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GDC 2012 Preview: Sleeping Dogs

By Neilie Johnson, 3/12/2012

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There weren't too many “big” games to be excited about at this year's Game Developer's Conference but Square Enix's upcoming open world action title, Sleeping Dogs, was definitely one of them. After the stylish live-action trailer Square released a month or so ago, Sleeping Dogs had a lot to live up to. Fortunately, the demo shown to members of the press this week indicates chances are good that upon release, the game will meet—or even surpass—expectations.

Sleeping Dogs aims to improve on the Western Grand Theft Auto model by viewing it through a decidedly Eastern filter. The story follows the doings of undercover cop Wei Shen, whose assignment is to infiltrate the Triads (specifically, a gang called the Soon On Yee). His dilemma? Aside from finding and taking down the leader of the gang, or “Dragon Head”, his biggest challenge is to find the precarious balance between playing his role convincingly enough, and actually becoming a criminal. We were given hands-on time with two levels of the game: “Night Market Chase” and “Fast Girls”. The first was meant to demonstrate the game's melee combat system while the latter was designed to show off the game's driving and racing gameplay. Both mechanics appear to be shaping up well.

Night Market Chase began with Wei meeting with some Triad thugs in the back room of a Chinese restaurant. Playing as Wei, I was ordered to demonstrate my loyalty by looking for a petty criminal who was causing some trouble for the Triads. Leaving the restaurant through the kitchen (really I should say, “After I was stuck in that kitchen for an embarrassing length of time”, because the exit wasn't exactly obvious), I strolled down to the busy, nighttime streets. What this short jaunt from restaurant to street made abundantly clear was that for now, Sleeping Dogs has camera issues. The camera couldn't be controlled and as I walked it did the weirdest things, pointing at the ground or angling up toward the ceiling to look at nothing. I sincerely hope Square addresses that before release because man, it was a nuisance.

Anyway, I jogged toward my target, past shouting street vendors (this incidental chatter actually confused me a couple of times since it was so loud, I thought I was supposed to go to them) and crowds of sketchy night owls. This area established how beautiful the game promises to be. The market felt very much alive, with lots of attention to detail and great lighting. And although it would be impractical to accurately portray the crushing throngs of Hong Kong without interfering with gameplay, careful NPC dispersement made the streets feel appropriately crowded. I ran through the market and found my target who of course, ran. Then ensued a hair-raising foot chase punctuated by a couple of multi-enemy fist fights that demonstrated the game's cool handling of hand-to-hand combat.

Much like the combat system of Batman: Arham Asylum/Arkham City, melee combat in Sleeping Dogs is designed for fluid, powerful ass-kicking. Simple one-button attacks allow you to punch, grapple and kick your opponents and a reversal move lets you turn an enemy's attack back on them. Much like Arkham, these moves are designed to take out groups of enemies by letting you change targets easily. It was all entertaining but the most fun by far was grappling guys and then dragging them head-first into dumpsters and walls. In between clobbering groups of minor enemies the chase went on until finally I confronted my target (the cocky bastard) and wiped the proverbial floor with him using moves I'd more or less mastered by then.

“Fast Girls”, the second part of the demo Square showed us, was a bit shorter and began with Wei challenging a local thug to a street race. A bit apprehensive after having played (and failed) many unforgiving GTA-style street races, I anticipated a stunning loss. As it was, I did well which isn't to say that United Front has made the mechanic easier; it's that they've streamlined it in ways that maximize the fun. Racing against a handful of other cars, I zoomed around the nighttime streets of Hong Kong at top speed, guided by red flares. Having played perhaps too much Mario Kart, my first impulse was not to win fair and square, but to run everyone else off the track and it worked like a charm. Now when a game has a racing element, the first question on everyone's mind is, “Is there a multiplayer mode?” Sad to say, Square said there isn't, but they also said the game will track your skill at racing and other activities (which are as yet unannounced) and these will be “socially integrated”. My guess is that it's a fancy term for “will be posted on leaderboards”.

Sleeping Dogs is looking like a much-needed fresh take on the open world action game and I for one am planning on picking it up. When however, I can't say, since Square wouldn't commit to a release date and would only say “sometime in 2012”. Ah well. They seem bent on taking the time to get the game right and for the most part, it looks as if they've got a pretty good head start.



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