While many fans of 2012's Sleeping Dogs were hoping for a proper sequel, United Front Games and Square Enix have instead gone a different route with Triad Wars, a free-to-play multiplayer online action game currently in closed beta. Like Sleeping Dogs, Triad Wars is set in Hong Kong, and challenges players to start as a common street thug and build up their own criminal empire, piece by piece, while competing with their rivals.
One of the first things you'll see in the Triad Wars beta is the suggestion that it's more fun to play with a controller. I'd actually go as far as saying you absolutely need a controller, especially for driving, which feels next to impossible on a keyboard. Shooting is probably easier with the mouse, but everything else from, combat to just running around, performs much better with a controller.
As a low-level thug, you begin by choosing one of three gangs to join, each focusing on a different criminal enterprise, like gambling, extortion, and counterfeiting. After a few introductory missions, you're given a cluster of buildings to serve as your base of operations. Initially, it's not much, but you can choose from a few types of moneymaking operations—cock fighting, card rooms, manufacturing knock-off merchandise—and slowly upgrade them as you play. You're also given goons to protect your turf, and they can be upgraded as well.
Meanwhile, other players are doing the same. Knock them down a peg by invading their turf, smacking around their goons, and pummeling the boss (an AI-controlled version of another player). Raids are timed: you only have a couple of minutes to invade before the cops show up, though you can extend this by engaging in a couple of activities beforehand: shaking down a goon for info, snatching a rival's deliveries, or beating a small group of his thugs into the ground.
Combat is enjoyable enough, and the punching and kicking feel pretty good, as does countering enemy attacks like Arkham's Batman: when an enemy shows a red outline you can tap a button to avoid the blow and return one of your own. There are also grappling moves, which are fun: grab a guy by the vest, push him over to a car, and slam his head in the door. Or, yank him over to a Dumpster and chuck him inside. With cops, countering is even more fun: as they try to slap cuffs on you, you can spin them around, cuff them, and kick them to the ground.
Naturally, this being a free-to-play game, there's an in-game currency, gold, which can be earned in tiny amounts by completing objectives or in larger amounts by spending real-world cash. Gold can be spent on favor cards (which can also be earned by completing objectives), which give you temporary weapon unlocks, combat buffs, or other bonuses. You can also spend gold on vehicles and clothing. I bought a hat. It was all I could afford, even after a couple hours of playing.
With only a small section of the city map currently available, and only a handful of repetitive missions in the beta, there's an almost instant feeling of grinding that sets in. Every rival's base is identical, so even raids feel rote after just one or two. I can definitely sense some promise in Triad Wars, and I'd like to revisit it later, but it's just too early to pin any real hopes on it. It's free, though, so if you can get into the closed beta, I do recommend taking a look.