Whilst the majority of the gaming world eagerly awaits the arrival of Grand Theft Auto V,, the folks at United Front Games have been quietly working hard on their own open-world title. Sleeping Dogs (formerly known as True Crime: Hong Kong) might not be getting the same attention as Rockstar Games’ behemoth, but that’s not to say it doesn’t deserve at least some of it, especially if the preview code is anything to go by.
With the intention of showcasing three facets of Sleeping Dogs’ gameplay, melee combat, gunplay and driving, the demo (taken from alpha code) begins by thrusting the protagonist and undercover cop Wei Shen into the bustling side streets of Hong Kong. Littered with stalls selling various goods, neon lights and the chatter of plenty of non-playable characters (NPC), the area feels alive. Walk towards a NPC and he or she will talk to you, especially if they happen to be running one of the many stalls scattered around the area. The owner will try and get you to purchase noodles, an offer that you might actually want to take up. Why? Well, eating noodles purchased from a stall or a downing a drink from a nearby vending machine will give Shen a temporary buff such as increased damage when partaking in melee combat.
Staying with the first section of the demo, the objective is to search the area for a target (Wang) and then take him down. Finding him is the first part, a somewhat difficult task in such crowded area of Hong Kong. Thankfully, help is at hand in the form of a stall owner, kindly pointing you in the direction of your target. It’s not a simple case of going up to him, having a chat and taking him down, far from it. The target decides to run, kicking off a scripted yet enthralling chase through the packed side streets of the city. If you’ve played any of the Assassin’s Creed titles, then you’ll be right at home with this mechanic in Sleeping Dogs. You chase after you’re target by pressing the sprint button, moving Shen around as various obstacles come in his way. Not all obstacles can be avoided by a simple flick of the analog stick though, for some you’ll have to tap the sprint button at the right time to smoothly climb or jump over. If you happen to tap the button slightly later than required, Shen will still perform the climb or jump, but he’ll struggle a little as he attempts to complete the action.
After a brief chase, you eventually catch up to your target, but he’s got some friends with him now. This is where one of the most impressive aspects of Sleeping Dogs gets to shine, the melee combat. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that most open world titles fail at delivering an engaging form of melee combat, even Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto is guilty of this. It seems like United Front Games will succeed where others failed to deliver, as the melee combat manages to be enjoyable yet incredibly brutal at the same time. The core mechanics are quite similar to the fantastic Batman games developed by Rocksteady, which shouldn’t come as a surprise seeing as Square Enix’s London studio had a hand in the creation of Arkham Asylum. You essentially have one attack button, tapping it will initiate a quick strike and holding it will see Shen perform slower but more powerful kick or punch. Enemy attacks can be countered by a press of another face button, with exclamation marks popping up above an opponents head when he is about to hit you. See, told you, it’s a very similar system to the recent Batman games. There is one major difference though, and it’s here where the melee combat takes a brutal turn.
To differentiate itself from Arkham Asylum or Arkham City, Sleeping Dogs introduces a grab mechanic to the melee combat. Initiated by a press of another face button when in close proximity to an enemy, Shen will grab him and certain parts of the environment will flash red. This indicates that you are able to use that part of the environment quite brutally against your captive opponent. Say a wall fan flashes red, you simply drag the enemy there, press the grab button again and bare witness to a gory finishing move. In the case of the wall fan, you’ll watch your opponent’s head be crushed into pieces, with no censorship of blood whatsoever. That’s just one of the many possibilities, as you can also thrust your enemy’s body through a pole or slice it in half courtesy of an electric saw. You will need to be careful when you grab an enemy to perform one of these environmental kills, as he’ll break free and attack you if he’s held for too long without any action.
After a couple of fights against multiple opponents, you eventually get your hands on your target and manage to take him out. That’s when the second section of the demo kicks off, requiring you to drive (more on this later) to a certain location in Hong Kong and meet up with a contact (Mr Tong). Upon reaching the meeting point things don’t go exactly as planned, and Shen is knocked out cold. Presumably a few hours later, he wakes up in dazed state with plenty of cuts and bruises on his face, but determined to escape and dish out some revenge. This is the cue for a quick time event to begin, as you furiously tap one of the face buttons to wrangle free of the rope tied around Shen’s wrists. Obviously, you eventually break free and take out a few enemies as you move through the dimly lit building site. One particular enemy gets the worst of it, as Shen takes him out mid-wee and then plunges his head into the toilet bowl. Nice, another example of Sleeping Dogs’ brutal, unrelenting approach to melee combat.
That approach doesn’t exactly get toned down as the demo continues, guiding Shen into another melee combat situation. Again, the mechanics remain exactly the same as before, but the game now introduces you to different types of enemies. You have the brawlers who pack a punch with their hits, and the grapplers who are intent on grabbing you so one of their friends can get a cheap shot or two in. The brawlers are best dodged or countered, whereas with the grapplers it’s always best to bash his friend with a couple of hits before you try and escape. Armed enemies also make an appearance, requiring you to jump over an object near them, get in a rough tackle and take their weapon for yourself. All three enemy types add a slight tactical element to the melee combat, requiring you to think occasionally rather than just bash two face buttons.
After smashing in a few enemy heads with your fists and feet, Shen finally gets his hand on a weapon, giving Sleeping Dogs a chance to show off its shooting mechanics and cover system. Not as finely tuned as Gears of War or Uncharted, the third-person shooting manages to be quite fun, retaining that Hong Kong cinema vibe that is pretty much present throughout the demo. This inspiration is most apparent in one very cool mechanic that allows you to go into slow motion mode for a few seconds as you vault over an object in the environment. You simply press the aim button as you jump over and Shen goes into super undercover cop mode (that’s not what it’s actually called), giving you a chance to assess your surroundings and take out enemies accordingly.
Apart from actually escaping, that’s it for that section of the demo, but before moving on to the final part, it would be only be right to talk about Sleeping Dogs’ XP system. Yes, an open world title with an RPG-like system, you read that correctly. Another indication that United Front Games are trying to do something ever so slightly different with their creation. The XP system is based around the story and situation Shen finds himself in, so it’s therefore broken down into three different parts – Face XP, Police XP and Triad XP. As you’d imagine, Police and Triad XP is given out when you perform positive acts in relation to either side, whereas Face XP covers your reputation and how you’re perceived by other characters. It’s an intriguing system and one that will only show its true colours when Sleeping Dogs is released in August rather than a short demo.
The final part of the demo sees Shen put the pedal to metal in a illegal street race, showcasing the game’s driving mechanics. Obviously, the experience doesn’t match up to the likes of realistic racers such as Gran Turismo or Forza Motorsport, but that’s not to say it isn’t fun. Whilst the handling is slightly loose at this early stage, the core experience is quite similar to the Need for Speed games developed by EA Black Box (Underground and Most Wanted in particular). Again, this is no real surprise or coincidence as the development team consists of people who once worked on those titles. In fact, the Sleeping Dogs development team also includes a few people who helped developed titles such as Saints Row, Prototype and Bully. If you take that information into account, it would be fair to say that United Front Games seem to know what they’re doing when it comes to developing that combines melee combat, gunplay and driving in an open world setting.
On that note, should you be looking forward to Sleeping Dogs? Yes, most definitely. If Grand Theft Auto V does indeed get released this year, that is sure to grab the headlines and attention, even Square Enix and United Front Games probably know that. However, Sleeping Dogs has immense potential to be the surprise hit of the year, a hidden gem even. Let’s just hope its polished up nicely before release.
NGB ANTICIPATION RATING
Sleeping Dogs is set to be released on August 17th for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC.