Fewer guns, better fighting, unique setting: Sleeping Dogs should be on your radar
Video games, at their very best, can take you to a new world and show you new things while opening the player up to new experiences. We’re used to playing open world games that take us into the world of the mafia or urban crime; that pop culture landscape has been thoroughly examined. As I played Sleeping Dogs, an open world action game that takes place deep in the underworld of Hong Kong, I began to feel that I was playing something new. I have no clue if the game is accurate, I’ve never been to Hong Kong nor spoken to anyone affected by organized crime in the area, but Sleeping Dogs is mining an interesting set of cultural touchstones. The missions, the dialog, and the characters you meet are all drawn from aspects of this culture, even if they’ve also been filtered through Hong Kong action cinema. It’s not a bad accomplishment for a game that’s been through such a hellish life before release.“So the game was developed as a new IP. A few years later it was branded as True Crime: Hong Kong [Ed. Note: Activision had picked up the game, re-branded it with the existing True Crime IP, and later cancelled it], and now we’re partnered with Square Enix and it’s Sleeping Dogs,” Dan Sochan, the game’s producer, told the Penny Arcade Report. “What's cool about this whole thing is the core story, the characters and everything else, have remained unchanged. It’s just been called some different names.” Sochan wanted to make sure I understood that this game is the vision of United Front Games, and they weren’t asked to change direction when they went from publisher to publisher. So what did they have to change when they were given the True Crime name from Activision? “Not a thing,” Sochan said. Okay, what did the game lose when the publishing rights were picked up by Square Enix? “Not a thing,” he repeated. In fact, United Front Games continued to work on the game with their own funding after being cancelled by Activision and before being picked up by Square Enix. “It’s obviously tough on a team when you’ve put your blood, sweat, and tears into a game for almost four years and it’s close to alpha, and economic woes and the recession and everything else hit and outside of your own control a project gets cancelled,” he explained. They simply refused to be cancelled.
Why is the combat so shaky in most open world games?
Sleeping Dogs was built on the idea that you don’t need to give up satisfying mechanics for size. I asked Sochan why the combat in so many open world games had unsatisfying, and usually imprecise combat. “It’s this series of interdependent systems that are always running,” he said. Open world games, unsurprisingly, are very hard to design. “People love open world games because they’re not forced down a linear story, they can go in and play the way they want to play… over the years it’s almost become a kind of an arms to go bigger, bigger, bigger, as big as you can. What we tried to do is say, we’re a new IP coming out of the gate, but we’re not just competing on breadth, we wanted to break it back down to the core user experience.” Sochan listed the things that were core parts of Sleeping Dogs: Fighting, shooting, driving, and the free-running system. “Let’s make those great experiences. In the future we can build on and continue to get bigger, but let’s make those experiences great and try to compete on every game out there, in terms of linear games, in terms of mission design and quality of the missions. I think we’ve done a good job of that,” he said. United Front Games also had support from Square Enix London, a team that contributed work to Just Cause 2 and Batman: Arkham Asylum in past. Those two games also did amazing things with core mechanics inside expansive worlds. I noticed very little gunplay in my time with the game, although I did enjoy the responsive combat, which was reminiscent of Arkham Asylum, to be be honest. Sochan was quick to point out that the game will have plenty of gunplay, but less than many games of this type. “It comes a little bit later on. Initially we had no gunplay in the game,” he explained. “We always treated weapons almost like a power-up, you don’t buy weapons and then gain an arsenal. That’s not common in Hong Kong action films. The hero more often than not finds himself unarmed, outnumbered, and it looks like he’s doomed.” The trick is to empower that character with hand-to-hand combat and the use of improvised weapons. It makes the hero seem clever and tough, and less cartoonish. “Even the melee weapons we have, after five or ten hits with the cleaver the handle may break, and you have to disarm someone else and use their weapon,” Sochan said. It’s a unique way to handle combat in an an open world game, and it again underscores the decisions and inspirations that help Sleeping Dogs stand out. So how does it feel that a game that has been in development for this long, across multiple publishers, and with various names attached finally has a release date and a long-term home? “Let’s go play,” Sochan says, motioning to the other room where the demo stations are set up. I pick up the controller later that night, and I enjoy my time in the game. It was a wonderful answer.