GDC 2012: We get our hands on (and bloody) with the Hong Kong crime epic, Sleeping Dogs

At first glance, Square Enix’s Sleeping Dogs, looks an awful lot like Grand Theft Auto: Hong Kong. On second glance too. And third and fourth for that matter. But there really is more to it than that. And besides, there is a reason that the Grand Theft Auto style of sandbox world games have been so well received–they are generally awesome.

That was our impression when we saw the game in action a few weeks back, and after getting the chance to go hands on with it at GDC, that opinion hasn’t really changed, but it has evolved.

Sleeping Dogs, which began its life as the doomed True Crime: Hong Kong before Square Enix stepped in to rescue and re-brand it, is very much a GTA-type game, but it has its own soul. The game is all about the atmosphere and setting. You’ve seen the criminal open world setting, but rarely have you seen a game that feels quite like this.

Set in the Hong Kong underworld, the game is an homage to the classic Hong Kong action flicks like Infernal Affairs (which later begat The Oscar–winning film, The Departed), as well as the early John Woo films before he came to America and was lost in translation. There is a seedy feeling to the world that exists around the game’s protagonist, Wei Shen, an undercover cop. There will be a few light hearted moments, but the game doesn’t rely on humor in the same way that the GTA games do.  

After spending years in San Francisco, Wei Shen returns and integrates himself into the Hong Kong crime scene thanks to his childhood friend, who has no idea that Wei is working for the police–which is understandable, since many of the missions have you committing actions that are illegal, immoral, and often despicable.

In the demo that developers United Front Games and Square Enix London Studios were showing off, Wei is given a job by a local, low-level thug that needs to send a message to a guy that hadn’t paid up.

After a quick stroll through a bustling section of Hong Kong, the target sees Wei and takes off running, leading to a parkour-like chase through the streets. The running mechanics are fairly simple, and as long as you remain on the course the game wants you on, and press the right button at the right time, you can make Wei scale fences, slide over and under obstacles, and climb up to higher areas. It isn’t groundbreaking, but it is fun, and the presentation sells it in a way that makes you feel like you are playing a movie.

The chase is interrupted by two fights, the first is over quickly thanks to a solid combat system that is fast and brutal. The second was the climax of the demo, as Wei faces off against several enemies at once.

The combat is similar to that of the Batman Arkham games. You have your attack commands, but the most useful button is the parry, which quickly turns an enemy strike into a devastating counter. It is familiar, but in a good way.

There is also a grapple feature that allows you to pummel the enemy by hand or to use the environment. During each fight you will notice objects that give off a feint red glow. You can use these to your advantage. Simply grab the enemy, head to the object, then hit the grapple button again. There are a huge assortment of objects, each with an accompanying animation. Some of the objects shown in the demo included a trash can that you could toss an enemy in, a railing that you could smash heads on, and industrial ventilation fans that you could use to make a mess of things. Even in the most brutal fights, even while getting pummeled, it is hard not to want to try out all the environmental objects nearby.

After a quick boss-like fight that ended with a well-timed counter, the demo jumped to the second mechanic being displayed, the driving.

In the scene shown, Wei had moved up in the world. He arrives in a flashy sports car with two scantily clad women, then he challenges a local street racer to a high stakes race through the streets of Hong Kong.

The driving mechanics are arcade-like and easy to pick up, just as they are in the GTA games. The race being shown pitted Wei against six others, as you cut in and out of Hong Kong traffic, following red markers and barricades pointing the direction you needed to go. Using drifting to your advantage is a necessary part of the racing, as you cut around sharp turns and use rivals to stop your momentum.

The course was surprisingly easy to follow. Whether this was just this particular race or the design of the city, we’ll have to wait and see, but the driving mechanics were easy to pick up and use. This is going to be a big part of the game too, and a lot of action—including shootouts and mid-freeway car jackings–will be part of the game.

Sleeping Dogs will be familiar to anyone that has played a GTA game before, but there is more to it than that. The setting and the tone are darker than most GTA games, and the world of the Hong Kong underground is compelling and immersive. It is also flashy and seductive, and what was shown played out more like a movie than a game.

There is no official released ate yet other than 2012, but Sleeping Dogs has earned a place among our most anticipated titles of the year.

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