In a genre crowded with kitchen sink design, Sleeping Dogs is a rare gem indeed: an open-world game that knows what it is, what’s it doing, and how to present it to you.
The game formerly known as True Crime: Hong Kong, although originally conceived independent of the franchise.
Picked up by Square Enix for multiplatform publication later this year.
Developer United Front Games includes veterans EA Black Box, Rockstar Vancouver, Radical Entertainment and Volition Inc.
Protagonist Wei Shen, an undercover cop on a mission to infiltrate the Triads, isn’t the only one caught between the two worlds of Sleeping Dogs. Two different cinematic streams of gang epic and cop story seem fused together at every level, from cosmetic options in Wei Shen’s wardrobe choices to the cinematographic choices in cutscenes – and perhaps most importantly, in gameplay.
As players progress through the game’s missions, they earn Face XP experience and unlock new abilities, but two additional experience streams reward behaviour appropriate to Wei Shen’s status as a criminal thug and a member of law enforcement. Take down an enemy in a brutal and stylish fashion, and you’ll get Triad XP points to spend on new, more egregiously violent capacities, but if you really cut loose, damaging property, harming innocent bystanders and making unnecessary kills, you’ll eat into your Police XP bonus.
As a player, juggling these two somewhat oppositional performance guidelines echoes Wei Shen’s attempt to juggle his conflicting loyalties and pull off a deep undercover operation.
“If you play it properly, you can ace both of those scores for a particular mission,” United Front Games told us at a preview event.
“It might be a gunfight on a street, a Heat-style set up like a Michael Mann film. There’s all these pedestrians caught in the crossfire and if you happen to take those people out or any of those people are taken hostage, for example, that would eat into your Police XP score.
“But if you are careful in that environment, you can get the full cop score. We try to bring a lot of these situations into the game. We have a dynamic hostage mode where enemies can take innocents hostage and bring them round as hostage, and you have a short window where you can take the enemy out or risk damaging the hostage. You might wanna get that headshot so you can get a better Triad score – but, that can be at the risk of harming someone else.”
On top of Police and Triad XP, the player has a third value to juggle when approaching a set piece: the option to build his Intimidation metre. Violent or frightening acts make it slightly more likely that enemies will become intimidated by Wei Shen’s appearance on a scene, becoming weaker and more passive, or even running away.
The better the player’s Face or overall XP, the more interesting effects all three of these additional scales will have, afford possibility of multiple approaches to missions, and perhaps even unique builds for every player.
Somehow, these myriad conflicting systems actually come together to seem less confused and more authentic than many sandbox games, in which the capacity for random violence and mayhem seem strongly at odds with the tone of the storytelling.
Perhaps this unusual coherence is the result of United Front’s solid core vision. The atmosphere, aesthetic and story of Sleeping Dogs is as core as its robust gameplay mechanics, and deeply rooted in the company’s love for Hong Kong action cinema – first and foremost. The genre’s wide blend of styles gives the team room to be both serious and playful, without descending into camp or cheap laughs.
“We’ve been inspired by a number of different sources, and looking at Hong Kong cinema films of the last few years, a lot of them have really mature and gritty subject matter,” the developer told us.
“That’s probably where we draw a lot of inspiration for the story from. But at the same, it’s an open-world game where you’re in Hong Kong – we wanted to keep a certain amount of fun and even absurdity in the world, in the things the player can do, and in some of the side content.”
One example is a mission in which Wei Shen must fight a group of monks in a temple, which seems at odds with the modern day setting, but will is a trope instantly familiar to Hong Kong cinema fans.
It all adds up to a game with a unique and strangely consistent flavour, notably distinct from competing titles. That said, Sleeping Dogs follows a strong tradition of open-world gaming by showing colour in less serious ways – as for example my visit to a shop noted on my mini map by an icon in the shape of a pair of hands. After examining the decor and pastel signage carefully, I concluded that I had stumbled across a massage parlour.
“Those are a feature of Hong Kong, so we wanted to be a little bit cheeky and put them there,” United Front confirmed.
“There are advantages, though, to the player; there is some kind of buff. A confidence boost. There are different styles of massage parlour in there as well.”
A hint of laughter answered my unspoken question as to whether we were talking massage parlours or, you know, massage parlours. While United Front wouldn’t go into details on what actually happens when the player purchases a massage, the developer is adamant that the inclusion won’t cause any trouble, specifically noting that there is no mini-game, as in the Yakuza series, and no leftover code to be found by eager modders – a reference to the Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas “Hot Coffee” scandal.
And that’s good news, because Sleeping Dogs deserves to make headlines on its own merits, not as a vehicle for controversy or as “that game Activision cancelled”. Square Enix has thrown the book at Sleeping Dogs, bringing in some of its best western talent, and it certainly shows. The combat is highly reminiscent of Batman: Arkham Asylum, but perhaps even more fluid, and packing some epic martial arts moves that would make Bruce Wayne wince. The open-world mayhem takes nods from Just Cause 2, with seamless vehicle transitions and literally explosive, high speed action. Add that onto United Front’s own impressive experience with racing and open-world games, and what seems to be a genuinely mature story, and you have something pretty exciting.
Sleeping Dogs releases in mid-August on PC, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360.