an abundance of clothes shops in the North Point area, from the night market selling dodgy (but cheap) items to the more expensive fashionista hubs selling the real deal.

In an interesting play on the dress-up-doll idea, wearing a complete ‘set’ of clothes provides you with a performance buff – i.e. 5 per cent more melee damage, 10 per cent more face etc. While the idea is intriguing, it does limit what you’re happy wearing. Personally, I forewent the stat increases just so I could wear the tacky combination of bright orange track pants, white vest and vivid green trucker cap. Nothing says living-on-the-edge like a vivid green trucker cap, just ask the east London crowd.
Shops’ opening times (be it clothes stores, drug stores or grocers) are dictated by a day/night cycle, meaning you’ll need to plan your visit. In addition, a dynamic weather system helps to make the place seem more alive and includes rain effects that border on monsoon but look mighty impressive.
And there’s a lot more besides, other events in our two hours in the world included entering a six-round Triad fighting tournament, trying to beat the others in the demo room in a long jump contest with a motorbike and a dirt ramp, sailing a fishing boat off the coast, cruising highways in a hijacked car while the owner was locked away in the trunk and chasing a pickpocket who attempted to steal our wallet. He ended up being thrown from a bridge onto a busy road. Joke’s on him.

Combat is similar to that of Batman: Arkham Asylum/City in that it’s centred around attacking and counter-attacking. However, whereas as Batman will go out of his way not to harm his opponents too badly, Wei doesn’t bat an eyelid when it comes to breaking their arms, snapping their necks, jamming them into circular saws and, as the image above shows, spiking them on meat hooks. This is not a game for your little girl.
Of course, this being an open-world game, we ended things with a rampage through the world; killing as many innocents as possible while trying to stay one step ahead of the boys in blue. Because the world is so busy, and mixes old, narrow streets with modern, wide highways, finding people to run over, bludgeon, shoot and kung-fu not an issue. On a single drive through North Point’s main shopping district, we must have splattered at least 100 people on our bonnet.
Once that car had gotten too messy for our tastes it was a simple job of leaping from your car, onto the roof of another and slipping in through the window while the thing is still moving. It’s all very Die Hard and Just Cause 2.
While Sleeping Dogs is an interesting concept, the big question looming over its head is whether it’s going to manage to find an audience in the face of the ever growing shadow of GTAV. Square Enix doesn’t need GTA numbers to make good on their investment, but they don’t want to see a complete flop either.
Like we said in our previous preview, the sheer amount being crammed into this game shows a great deal of ambition – in a way, it seems as though United Front Games and Square Enix are trying to improve on all the elements that Rockstar abandoned with GTA IV, in favour a story drive approach. For trying to bring that spirit back, Sleeping Dogs deserves a chance. 
 

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