Open-world crime games are inevitably held up to the mighty Grand Theft Auto series, generally unfavourably, for good reason.
Rockstar's flagship series forever holds a place in the hearts of countless gamers the world over for consistently getting things right. Imitators come and go, but none really hold a flame to GTA.
So what has Sleeping Dogs got that GTA doesn't? Quite a lot, I’m happy to say.
The Hong Kong triad setting is very well realised and a massive change from the usual New York, LA and Miami settings of GTA. The emphasis on martial arts and complex hand-to-hand action is very different from GTA’s machine-gun and rocket launcher-focused combat. There’s also, arguably, a more cinematic set of sensibilities used in Sleeping Dogs.
Oh, one other thing, there’s no annoying idiots constantly hitting you up to go bowling or eating in Sleeping Dogs, and that’s pretty sweet.
Like a lot of boys who came of age in the '90s, I watched a lot of John Woo and Jackie Chan movies and they left a big mark on my pop culture identity. Sleeping Dogs is to those movies what Need for Speed: Underground was to the first two Fast and Furious films. It plays like an interactive, modern-day HK crime flick with a lot of obvious influences which will please fanboys.
But don’t worry, if you’re one of the few people reading this article that has never played a GTA game or watched a Hong Kong action film, you’ll probably still enjoy Sleeping Dogs. It kicks ass.
Publishers Namco Bandai state the following of the game:
“In the stylised, high-action Hong Kong setting of Sleeping Dogs, every street corner, market stall, harbour dock or city skyscraper can become an opportunity for intense shoot-outs, adrenaline-fuelled street races and intense, brutal martial arts combat as players take on the role of undercover cop Wei Shen. Featuring an intuitive and imaginative combat system, Sleeping Dogs empowers players to perform an extensive set of martial arts moves, single-handedly taking on numerous opponents. Players perform bone-crushing kicks and combos, vicious counters and a cinematic set of environmental takedowns making use of countless real-world items.”
Although fistfights are emphasised, there's quite a bit of gunplay to enjoy too. The firearms all have fairly limited ammo and basically serve as a combat power-up, but there are a lot of thrills to be had with them too. As you're normally outnumbered, using cover is a major part of the gun battles in a way that felt more similar to an Uncharted game than GTA. There is a pretty cool twist though - with the click of a button, you enter Hong Kong cinema mode, a 'bullet-time' type slow-motion effect that has Wei jumping over his cover and shooting down his enemies John Woo movie-style. There’s no doves flying away but it does feel like you’re in a scene from Hard Boiled.
I can't remember if the firearms were branded or not, but I think they were your bog-standard semi-automatic pistol, sub-machine-gun, assault rifle and shotgun affair. The controls were intuitive, accurate and for third-person shooter action, it was all very satisfying.
The Hong Kong setting is deeply immersive. I am slightly miffed that only some of the dialogue is in Cantonese and the majority in English – I’d rather original dialogue and subtitles for full immersion, but the voiceover acting is still solid and wasn't distractingly bad at any time that I saw. There are a lot of sights and sounds that help make it feel like you're in Hong Kong. The neon lights, the incense, the noodles, the dingy apartment buildings, the congested streets... it's fantastic. The graphics are well-polished and very pretty, and the sound design is impressive too.
Driving around Hong Kong in various vehicles is also a big part of the game. Need for Speed developers Black Box had a hand in the driving parts of the game, resulting in some suitably blockbuster, arcade racer-style action. I didn't get to take part in a street race segment the developers have teased, but I look forward to doing so.
Shooting while driving is a feature of any open-world crime game and is often a difficult one to pull off. Being limited to two analogue sticks and a few buttons makes it all a bit difficult, but Sleeping Dogs has a neat way around this. Once again, you can enter 'Hong Kong cinema mode'. While driving, this kicks in slow-motion once more, but also puts the car driving on auto-pilot for a brief period and allows you (and the control pad's capabilities) to be entirely focused on shooting. It works really well, making it more fun than usual and adding to the overall cinematic feel.
In a segment where I was chasing a dude on foot through side-streets, the camera followed as it would in any third-person game, but somehow it felt more cinematic than similar segments of GTA. I guess it's just slight differences in the game engine, or maybe I just imagined I was seeing it, but a great deal of Sleeping Dogs really did feel like it had been directed by someone with a background more in film than in videogames.
One of the first things I did in the game was try on different outfits from Wei's wardrobe. This doesn't just give cosmetic results - different costumes give different realistic bonuses. For example, wearing a business suit will get you a discount when buying certain items and so on.
Wei’s role as an undercover police officer is a great basis for an interesting gameplay element. You gain police XP, triad XP and face XP through different actions in the game and excelling in each area provides unique bonuses. From what I played, I'm not sure how each XP stream will affect the others, but I hope they do, so you can't max out all three and have to make hard decisions as a result. I also can't say yet if the XP stream that you excel in allows storyline differences to the others, but again, I hope so.
It would be a bit of a waste making a sandbox crime game that's as good looking and fun to play as this and give it a linear storyline. I really hope that you get to choose how to play the game and those choices do have serious effects, rather than just choosing mission B before A and C.
Using Wei's mobile phone is an important feature in the game and the integration of it is really cool. I popped GTA IV on last night to reminisce and boy oh boy, the mobile you had in that feels Jurassic in comparison. In Sleeping Dogs not only does it look prettier and integrate better, you have a heap of super tech incorporated into it care of Wei's association with the police. This comes in real handy when you have to, say, track down someone’s precise location in a bustling Hong Kong district.
The game is not without its problems. The driving physics are very forgiving, although they're more than functional for a sandbox crime game. In keeping with the 'Hong Kong cinema influence' mantra they're totally acceptable too. I mean, if you can accept having the ability to change time to slow-motion and beat to death gangs upon gangs of armed thugs single-handedly, you should be able to accept unrealistic cornering abilities in a car.
The biggest concern for me during the hands-on experience was how groups of enemies sometimes behaved in a fight. Basically, most of them stood around waiting to be beaten up. Again, this is a problem carried over from kung fu movies. If there's 15 bad guys versus the hero, why don't they all charge at once? Because that would screw up the flow of the movie/game.
I'm only stating these negatives to try and be completely fair. I really loved the hands-on session and cannot wait to play through the campaign completely. I've no idea how long it will take to complete or how many different outcomes there will be depending on how you play through it, but I'm absolutely positive I'll play it all the way through more than once. When you have more than one game turn up on your desk a week at work, that's saying something.
Sleeping Dogs is set to be released in September on the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and PC.
The Good: An interactive, modern-day HK crime flick
The Bad: Only some of the dialogue is in Cantonese
The Ugly: Simplistic AI is unrealistic