Square Enix's next game, Sleeping Dogs, is a bit of a hypocrite. Its name is derived from that old proverb about "letting sleeping dogs lie," but the Square completely ignored that advice when it resurrected the dozing open-world adventure game after it had been deemed too troublesome by Activision and left for dead. But that may turn out to be a very good thing. The new publisher must've seen something in the former True Crime: Hong Kong that Activision didn't, and it's not content to let Sleeping Dogs lie for long.
I spent a fair amount of time with the game when it was still True Crime: Hong Kong, and after a recent playtest at PAX East can confirm that it has undergone significant tweaks since Square Enix took the reins. But for all that's changed, the main storyline, setting and approach remain the same. Sleeping Dogs, now due for an August release, spotlights the plight of Wei Shen, a detective who returns to Hong Kong years after growing up there to infiltrate the Triads as an undercover operative—a tale that'll test his loyalty to old friends and his badge.
Hong Kong is a thriving metropolis with distinct sectors, the congested, neon-lit streets of one populous area appearing in stark contrast to the tall, modern skyscrapers and ritzy cars of the financial district. Essential storyline missions drive your progress through those streets, but it's still very much a sandbox environment filled with optional police missions, street races and even mini-games like karaoke and cockfighting.
The core experience remains, but Sleeping Dogs has definitely benefited from the extra development time and the input of Square Enix London Studios, the publisher's in-house support crew that previously enhanced Batman: Arkham Asylum and Just Cause 2 as each approached release. According to a London Studios representative, they've worked closely with the developers at United Front Games to enhance the early missions in the game to pull players into the experience, tweaked the controls and open-world balance and helped implement new social challenges that will be further detailed closer to the August launch.
On top of that, the London Studios team has significantly upgraded the melee combat, which draws strong influence from Batman: Arkham Asylum and Arkham City (the latter of which they didn't have a hand in). As in those games, you often face off against groups of attackers in Sleeping Dogs, fluidly trading blows and countering attacks between goons with the ability to grapple foes and drag them around to environmental hotspots for contextual attacks. Little tweaks like adding heavy attacks to melee buttons and a running tackle move and more brutal hand-to-hand assaults aim to amp up the cinematic presentation—best exemplified in the varied takedown and kill maneuvers in the game.
During my demo, I finally got to play a mission that I'd only been allowed to watch in 2010 when the game still bore the True Crime tag. Brutally beaten and maimed by Triads, Wei Shen fights back in an under-construction penthouse apartment, using the environment to dispatch foes in violently creative ways. Launching enemies into the flat screen TV they were just playing a dancing game on, tossing them down an elevator shaft or slamming them face-first into a table saw are just a few of the many options you have for dispatching goons in the large room. It's primarily good for laughs, but the cinematic kills also offer variety that break up the common melee skirmishes.
On-foot navigation was pretty fun, both when attempting to leap across workers' platforms suspended outside the penthouse from the previous scene, and later as I tried to chase a man through a winding Hong Kong market filled with food stands and bystanders. Momentum is essential, and you need to tap the appropriate key upon reaching barriers or gaps to vault over or across; otherwise, you'll lose speed or come to a complete stop, which is particularly damaging when sprinting through crowds to tackle someone.
The demo concluded with a taste of the game's street racing side, which strongly resembled past Need for Speed titles—no surprise, considering that the Vancouver-based United Front Games poached talent from EA Canada to head up the game's racing elements. Racing mechanics in open-world action games rarely prove to be as well-built and complex as they are in standalone driving titles, but Sleeping Dogs' segments seem poised to buck the trend with refined controls and physics. Rather than a filler element, racing felt like it could be one of the key aspects of the experience. And while I didn't get to play any of this, released footage has shown some exciting vehicle chase sequences and bike-based shootouts, so there's more here than just finish line sprints.
From what I've seen and played so far, Sleeping Dogs isn't as concerned with innovation as it is with iteration, pulling from outside the open-world genre to create a slicker and more cinematic sandbox affair. Their main goal is to improve the aspects that other open-world entries make barely passable, specifically hand-to-hand combat, on-foot movement and street racing. That little spark of promise I saw in True Crime: Hong Kong a while back shines a little brighter now in Sleeping Dogs, and I'm anxious to see if Square Enix's unexpected bet pays off later this summer.