Preview: Getting hands-on with SLEEPING DOGS feels like a minor miracle in itself; after all, this open world crime drama originally appeared under the title True Crime: Hong Kong before getting canned by then publisher Activision. Square Enix bought the rights to the game – but not its name – and it’s at their London HQ that we got to have a taste of what developer United Front Games has brought back from the brink.
We begin in what appears to be a police cell. A slim young man is being harassed by three much larger guys, but once they’ve stopped, he turns round to see another man. He recognises him, and they talk. The second man is Wei Shen, the protagonist of Sleeping Dogs – the new open-world crime-’em-up from United Front and Square Enix, and the game that used to be True Crime: Streets of Hong Kong.
The chat between the two old friends reveals he’s back in Hong Kong after spending many years in the United States. He and his friend Jackie reminisce about old times, before Jackie tells Wei he may be able to get him some work.
The next scene is set around a kitchen table. It’s clear this work is related to Hong Kong’s criminal underworld, but there’s still very much a family element to it, something United Front are keen to emphasise as they attempt to give Sleeping Dogs the gritty yet somewhat believable feel of certain TV crime dramas (I’m reminded particularly of The Sopranos). Shen is sent on the trail of a man called Ming, and this is where we take control of the action.
Hong Kong in HD
We’re in a Hong Kong marketplace. It’s dark, but the area is full of life with a carnival atmosphere. There’s a show on stage, people moving throughout the streets, and light everywhere. Following the waypoint, it’s slightly reminiscent of another Square Enix game title with a heavy focus on the Far East, Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Perhaps it’s all the bright yellow hues.
The marketplace sees various vendors selling their wares, which isn’t something just for show, as Shen can buy food and drinks which provide temporary boosts to abilities such as strength or health generation, both of which become useful later on in our time with the game.
Making our way through the busy streets, we speak to a man at a video stall who reveals where Ming can be found, which is fortunately just around the corner. Unfortunately, being a member of a rival gang, Ming isn’t too pleased and we make chase.
Rushing through the crowded streets, Shen demonstrates some free running skills as he clambers up walls, jumps over crates and ducks and dives in between people. There’s a contrast between the movement of the hunter and the hunted, with Ming barging people out of the way, to such an extent one bloke man gets pushed over a ledge to what we can only assume is his death. Meanwhile, controlling Shen, we slip and duck our way through the crowds: he’s an athletic man, clearly doing his best to avoid injury to bystanders.
Ming leads us into a trap at a dead-end. He flees, and leaves his thugs to do his dirty work, allowing us to get a feel for hand-to-hand combat in Sleeping Dogs. The influence ofthe Batman: Arkham games is immediately apparent, with fighting working in a very similar manner. Shen has three different basic attacks – strike, counter and grapple – so you’ll land punches and kicks before swinging around to divert opponents’ attacks back towards themselves (enemies glow red when there’s an attack incoming). Meanwhile, grapple allows you to hold an opponent and beat them before throwing them away.
The combat isn’t as fast as that of Arkham City, but it’s satisfying, arguably providing a brutal, more realistic take on hand-to-hand fighting. This particular combat section ends with a tutorial in using the environment, as Shen drags the last remaining thug towards a large wheelie bin, chucking him in and closing the lid.
The chase briefly resumes as we leap up a wall and onto the roof where Ming awaits. This time he stays, but he once again has backup and he’s armed with a knife. The thugs jump in first -a bad idea on their part given how the environment can be used to cause damage. Using grapple, it’s possible to drag an opponent across to an air vent and shove them in; they can be tackled onto the glass on the floor, while a grapple near the edge throws them off.
One particular environmental attack sticks in the mind, one that actually made me wince, with a thug’s face being introduced to a fan in a ventilation shaft. It was very bloody, much bloodier than the rest of Sleeping Dogs’ generally bloody combat. These four options are available to use in just one small section, leaving plenty of potential of environmental combat that that has a slight feel of 2008’s The Bourne Conspiracy videogame.
This section ends after taking down Ming, dodging his knife attacks using counters. At this point, we’re back to cutscenes, with armed police arresting Wei Shen and throwing him in jail. Next time we see him, he’s being interrogated by a female police officer, who’s overruled by a seemingly British superior who walks into the cell. Why? Because Shen is an undercover cop – so undercover, in fact, that only a handful of the Hong Kong police even know this information. And that’s where our time with the game ends.
In Sleeping Dogs, we’ll be tasked with diving into an underworld occupied by criminal gangs, in cover so deep that we’ll be committing crimes for the Sun On Yee. United Front promise us a plot that focuses on the moral struggle Wei Shen faces in this position. From this short taste, Sleeping Dogs seems to have more to offer than might initially meet the eye. It could be one of the sleeper hits of 2012.
Sleeping Dogs, from Square Enix and United Front Games, will launch in August 2012 for Xbox 360, PS3 and PC.