With the launch date of Sleeping Dogs less than a week away, fans of Hong Kong crime dramas, sandbox action games, and publisher Square Enix (Final Fantasy) are eagerly anticipating the release of what is sure to be one of the best games in recent times. An atmospheric setting, exceptional voice cast, stunning gameplay and fantastic marketing efforts ensure that Sleeping Dogs will be a great game.
Developed by United Front Games, the creators of the Sony exclusive ModNation Racers, the crime drama sees players assuming the role of Wei Shen, a police officer tasked with infiltrating a fictional crime organization. The game was originally titled True Crime: Hong Kong under previous publisher Activision and is inspired by Hong Kong cinema. The atmosphere is developed with the classics of the genre in mind, the one obvious inspiration is Infernal Affairs (remade locally as Martin Scorsese’s The Departed). The developer’s dedication to faithfully recreating the magic of gangster flicks is evident in every frame of the work. With flashing neon lights in crowded districts, noisy fish markets, skyscrapers amid the city’s open roads and creative acts of brutality in every fight sequence, the game masterfully recreates the vision of Hong Kong popularized by films like Hard Boiled and Game of Death.
Adding to the atmosphere is the fantastic cast conducting voiceovers for the game, a rarity in products not produced by Bioware. Will Yun Lee (Die Another Day) voices Wei Shen and his familiarity with villainous roles brings some much needed moral ambiguity to the role of a police officer tasked with convincingly infiltrating a gangster organization. Tom Wilkinson (Batman Begins) brings his considerable experience with crime dramas to the game and will likely play an officer of equally questionable character. Edison Chen (Infernal Affairs) will provide the voice of the protagonist’s childhood friend, further enhancing the Hong Kong cinematic atmosphere of the game. Lucy Liu (Kill Bill, Shanghai Noon) is no stranger to the martial arts crime genre and will provide much authenticity while the increasingly popular Emma Stone (Easy A, Amazing Spider-Man) should bring a touch of serenity to the otherwise grim proceedings. Other cast members include Parry Shen (Better Luck Tomorrow), Robin Shou (Mortal Kombat), Kelly Hu (X2), Tzi Ma (Rush Hour), Yunjin Kim (Lost) and James Hong (Blade Runner).
Of course, a video game needs to be entertaining in both atmosphere and interactivity, something the game’s developers are keenly aware of. Similar to Grand Theft Auto –– a series the game will undoubtedly be compared to upon release –– Sleeping Dogs is built around a sandbox mission structure. Individual tasks must be selected and performed in order for the story to progress but the player has the freedom to choose when to undertake said missions. In between missions, the player will be free to explore Hong Kong using vehicles such as cars, bikes and motorboats.
The game’s fighting mechanics are unmistakably similar to the Batman: Arkham series, with a “free flow” combat system that allows players to approach multiple opponents simultaneously without locking their focus on any singular character. The fights are made particularly challenging by the fact that enemies are allowed to attack you mid-animation. Survival requires familiarity with the extensive repertoire of counters and grapples. Essentially, for all those who criticize action movies for enemies approaching the hero one by one, the villains in this game behave more realistically and will collectively beat down the protagonist. The game also makes heavy use of environmental items to finish off opponents in brutal fashion, similar to The Bourne Legacy by Midway. Be it stoves, air vents, elevators or urinals, you have never seen such inventive cruelty inflicted upon another human being. Finally, combat will also entail armed firefights, requiring the protagonist to defeat enemies by taking cover behind objects, moving freely between environments, and even targeting individual body parts. The shootouts will allow for detailed environmental destruction, employ effects such as slow motion a la Max Payne, and even take place inside cars.
The quality of the experience that United Front Games provides is enhanced by the creative marketing campaign designed to promote the game. Ultimate fighter Georges St-Pierre, who was frequently consulted for the development of the aforementioned combat system, stars in a viral video for the game. There, he explains the fighting mechanics in rather theatrical fashion. The game also offers a cross-promotional deal for players of Valve’s Team Fortress 2 by arming them with in-game items such and weaponry and clothing, provided they order the game through the online distribution service Steam prior to the release date of August 14. Players with an existing save file of Square Enix’s Just Cause 2 will also gain access to a specialized outfit, modeled after the protagonist of the aforementioned game, which will allow players a special ability to overtake rival cars from long distances.
There are certainly causes for concern, such as the fact that the developer is not experienced, particularly with games of this genre. Also, by combining elements of shooting, fighting, sandbox, driving and even role-playing, it is possible that Sleeping Dogs is trying to offer too many styles of gameplay. This is something that often leads to a lack of polish and depth. Plus, when Activision originally dropped the game after it was “virtually complete,” the publisher’s CEO went on record as saying “it just wasn't going to be good enough.” However, Square Enix’s U.S. president and CEO Mike Fischer has called Activision “crazy,” comparing the game to Batman: Arkham City, Need for Speed, and Mass Effect.
While the truth will be made apparent in less than a week, Fischer’s audacity in comparing a singular game to numerous giants of the industry indicates management’s confidence in the quality of the product. United Front Games seems to have no love lost for Activision with senior producer Jeff O’Connell even stating that the split with the True Crime franchise was “maybe the best possible scenario.” Regardless, it is inspirational to see that a game implying brilliance in its previews still manages to get published; let’s just hope it doesn’t get caught in the headlights of its own expectations.