With the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to sketch a fairly compelling piece of speculation as to what happened behind the scenes before Activision announced the cancellation of True Crime: Hong Kong.
Even the company’s “most optimistic” internal projections suggested True Crime: Hong Kong would flounder in the “competitive” open-world genre, said CEO Eric Hirshberg. But how exactly was the open-world genre competitive? At the time the game was dropped, only one other significant sandbox game was on our radar, Saints Row: The Third. THQ’s offering was a notable contender certainly, but hardly one that would make other publishers lose their nerve entirely.
Not until November last year did a more likely candidate appear that would give Activision more than enough reason to cut its losses and run: Grand Theft Auto V. The True Crime intellectual property has always been Activision-as-remora fish: suckered to Take-Two’s leviathan, taking advantage of its momentum and sustaining itself on the scraps that fall to the wayside. It’s not a series that can compete head on with its host.
Did Hirshberg and herd get downwind of Rockstar’s production schedule and bolt into the thickets?
Perhaps. Whatever the truth, Rockstar’s Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come hasn’t petrified the bean counters at Square Enix. Claiming that the game now called Sleeping Dogs was only ever co-opted by Activision and branded as a True Crime title, Square Enix is confident that developer United Front can deliver a compelling product in the latter half of this year.
Set in Hong Kong, the strongest confluence of Eastern and Western culture, Sleeping Dogs tells a Donnie Brasco-like tale of an undercover cop, Wei Shen, who finds it increasingly difficult to distinguish his true self from his criminal persona as he reunites with childhood friends who now work for the Triads.
Sleeping Dogs hopes to differentiate itself from other open-world titles by highlighting the “on-foot” experience. So far, it appears to have achieved just that offering fence-scrambling pursuits and hand-to-hand combat that far surpasses anything Rockstar has designed for Grand Theft Auto to date.
The first mission played tasks Wei with delivering a message in the form of one thousand fists to a ketamine dealer who refuses to pay protection. Weaving between food stalls, and through Hong Kong’s crowded back alleys illuminated by neon signs, Wei finally spots the belligerent peddler and begins a chase sequence that handles much like Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed. Once Wei has his target cornered, a melee ensues.
Here those who have played Batman: Arkham City will feel right at home. An accomplished martial artist, Wei can string together combinations, disarm his opponents and – courtesy of a heads-up warning over assailants – counter-attack. But graphic, environmentally contextual finishers cast Rocksteady’s offering as My First Brawler: our hero can grab a weakened foe and muscle him towards a highlighted object such as a car door, a bench or an extractor fan. He’ll repeatedly slam heads in doors until blood spatters on the pavement, throw aspiring Triads from rooftops, shove faces onto hotplates, and drop engines onto ribcages. In the unusually creative hands of Wei, all manner of mundane urban objects become an express ticket to an R18 rating.
When Wei does have a firearm, players will be presented with both a serviceable cover system and a Bullet Time mode that appears to borrow heavily from Remedy’s Max Payne games. Snap-on targeting facilitates shooting bereft of the need for quick reflexes, however, Wei isn’t particularly sturdy, a few rounds will reduce his small, regenerative health pool to nil. Nonetheless, both the hand-to-hand and hand-to-trigger gameplay appears to deliver on the promise of Hong Kong cinematic action splendour.
Sleeping Dogs’ truly compelling pedestrian experience shouldn’t immediately suggest that driving has been neglected, however. United Front previously developed Modnation Racers for the PlayStation 3 and is quick to boast it has former staff of Need for Speed studio, EA Black Box, on its payroll. Wei is able to deviate from the game’s main narrative for many distractions, but none may be quite as compelling as arcade racing through Hong Kong’s narrow streets for money, fame and women.
Overwhelmingly, Sleeping Dogs is emerging as a game that promises a wealth of content in addition to a promising narrative. There’s still plenty of work to be done – some assets pop in rather alarmingly, the occasional spanner appears to wriggle its way into the physics engine – but more so than other genres, open-world games rarely come together as a package until nearer their ship date.
For now, Sleeping Dogs' eclectic spin on Hong Kong looks set to win over a much broader audience than simply those looking for a fix on the road between Steelport and Los Santos.