Though it shames me to say it, I entered our meeting with the Square Enix people not knowing very much about Sleeping Dogs, except that you are supposed to let them lie. I was thus completely in the dark when the Square Enix rep brought me in and sat me down with an Xbox 360 controller in my hand. I learned quite a bit.
Sleeping Dogs is an open world game that combines several tried and true elements, but does so in with some very novel and well-executed twists. It is set in Hong Kong, and follows the exploits of an undercover cop attempting to infiltrate the Triads from the lowest level. The version of Hong Kong represented in the game is as faithful as the game makers could manage without sacrificing gameplay. All of the major named neighborhoods on the game map are tweaked versions of their real world counterparts, with changes made where necessary to improve the flow and intensity of the missions set within them. The developers didn’t just stop at the layout, though. Wherever possible they captured the feel and spirit of Hong Kong as well. Whether it is something as simple as the cars driving on the left instead of the right (which led me to very nearly smash head-on into a bus moments after getting into my car) or populating the streets with locals celebrating a festival with paper dragons and firecrackers, the setting is infused with authentic flavor. When you are essentially competing with Rockstar’s legendary conversion of NYC into Liberty City, you need to go big or go home, and from the looks of it Square Enix rose to the challenge.
Though the “infiltrating the criminal organization” plot is hardly untouched territory, it is worth pointing out that in the case of Sleeping Dogs, much of the story and plot is inspired by and paying homage to classic Hong Kong action films, notably Infernal Affairs. The devs are serious fans of the genre, and players who are familiar with the films will find no shortage of nods. Other clear inspirations are from such titans of action as John Woo, who makes his presence felt in much of the gameplay.
Let’s get started on that, shall we? Like many other aspects of the game, there are other games out there that serve as handy points of comparison. The combat, for instance, is reminiscent of Rocksteady’s “Arkham” games. It is a stunningly fluid approach to crowd combat, with quick hits, heavy hits, counters, and combos. Each move is based on motion capture of actual martial artists, which a staff of animators then tweaked and massaged until they flowed effortlessly from one maneuver to the next. Enemies and their tactics are varied, each with their own styles and weaknesses. In order to keep the screen uncluttered while still making enemy health and combat-type clear, a ring of health and a thug-type identifier is painted on the ground at their feet, leaving the rest of the screen free to spot “!” indicators that mark appropriate times for counters. Along with the almost choreographed melee battle, the combat includes grappling and the usage of highlighted hazards around an arena. Some are downright comical, like shoving a man into a rooftop vent, while others are gruesome. (One unlucky thug had his face held against a stove top until his head went on fire.) It is entertaining and engaging in a decidedly fiendish way.
On top of the melee combat, there is no shortage of gun play in the game. If I had to pick a comparison here, I suppose Gears of War is a valid candidate. Third person shooting with plentiful cover. Even here, though, there are major differences, most of which are thrown together to make sure that the momentum of the game stays high. For one thing, that precious cover isn’t always terribly sturdy. I was fighting my way through a building during a renovation and smiled as I noticed that the drywall wasn’t exactly bulletproof, then panicked when I realized that I was using drywall for cover, too. The guns are also woefully limited in ammo, requiring you to track down and disarm a nearby foe to get a few more rounds. Luckily, the game streamlined this process for you, which leads me to what was probably my second favorite part of the game. Navigation.
If there is a game to pattern yourself after when it comes to fluid navigation of crowded urban environments, you can’t do better than Assassin’s Creed, and at times Sleeping Dogs does a fairly impressive imitation, but changes have been made to keep you engaged without loosing flow. Sprinting is achieved by holding A, but a subtle waggle of the stick is needed to sidestep bystanders rather than bashing into them. When you reach parkour-able object, the sprint button will flash, prompting you to release and tap it to engage the obstacle. It turns rapid navigation into something very similar to a quick time event sequence, but with the key addition of being intuitive and fun, rather than a twitch-fest. To further keep things streamlined, the context of your vault over a table or railing changes its behavior. Vaulting toward an armed guard? You’ll go into an automatic disarm-take down. Vaulting toward an unarmed guard? You’ll knock him down and out. Vaulting with a gun in your hand? Hold aim and you’ll enter John Woo gun-dive slow-mo for some cinematic picking off of nearby baddies.
Cinematic is actually a word that applies to most, if not all, of this game. One of the levels I got a peek at began with our hero savagely beaten and tied up. Some more instances of the rare well-executed quick time freed him, and we were treated to an imminently satisfying turning of the tables on a man who had been adding insult to injury. One rampage of vengeance through their compound later, you come face to face with an enforcer who calmly addresses you and pulls out a machete as though wading through gangster guts is hardly worth batting an eye bought. Never underestimate the intimidation factor of nonchalantly wielding a giant blade while wearing a three piece suit.
Sleeping Dogs left me with the sense that the makers had piled altered versions of all of the worthwhile gameplay innovations of the last decade into a pressure cooker, added some Hong Kong spice, then distilled the results into a 100-proof action cocktail. I highly recommend you keep your eyes on this game.