Shoving a man’s face onto a table saw, for Justice!
Checking my notes after a recent game preview event, I find them filled with phrases like “puts enemy head in an air conditioning unit—showers of blood", "some real James Bond shit, here", and “Bruce Lee tracksuit: Male Cameltoe". It’s a tribute to the diversity of the game experience that none of these things seem out of place.
Cancelled by Activision as True Crime: Hong Kong, the game has found new life with Square Enix as Sleeping Dogs, an open-world game that borrows its story, setting, and action from Hong Kong cinema. In particular, we were told by developers from United Front Games that the game looks to films like Triad Election and Infernal Affairs (the inspiration for Martin Scorsese’s The Departed) for their stories, as well as the films of Jet Li, Jackie Chan, and Bruce Lee for the martial arts combat and use of environments in the action. I also noticed some of Hard Boiled and The Killer in the execution of the gunfights with a Max Payne-esque use of bullet-time.
It’s clear that United Front Games is doing everything possible to give the game a feel that speaks to its Hong Kong film roots. We were told that if you placed a map of the region over the in-game map, the neighborhoods would line up and that the Cantonese voice recording had been done in Hong Kong to keep the background audio authentic. The producers also teased that some well-known Hong Kong actors’voices would make appearances, to be announced at a later date. One of their writers even spent time with members of the Triads for research.
Based on my brief time with the game, it looks like you’ll never want for things to do. The developers walked through several missions, including a few side missions with objectives like beating up thugs from a rival gang or trashing a street racer’s car with a tire-iron to gain Face, the way the game determines social status. One mission began with using a cell phone to triangulate a thug’s location: You had to drive to a location shown between three points on the phone while the call happened in real-time. When we heard about some gambling mini-games, it invited comparisons to the Yakuza series. It felt like there was an incredible amount to see and do, even in the brief demo.
There’s a scene early in Frank Miller’s insanely over-the-top movie The Spirit, where Samuel L. Jackson literally throws the kitchen sink at the hero. In some ways it feels like United Front Games is doing the same. A section of gameplay we were shown had the undercover hero, Wei Shen, chasing an enemy on foot for a brief section; followed immediately by a fistfight that used the counter mechanic from Batman: Arkham Asylum; then a gunfight with bullet time; a motorcycle chase that was part GTA, part bullet-time, until Wei jumped from the back of the motorbike onto the top of the vehicle (very Just Cause 2) where he slid through the window to hijack it.
The whole thing was like watching a mishmash of tried-and-tested gameplay mechanics piled on top of each other, each timed carefully not to overstay its welcome, like a video game version of a run-on-sentence that leaves its excited speaker out of breath. If United Front doesn’t throw the kitchen sink at Wei Shen, I’m pretty sure he can bash someone into it with an environmental takedown.
When Wei Shen grabs an enemy, air conditioning units, roof vents, refrigerators, car doors, and whatever seems to be the most interesting item to interact with glow red. Drag the enemy over to that item and you can execute an environmental takedown, with varying degrees of gore; nothing ruins an enemy’s day like a table-saw to the face, complete with cast-off sprays of crimson, but tossing a guy in a dumpster and closing the lid on top of him is almost PG.
The most fun I had was in a brief racing mission. During the race, after missing an attempt to bash another racer into the wall, I was forced off the track and onto a freeway on-ramp. The freeway ended up running parallel to the course, and I was able to jump off at a construction area back into the competition, before a collision with an ambulance knocked me out of the race. Members of the PR team cheered when the “Continue” screen came up, and I was cackling with glee the whole time. It was the kind of action movie theatrics that wouldn’t have been possible without the open world setting; there was no plan or shortcut there, just exhilarating luck, good and bad.
Sleeping Dogs has a lot of potential to marry gameplay features from successful linear games with a more open-world structure. It’s still in alpha, so a lot could change, and there were a number of re-used background assets that will hopefully be replaced, but the gameplay was fun and intuitive. It will be fun to see how the finished game looks when it releases on later this year on PS3, Xbox 360, and PC.