We go hands-on with Square Enix’s open world action game, Sleeping Dogs

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It was somewhat surprising when Activision dropped United Front Games’ True Crime: Hong Kong game after showcasing it at GDC and E3 in 2010. Even back then, the game looked solid. And although it had the True Crime branding, it really was an original open world game set in Honk Kong. Square Enix has stepped in and revived the game, which has shed the True Crime brand in favor of what could become a new franchise, Sleeping Dogs. The game will finally ship for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC later this year, although no exact date has been given yet.

Sleeping Dogs has come a long way in a couple of years. Visually impressive, the game is also very easy to pick up and play. Mike Skupa, design director at United Front Games, said that the team has focused on “combat, shooting and driving and making those best-in-class so that gamers can have the same quality of experience as they’d have in a linear game.”

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With nods to games like GTA IV, Gears of War 3, and Batman: Arkham City, Sleeping Dogs is aiming for the growing audience of gamers that are clamoring for story-driven entertainment. Skupa said the team, which traveled to Hong Kong to capture the look and feel of the game, drew inspiration from Hollywood.

“We were influenced by a wide range of movies, especially The Departed, which is based on Infernal Affairs,” said Skupa. “Eeven films like the Bourne series and Tarantino movies played a role. And then, obviously, we watched a lot of Hong Kong cinema and action movies.”

The game features elaborate fight sequences with eight or more enemies converging at once, huge car chases through crowded Hong Kong streets, and intense firefights with cover-driven action. For the most part, a simple button push will have players performing death-defying feats. During a fistfight, objects throughout the environment, whether it’s a table saw in an under-construction building or a garage parking lot with a car battery suspended in the air, are easily accessible to deliver gory finishes to enemies. It’s the ability to quickly utilize objects in an environment that allows the melee combat to move at a frenetic space with many enemies attacking at once.

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“The big focus of the game has been that it’s a sandbox game and that goes both for the mission structure as well as the core game play mechanics,” said Skupa. “Our three big core mechanics would be the melee combat, the driving, and the shooting aspects. All of those things get touched by a free running system, which basically allows the player to navigate the world in a very contextual manner. What I believe stands out is the way we bring all of these elements together to create a seamless mix of gameplay that the player can utilize to overcome a variety of obstacles.”

One of the playable demo’s more memorable experiences takes place on a crowded highway, in and out of traffic – sometimes on-coming – with the player pursuing a bad guy’s sports car while on a motorcycle. In addition to shooting out tires of cars, which sends the car flying into the air for a finishing shot to turn it into an exploding wreck, the player can navigate through traffic and–with a perfectly-timed button push–can jump onto the roof of the speeding car before sliding into the driver’s seat for an interrogation. Skupa hinted that the final game will also offer an even more harrowing boat battle in the waterways in and around the coasts of Hong Kong. While the action is accessible and takes center stage, the world was created based on the real Hong Kong.

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“From the beginning, we really wanted to ground the story in reality so we did a lot of research on the Triads and undercover work, and we created a universe that we put our main character, Wei Shen, in,” said Krupa. “We started off creating a set of characters, a scenario, a neighborhood, and then with our main character we tried to create a sympathetic character that we could put undercover. The big focus on that was just the concept of identity, which is a strong aspect of any good undercover movie. Shen actually goes back to the neighborhood he grew up in and has to deal with a lot of the characters that he knew as a youth. The story is a combination of his professional journey and his personal journey, which makes the conflict within the character quite interesting.”

In addition to the core narrative structure, the player has hundreds of secondary things to do within the game world, which is broken up into four large sections of Hong Kong. Players are free to explore and do favors for characters, take on jobs, and even go shopping. Shen will collect a number of vehicles throughout the game, including motorcycles and cars, and those can be stored in garages throughout the city, at the ready for driving action or simply a night on the town.

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“There’s an extensive upgrade system that allows the player to grow his character both from a combat standpoint as well as with skills like driving and shooting capabilities,” explained Skupa. “There are a lot of different things that the player can do, but we really wanted to make sure that the majority of our secondary content actually ties into the fiction and the themes of the core story experience.”

Lee Singleton, general manager of Square Enix London Studios, believes people will be “quite comfortable playing Sleeping Dogs because of the intuitive controls, but they’ll be pleasantly surprised with the gameplay mechanics and doing some things they probably haven’t done before within an open world environment.”

The way things are shaping up, Sleeping Dogs could launch a brand new franchise for Square. Singleton said that the brand isn’t tied to one city, either, which opens up an entire world of possibilities.