Sleeping Dogs hands-on
Some suspected that Sleeping Dogs would never see the light of day. Originally slated as True Crime: Hong Kong, Activision terminated the United Front development, only for it to be picked up by Square Enix, dropping the True Crime name in the process.
Fast forward to present day and we can expect Sleeping Dogs to launch in Summer 2012 and we've had the chance to play through several sections of the new title on the Xbox 360 at a one-on-one session with Square Enix.
Although the game is nearing completion, we didn't play sequential sections of it, so we don't know exactly how the story plays out. However, we'll be disclosing some elements of the plot in our quick review, naturally, so consider that your spoiler alert.
We also weren't playing final code - in fact, it was alpha marked - although that didn't detract from the excellent gameplay and the chance to experience the variety of action that Sleeping Dogs has to offer.
Sleeping Dogs is set in Hong Kong. You play Wei Shen, a cop in deep cover with the Hong Kong Triads. You're working to take down the organisation, piece by piece, from the inside. It's an open world game and although story driven, there is plenty to do along the way if you fancy a distraction, with side missions, collectibles and so on.
Visually, Sleeping Dogs is striking. The Hong Kong backdrop provides a diverse stage on which the unfolding adventure can be played out. From narrow back streets to neon-lit commercial districts, it feels like a city with life. There are people going about their business as you weave through them, going about yours.
The immediate thing that strikes you about Sleeping Dogs, however, is how similar it is it Grand Theft Auto. It's a valid comparison, because both games work in a similar way. You can deny the likeness - Sleeping Dogs has a vastly superior combat system for example - but you'll always be drawn back to their close proximity, from elements of the game, using your smartphone, your apartment and so on.
For us that's no bad thing as we love GTA, but Sleeping Dogs aims to take the open world game environment and push each element. The driving is tight, the hand-to-hand combat is rich and varied, and the cover-based shooting is good, too. Just walking about the place is great fun, because United Front has a freerunning gameplay mechanic to make climbing, vaulting and jumping more enticing.
But one of the best parts of Sleeping Dogs, also a characteristic of True Crime, is how well these elements interlink. The ability to leap off a motorbike on to the roof of a car to hijack is great fun, as well as hugely useful. Being able to vault and kick, or vault and shoot, makes Sleeping Dogs more dynamic than a straight shooter.
Hand-to-hand combat plays a huge part in Sleeping Dogs. The influence of Hong Kong cinema can be seen instantly, as you take on multiple opponents with a huge range of different moves at your disposal. The fighting flows beautifully, with slow-mo for some of those great finishing moves, but it doesn't feel intrusive to the gameplay.
When in combat, if you see part of the environment flashing red, that means you can use it to finish off your opponent. It might be an open lift shaft or a phone box and each brings a great deal of humour to combat. Sometimes you just need to reduce numbers, and setting fire to a guy's head on the gas hob might be the best way to do it.
Many games that mix disciplines as Sleeping Dogs does involve compromise: the driving is sloppy or the combat is too simple. Sleeping Dogs feels as though it avoids this pitfall. The combat is dynamic enough to avoid button mashing and offering different types of opponent means you have to mix things up for the better.
Sure, we got slapped down a couple of times, but in the three levels we played through, it was clear that the combat is going to be fun, rather than irritating. You need to keep your wits about you, however. On approaching one final boss to finish him off, we hit the wrong button, climbed the railings and leapt off the roof of the building. Mission failed, but you have to laugh.
The driving too is fluid and fast. Some of the developers for Sleeping Dogs worked on Need for Speed, so it's easy to see where the driving heritage comes from. Motorbikes and cars both offer you some degree of combat too, so expect to be taking the fight to the streets, literally.
As with GTA, you'll be able to store your vehicles in the garage of your apartment - which also has a heavy GTA feel to it - or you can just walk out and steal one. In addition to the story elements that involve cars, there are some aspects much more like Need for Speed. Littered around the place you'll find things you can jump, for example, so you can clock-up your longest jump and challenge friends.
The streets have been designed to let you drive. Unlike some US-based grid-type plans, the roads of Sleeping Dogs are designed a little more like a series of interlinking race tracks. This means you'll get some great driving sections without being constrained by the map.
Rolling over to gunplay, it's often here that games leave you wanting. With shooters so well established, the spray-and-pray approach can often feel a little hit and miss. Sleeping Dogs, from what we've played so far, is reasonable. This isn't going to challenge your big-name first person shooters, but it is fun.
You can exchange weapons readily enough and - playing to the freerunnning mechanics mentioned earlier - be able to vault and shoot, a clever slow-mo mechanic jumping in, so you can pop the heads off your rivals as you leap over cover. Again, like the combat finishing moves, it doesn't feel intrusive and can be strategically used to great effect.
As we mentioned, the sections of Sleeping Dogs we've played through weren’t in sequential order, but strung together to form something of a playable demo. Opening in a Hong Kong jail, you get the back-story about Wei Shen's undercover status, working his way into the Triads.
The first of three levels we played covered a foot chase through the markets at night, culminating in the rooftop showdown we've already mentioned. It involved plenty of vaulting and climbing, where timing is everything, before your fighting skills are put to the test.
The second level was a better demonstration of Sleeping Dogs fusing different elements together. This level was from much later in the game. You've been captured, tortured and your cover is blown. You have to make your escape and take down a lot of bad guys in the process. The fusion of custom animations, the freerunning and gunplay come together nicely with some ferocious battles.
The third level was a straight racing section. Following the sort of thing you'll get in Need for Speed, it's a speed race, with plenty of jostling, to final victory.
In everything you do in Sleeping Dogs you have the opportunity to earn XP and upgrade. The XP are divided three ways into Face, Police and Triad, essentially reflecting your reputation on the street and with each of these different groups. Although this doesn't change the story, it does give you something to shoot for: you can perform side missions which will increase your Police XP, for example.
Overall, what we've seen of Sleeping Dogs is really impressive. Although we don’t have a firm figure on how long the game is, we've been assured that it will last you longer than a weekend. With variety, a sense of humour and some really cool elements combined together, Sleeping Dogs is looking like a hot title for Summer 2012.