Waking Up to Sleeping Dogs

I was always a fan of the True Crime series and so, like many others out there, I was excited a couple of years ago when I heard that it was being brought back to life with a romp in Hong Kong. Then, unfortunately, after countless delays it had its plug pulled and was put on the shelf. But luckily, Square Enix saw the potential in this open world game and so their London Studios, with plenty of experience in the open world with Just Cause 2 and an assist on Batman: Arkham Asylum under their belt, felt they were ready to tackle this challenge with the game’s original developer, United Front Games. And boy, am I ever grateful for that after getting my first hands-on with the game this week.

Re-titled Sleeping Dogs, the game follows undercover cop Wei Shen who, after joining the Hong Kong police force after a stint in the United States, is tasked with infiltrating one of the most cut throat organizations underneath the Triad umbrella and taking them down from within. Inspired by Hong Kong movies like Infernal Affairs (which would later inspire Martin Scorsese’s Oscar winning movie The Departed), the folks at United Front Games wanted to bring that realistic grit and grime into the a game world while keeping up a pace of action fit for a martial arts masterpiece.

And there looks to be a ton of action it looks like in Sleeping Dogs as we were able to go hands-on with a pair of levels. The first was a street race to let us know that even in the crowded and cramped streets and alleyways of Hong Kong, there is still plenty of driving to do in the game. After ramming several opponents off the road and taking first place in what was a satisfyingly smooth handling sports car, we got out from behind the wheel and were ready to really get our hands dirty though.

In this level, we were attempting to earn the trust of some of the Triad lieutenants and so had to shake down someone who had missed a payment of his protection money. Moving through a crowded marketplace, we quickly came upon our mark. When we explained to him who we were, he bolted and a free-running sequence fit for an Assassin’s Creed game began. Immediately the interactive environments were revealed to us as I kicked a crate of oranges out of the way and each one bounced independent of each other down a flight of stairs. As I kept the runner in my sights, our climbing skills were also put to test. Unlike in Assassin’s Creed, to help convey that sense of realism and interaction, instead of automatically overcoming objects in your path, you actually have to press the jump button at the right time to run up walls or vault dumpsters. Otherwise, you’ll still traverse your obstacle, but the animation will change and you’ll be slowed as your poor game reflexes will also directly affect how Wei handles this in game. If successful, you’ll maintain speed. If not, Wei will humorously flop for a moment before regaining his composure.

Once we caught up to the runner, a handful of his friends came out of the woodwork and we were going to finally put our combat skills to the test. With clear influence from the work Square Enix London did on Batman: Arkham Asylum, a similar two button combat system was in place here. One button was for attacks, the other for counters. What was new here though was that if you grabbed an opponent, the world lit up in a flash of red, pointing out what was interactive in the environment to instantly take out a thug if we could drag them over to it. From frying them in an electric panel, to tossing them into an open dumpster, the options were near endless and I replayed the level just to make sure I interacted with every possible item I could.

“You look at a lot of Hong Kong action movies and one of the hallmarks is that they never stop. The action never stops and its flowing, very fluid. You have a lot of people running around moving to fight or take action in the scene. And one of the key things is seeing how they bring the environment into play.  Picking up objects very quickly that they can use as weapons or just the environment in general is a weapon. So we wanted to extend that core philosophy to the game. The thing is almost that the more mundane the object, the cooler it becomes because you never stop to think about how deadly some of these everyday objects can be. So everyone has a car, but smashing someone’s head three times in the door before delivering a final kick, is really going to do some damage. So it’s all there really just to help keep the combat flowing and interesting,” said United Front Games Executive Producer Stephen Van Der Mescht in a brief interview with EGM, speaking about how important environment interaction was for them in this game.

Of course, if I didn’t want to use the environment, or was too far our of place to reach my desired target, the kung-fu Wei uses felt just as fluid as Batman did in the Arkham games as I strung together a brutal string of punches, kicks, and counters that left my foes broken, bruised, and battered. And without Batman’s moral compass, with me at Wei’s helm, I often left a scene behind that would require numerous body bags as I threw guys off high rises, turned their own lethal weapons against them, or smashed them face-first into rooftop fans that gave me just enough gore to feel more satisfied than disgusted.

Although our time with Sleeping Dogs was short, there was a lot there that had me very excited to see how the game would play out. Smooth flowing and rewarding action sequences worthy of the Hong Kong cinema that inspired them, high-speed car chases, and a deep, gritty, and compelling story that looks devoid of the fantastical that occasionally seeped into the original True Crime games has me feeling that Sleeping Dogs is not a game you should sleep on this summer.