Sleeping Dogs preview – blood on our hands

Thanks to the efforts of Megarom Interactive, we were able to get some hands-on time with Square Enix’s upcoming third-person action-adventure game, Sleeping Dogs.

The game boasts a character-driven storyline featuring Chinese triads, undercover cops and all in between; free-flowing beat ’em up action; fast-paced gunplay with a stylish slow-mo gimmick; intense vehicle chase scenes complete with high-speed shoot-outs; and the glimmering metropolis of Hong Kong open before you to explore.

The title has a storied past, starting life as True Crime: Hong Kong. Originally under Activision publishing with new development studio United Front Games at the helm, True Crime: Hong Kong was revealed in late 2009. With the True Crime franchise not being particularly terrible, but not really managing to cement itself in the gamer psyche, Activision mulled over the development process for a few years before finally cancelling the project in February 2011.

In August 2011, Square Enix bought up the publishing rights to the game. With Activision holding on to the True Crime franchise name, the title was renamed as Sleeping Dogs. From my time with the game, I’d say that this is a fortuitous turn of events for both United Front Games, who were able to realise their vision, and for gamers, who might have otherwise been deprived of what is shaping up to be an entertaining open-world action-adventure romp. It is also worth mentioning that despite this hiccup in the development process, from my hands-on experience with some alpha-code, Sleeping Dogs is looking to be a solid package.

With the development back-story out the way, here’s a synopsis of the game’s plot. Gamers will take on the role of Detective Wei Shen of the Triad Bureau at the Hong Kong police. Wei goes undercover to infiltrate the Sun On Yee Triad, and along the way he has to struggle with the moral dilemmas of maintaining his cover by performing despicable criminal acts while striving to achieve the greater good of bringing down the Triad. It’s pretty obvious from the get-go that Wei Shen has a murky history when it comes to the Triads in Hong Kong – he couldn’t just let sleeping dogs lie…

Yes, it’s the storyline from all of your favourite 1980’s Hong Kong Kung Fu action movies, and that’s fine – it’s really just a skeleton from which to hang the meat of the open-world gameplay. That said, that snippets of storyline that I caught promise a captivating crime-story comprised of some familiar themes, as well as a few surprises. Prepare for some grit and visceral carnage, as Triad torture techniques and brutal scenes of revenge are presented, with a not-so-subtle directorial hand barely screening the gamer from the most violent of implied acts.

The structure is fairly standard for open-world games of this sort – the story is driven from the perspective of Wei Shen, as he meets various colourful and reprehensible characters, and completes a variety of missions along the way to reaching the highest echelons of the Triad where he will… well, that’s for the player to find out. To spice up the story progression, we were shown a gameplay-driven narrative segment in which Wei Shen used his police resources to triangulate the cell-phone signal of a Triad thug, livening up the journey to the objective. Hopefully more interesting segments like this will be spread throughout the final product.

Sleeping dogs takes inspiration from the best sand-box games out there. Square Enix pooled their resources on this one to give United Front Games every advantage in getting the game out the door, seeking input from their developer stables such as Rocksteady Studios (Batman: Arkham Asylum/City) and Avalanche Studios (Just Cause 2). Part of the United Front development team is comprised of former EA Black Box devs (Need For Speed series), so that bodes well for the driving segments of the game.

Sleeping Dogs - Wei Shen strikes an intimidating pose

Helping out with the free-flow combat mechanic was Rocksteady – Square Enix Europe retains a 25.1% stake in the studio. Free-flow Kung-Fu street fighting is a cornerstone of Sleeping Dogs – Wei Shen has moves that would send Jackie Chan and Jet Li packing, and he’s not afraid to use the numerous environmental hotspots at his disposal.

Grabbing enemies, Wei Shen can man-handle them toward industrial strength fan blades, scalding kitchen hot-plates, stuff them down air ducts or into furnaces, smash their heads using pretty much anything with hinges (car door, fridge door, garbage dumpster), or go with the classics, such as tossing them off buildings or through plate glass windows. There are a variety of melee weapons promised, and I got hands on butcher’s cleavers, frying pans and a tire iron.

United Front seems to have learnt well from Rocksteady, with smooth and intuitive group combat mechanics that will give the player a challenge, but won’t frustrate with unnecessary complexity. The camera pans around smoothly to give a good angle on the action, and the in-game director will throw in a touch of slow-mo at key moments to add cinematic flair to the battle. It was great fun exploring this component of the gameplay, and the all too short alpha-preview left me hungry for more.

Sleeping Dogs - When fists fail, there's always bullets and explosions

The other half of the combat system involves gun-play, which uses a cover mechanic that’s designed to keep you performing like an action hero. Vaulting from cover activates a slow motion effect in which players can combo shots. The more shots strung together, the longer the slow mo lasts. Out of ammo? No problem – Wei Shen vaults from cover to disarm enemies and turn their weapons on them, again in action-movie slow motion grandeur.

Of course there is a progression system in place, and depending who you beat up on the behalf of whom, and how well you beat them up, players will earn experience. This takes the form of Face XP, Triad XP, and Police XP. Levelling up in these areas will grant access to new combat moves, better equipment, and will progress the storyline.

On the vehicle side of things, there are over 80 promised, running the gamut from beat-up hatchback to high-end sports (perfect for all those illegal street races the Hong Kong gangs love to get involved in). My time behind the wheel was brief, but vehicles seemed to control smoothly, with an added dash of slow-motion panache to help win races.

We were also treated to a demonstration of the vehicle to vehicle combat, in a segment that saw Wei Shen shooting out tyres and flipping vehicles with the aid of some slow motion gunplay, and then leaping from a motor-bike onto a car roof and hijacking the vehicle. Once again United Front seems to have taken lessons from Avalanche in this area of the gameplay, as I was immediately reminded of Rico Rodriguez’s smooth moves from Just Cause 2.

Finally there is the city itself – the environment is a character in its own right. Players will be able to explore the island and its various attractions; from the ostentatious skyscrapers, to the bustling street markets, and all the dingy alleyways and seedy bars that are staple fare for actionable types. From my short journey through the city, I could see that attention was given to finer details in an attempt to create an authentic Hong Kong vibe.

The hubbub of the streets, combined with some clever scripting, made for an entertaining foot chase through the crowds, jumping obstacles, scaling barriers and sending bystanders scattering. Wei Shen is obviously no slouch and he brought the fancy footwork to back up his deadly fists. In a later portion of the game he took his platforming skills to new heights – literally leaping about on rickety scaffolding on the side of a skyscraper; near death at every step.

All in all, things are looking compelling for this action-adventure that almost didn’t happen. My 10-year old self, psyched from having fought off imaginary ninjas in the garden, can’t wait to fill the role of Wei Shen and show the mean streets of Hong Kong who’s boss.

Sleeping Dogs is set to hit Windows PC, Xbox 360, and PlayStation 3 on 17 August 2012.

Megarom would like to extend thanks to Tritton, Samsung, and Microsoft SA who all played a role in getting this preview of Sleeping Dogs to SA shores.

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Sleeping Dogs preview – blood on our hands

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