In brutally honest terms, very few people were upset – bar the developers, their mothers, and the six people left on the planet who loved True Crime – when True Crime: Hong Kong was canned in 2011. It was just another open-world game biting the dust, joining others such as the mighty Eight Days on the scrap heap. It was a harsh move on Activision’s part, granted, after it finally noticed whatever it was that caused the title to become unnecessary, and cancelled what was purportedly a near-finished game, but no one wept or anything. It was just business.
Harsh, yes, and now maybe a little embarrassing, as the resurrected True Crime has turned out to be a fine game, with a style all its own and, in a lot of instances, a truly spectacular sense of place. We’ll probably never know just how much it changed between being put into what Tinseltown might dub ‘turnaround’, but the hard fact is that Square Enix gave the team at United Front Games a chance when Activision wouldn’t, and it paid off.
For the most part, the rechristened Sleeping Dogs is a game developed by people who seem to know what they’re doing, which is rarer than you’d think. Unlike other open-worlders that mistakenly believe that bigger is better, United Front has instead gone for a mid-sized map that is denser than its competitors. It makes perfect sense considering that Hong Kong is one of the most densely populated places in the world and the majority of big open-world games are emptier than Pripyat, and just as ugly.
As rising star in the triads and undercover police officer Wei Shen, you’ll have the run of the whole place, split into four main districts that, typically, range from slums to opulence and everything in between. United Front’s world-building skill is impressive: on seemingly every corner there’s something to do, somebody to interact with and something to buy. As in
reality, Hong Kong is a beautiful, crowded flurry of sensory overload, and United Front has captured it well. From stalking neon-tinted back alleys to cruising around mountainous, yacht-heavy harbours in full prep regalia, there’s a variety here that isn’t found elsewhere. Not in terms of what’s there, but how it’s presented, the familiar yet alien Asian culture exploited to full effect.
It would be a shame to waste such a beautiful backdrop, and United Front hasn’t, crafting an enjoyable crime thriller that complements the city in which it’s set, giving players a look at it from every angle from brutal to refined. Like in GTA, you’ll start at the bottom of the pile and slowly work your way up to a position of power and influence among the other players in organised crime. The difference here is that you’re also a cop, and both the story and mechanics of the game are focused around the tension and opportunity this balancing act brings to proceedings. Wei Shen is a likeable, honest guy, doubly so when he’s surrounded by an ocean of thieves, murderers, pimps and whores. Despite this apparent disparity, the game does a great job of making players question their loyalties: yes, you’re an officer of the law, but after spending so much time in the company of criminals, it’s hard not to feel like one of them, especially since you’re also committing many of the illegal acts.
Playing both sides ensures that the narrative is constantly engaging, while also providing a decent enough motivation for a supposedly good guy to keep on killing. It’s something that GTA IV, with kind-hearted – and, by the last act of the game, millionaire assassin – Niko Bellic, constantly moaning about money and murder, couldn’t get right. It’s a setup that then informs the core gameplay: by and large, the mission loops themselves aren’t too dissimilar from the groundwork laid down by Rockstar, but the conflicting loyalties of the storyline keep them interesting. Police assignments usually take the course of multi-part cases of detective work, surveillance and arrests, whereas your triad activities are more likely to be quick and to the very violent point. Whenever interest in one starts to wane, there’s always another investigation to get stuck into, underworld machinations to address, or some rival thugs to dispatch.
And dispatch them you will, in a style and manner very different to the firearms-focused GTA. Guns are rare in Sleeping Dogs; instead, you’ll have to rely on your fists and feet to get the job done. Using a system that recalls but doesn’t quite match the free-flowing grace and finesse of Rocksteady’s Arkham games, the combat is great fun, although, towards the end, you may tire of it simply because you’ve seemingly fought everyone in China. Brutal leg breaks, punishing combos and environmental kills are commonplace, and the game metes
out upgrades in just the right fashion to keep things interesting. And when the guns finally come out, there’s also slow-motion shooting alongside Pursuit Force-style ‘action hijacking’ to play around with. Like the narrative and setting, other games may have similar mechanics, but Sleeping Dogs’ interpretation
is different enough to engage in a way that others often don’t.
There are plenty of positives, then, and for that United Front can be proud. In the face of the game coming back from the dead, it seems a bit churlish to moan about the few faults that are there, but we’re going to anyway. After the wonder that was Saints Row: The Third’s co-op missions, the inability to share this world with someone else is a shame. In fact, there’s no multiplayer to speak of at all, with only global leaderboards and social hubs to interact with. Co-op in the story might not have worked, but we’d have loved to cause mayhem on the streets with a buddy. Maybe next time.
There are other, smaller issues; one of the most glaring is with the ‘Face’ mechanic that governs how players level their character. Having goals to work towards is fair enough, and making sure that you’ve got something to spend your money on is also a wise move. But not being able to wear certain clothes until you’ve got enough Face is absurd. In one baffling instance, the game gives you an outfit to wear for a special occasion, but you can’t wear it after that time until you level up. Despite the fact that it’s in your wardrobe. The same goes for cars: you’ve got to purchase your rides here, and once that’s done they’re forever stored at your behest. That said, we’ve never met a car dealer who wouldn’t take our money because we weren’t famous enough.
Speaking of cars, the in-car audio, too, is a bit of a letdown. There are the prerequisite radio stations, of course, but there aren’t enough tracks to each one, meaning you’ll be hearing the same tunes over and over again. This, in a game that sees you in a car a lot of the time, is maddening. We love Echo Beach, don’t get us wrong, but on the 507th listen it begins to grate. And don’t even get us started on how there are classic cuts in the karaoke clubs that seemingly aren’t available elsewhere. We don’t even know where to begin with that one.
But these are small prices to pay for a game that, if Activision had its way, would have been a historical curio, a forgotten ‘what if?’, and nothing else. It might not have quite the same quality as GTA, nor the rabid anarchy of Saints Row, but it’s a game that fundamentally feels different enough to what’s gone before, thanks to the city, the narrative and the focus on kung fu rather than gun fu.
Until Rockstar decides to end its American obsession and explore the world with GTA, this is the closest we’ll get to the quality of its environments in a foreign setting. Such a comparison is high enough praise on its own, but Sleeping Dogs is successful because it dares to be different, and actually thinks about how to make narrative, gameplay and setting play off each other. Which, for a game that no one expected much from when it was taken out back and shot, is quite something.