Leave any preconceived notions you may have of Sleeping Dogs well at the door – this game is coming out of nowhere and is certain to be on the hit list for any open-world fan this year.
The True Crime name doesn’t exactly make one think of quality, so the whole debacle regarding the game’s moniker had left me expecting little when I went out to get some hands-on time with Sleeping Dogs at the Namco Bandai offices in Sydney last week. But if there’s one thing I left with after spending a little time with the game, it was an appreciation for the details.
And that’s why you should be excited about it – the details. Usually, when a developer first tries its hand at an open-world game, it bites off more than it can chew, failing to fully appreciate how much of a chore it is to have all the game’s systems and mechanics working in tandem to create a fully-realised and varies experience. So when you can safely be playing around with the more subtle elements of the world itself, the free-form experiences and the humour, you know the devs have moved past the stage where they’re not sure whether or not they can make a game even work at all, and are well into the ‘What would make this better?’ stage.
That’s where Sleeping Dogs finds itself now, and that’s why it’s worth paying attention to.
Rather than being focused on the gunplay like most open-world games of its ilk, or on acrobatics like Assassin’s Creed or inFamous, Sleeping Dogs is centred around hand-to-hand combat, driving recklessly and a strong narrative.
You’ll typically find yourself beating up anywhere up to a dozen opponents at any given time, pulling off a myriad of environmental kills including smashing their face into a fuse box, beating their head in with a toilet seat or just ramming their torso in the top of an air vent so they’re unable to move. Rather than just being a token addition, there are very few objects in the environment you can’t use to bend, break or bash an opponent. It allows for the fairly arcade-driven fighting system to involve a healthy dose of positioning and strategy without getting lost in realism. Throw in a slightly more challenging Batman: Arkham City countering system, and it all feels solid enough to carry us through a fairly lengthy game.
That’s not to say it could necessarily thrive on the combat alone, however (what open-world game could be a full game with any one of its many mechanics though?) it doesn’t have to. It sports some rather rigid driving physics, allowing for tight turns at very high speeds (so closer to a Crackdown or Saint’s Row rather than a Grand Theft Auto). This makes the racing highly enjoyable, even if (in the one racing mission I played) the rubber-band difficulty of the AI is a little bit obvious.
While, as with any open-world game, the success or failure of the title will come down to whether or not it can be more than the sum of its parts, what time I spent with the game so far promises great core gameplay which will hopefully be tied together in a structurally sound narrative experience.
The story will take players on a violent and action-heavy romp through an incredibly well-realised Hong Kong. The streets shimmer with vibrant light, rendering one of the most high-quality oversaturated and hyper-real open worlds seen in years. Visually, it’s a feast which is a pleasure to gorge yourself on, sparking delight at top speeds and a real sense of being somewhere during an on-foot pace.
The undercover cop story aspect is likely to leave people with the feeling that there’s just a touch too much destruction being caused by one man for anyone to call him a good guy, but then again since no one has yet been able to master this divide between the player’s anarchic wish-fulfilment and creating a protagonist who isn’t simultaneously a mass-murderer, I’m willing to let Sleeping Dogs lie on this one (see what I did there?).
Bottom line: we’re all looking forward to the expected big hitters this year. We’ve got so many known quantities coming out our ears in the form of sequels, reboots and franchise extensions that it can be easy to overlook completely new IPs like this one.
Sleeping Dogs is looking like one of the must-play new experiences to come out this year. It has enough new going on to stand proudly in its own corner, has solid mechanics that will hopefully tie together with ease, delivers some gorgeous visuals and (I’m very pleased to report, as a fan of storytelling in games) narrative and voice acting which doesn’t make me want to consult my local doctor about options concerning assisted suicide (that’s a good thing). Keep an eye on this one. It has the potential, the pedigree and the promise of one of 2012’s best titles to come out of left field.
By Leigh Harris - Tweet @leighformayor