This article originally appeared in issue 241 of PC Gamer UK.
Open-world action game protagonists tend to be of a schizophrenic bent. Nico Bellic's world-weary distaste for conflict does daily battle with his love for driving down the wrong side of the road hitting every lamppost on the way. Just Cause's Rico Rodriguez is a government agent who 'destabilises' rogue states by reducing their infrastructure to rubble.
I've just seen two sides of Sleeping Dogs' Wei Shen. One of them is an undercover police agent, infiltrating the Hong Kong Triad in a self-consciously mature story of revenge, duty, and quick-time events. The other Wei Shen dresses like Tony Jaa from Ong Bak, chases pork bun salesmen through the streets in the pouring rain, stuffs them into the boot of his car, and then does doughnuts at an intersection to the sound of their desperate, muffled cries for help.
“One of the great things about an open-world game is that it lets you break the rules,” says senior producer Jeff O'Connell. “To some extent, that's what we want people to do. It's fun to see people pick it up and say, 'actually I just want to be the villain'.”
In this case, breaking the rules is assisted by the fact that Hong Kong's police have been turned off. In the final game it won't be quite so easy to go on a pork-bun-salesman kidnapping spree – Wei Shen is an undercover cop, after all, and his compatriots don't take kindly to gratuitous breaches of the law. The point, though, is that these things are possible: United Front are trying to tell a story, but they're not interested in forcing it. “You can be yourself and customise your experience,” O'Connell says. “Even though we have a strong story aspect to the game, we let players play that however they wish.”
Sleeping Dogs' story missions are more linear than the majority of open-world games, with scripted traversal sections linking arena melee battles to third-person cover shooting. Rather than amassing an increasingly large arsenal of weapons over time, Wei Shen fights with whatever is to hand – cleavers and tyre irons taken from the environment, or firearms from the bodies of defeated foes. Likewise, vehicles are mission-specific: one chase sequence we saw required Wei Shen to leap from a motorbike onto a moving sports car, so there was no option to attempt the mission in a car or truck.
“People's experiences playing more linear games have changed expectations of what an open-world game needs to be,” O'Connell explains. It's no longer okay for a game to have ropey driving or shooting just because the world it takes place in is massive. United Front have worked hard to build their version of Hong Kong, but they've spent just as much time nailing down the details.
The studio is partly composed of ex-EA Black Box developers, and their experience on the Need for Speed series shows in Sleeping Dogs' driving model, in which the vehicles handle responsively and have a proper sense of weight. The game's more unrealistic mechanics – the ability to shunt your car sideways to knock enemies off the road, or Wei Shen's supernatural talent when leaping from a motorbike onto a moving vehicle – benefit from this solid groundwork.
Melee combat takes after Rocksteady's Arkham Asylum games, although the version I played didn't feel quite as fluid – unlike Batman, Wei Shen can't snap instantly between enemies, so it's easy to lose your combo by mis-timing a follow-up attack. Also unlike Batman, Wei Shen is perfectly willing to kill his enemies using a variety of brutal environmental takedowns.
Stunned foes can be grabbed, which causes applicable parts of the world nearby to light up in red. Dragging an enemy to one of these locations allows you to slam them in fridge doors, throw them over balconies, set them on fire using a stove, or jam their face into a circular saw. Kills become increasingly more gruesome as the campaign progresses, getting bloodier as Wei Shen's vendetta escalates.
The gunfights are pretty standard thirdperson shooter fare for the most part. Headshots are an instant kill, but the majority of guns feel fairly inaccurate. Wei Shen can slip into 'bullet time' while leaping over cover, and this provides an opportunity to pick off groups of enemies quickly, Max Payne-style.
Individually, each of these mechanics feels a little bit rougher than their counterparts in more linear games; but taken as part of a much bigger open world game, they show a lot of promise. O'Connell envisages a future where freeform and linear games eventually merge, and Sleeping Dogs could be a strong step in that direction.
“If you are a more linear game, you're gradually increasing the amount of open-world that's in there,” he says. “If you're more open-world focused, you are gradually increasing the amount of linear mechanics. The bar has been raised.”