Development hell is a sad place. Thousands of shelves line the drab walls that overflow with the games, films, books and albums that never quite made it. Whether they were deemed unprofitable, unfinished, unwanted or inappropriate, they now just sit in that unforgiving place, gathering dust. Few projects escape this dank idea-tomb, but occasionally a title will have a surge of interest or stroke of luck that propels it, blinking, back into the sunlight. When a title with as troubled a development as United Front Games' Sleeping Dogs finally sees a release, it's a miracle in itself. I had a good four hours to sit down and explore Sleeping Dogs' vibrant and menacing world in some early and mid-game segments to see how the crime drama fared after a stint in development hell.
Sleeping Dogs began life as an original IP inspired by the free-roaming, crime-filled world of Grand Theft Auto but planned to offer players a bustling Hong Kong in which to cause all manner of havoc. The difference to the more well-known GTA is the game's obvious roots in Hong Kong action cinema.
The story is dark and the action highly stylised. Before Sleeping Dogs had a publisher though, Activision came along and noted the game's thematic similarities to their seemingly dead True Crime series. Wanting to reboot that series with a serious, and already near-finished, game, they bought the rights and set about rebranding the game as their own with a new development team. Unsurprisingly, they eventually noticed the ambivalent industry, and fan, reaction to another True Crime title and decided to concentrate on their more profitable franchises. The original team at United Front Games were given back their code and went about completing the game sans the True Crime name. This was a confusing time for Sleeping Dogs, as gamers weren't sure which title was which and internet speculation was rife. So when the game was picked up by the new publisher Square Enix, they set about orchestrating a media blitz of fantastic trailers to emphasise the original and mature concept many gamers were still confusing for True Crime.
An important distinction to make before we go any further is Sleeping Dogs' influences. While free-roaming crime games like GTA are steeped in American crime dramas, Sleeping Dogs takes some heavy cues from Hong Kong action films. Specifically, films such as Hardboiled and Internal Affairs have obviously influenced many aspects of the game. This means the action is stylistic and over the top, while still being grounded with a dark, brutal storyline. It also means players expecting the attempted realism of GTA IV will be disappointed. This doesn't reflect poorly on the game though, only on players' expectations.
Sleeping Dogs puts you in the capable shoes of Wei Shen, an undercover cop sent back to his native Hong Kong from San Francisco because of his history with the Sun On Yee, a huge Yakuza-like organisation that operates in the city. Shen quickly slips back in with his childhood friends who never escaped the brutal life of organised crime.
While this may seem like a fairly standard undercover cop story, the exciting aspect is the two paths Shen can take. Should you choose the honourable route, you can try and bring the Sun On Yee down from the inside while tenuously maintaining your cover. But for the more power-hungry players, the story can branch off into much darker territory as you slowly move up the ranks of the criminal organisation through various acts of sabotage, murder and kidnapping. All under the nose of the police force. Much of the time these choices are by no means straightforward, forcing you to make hard decisions that could get your friends arrested or your colleagues killed. What makes it so tense is that the characters are not merely cardboard cut-outs. Your childhood friend, Jackie Ma, is a perfect example of this. While he is content to operate on the fringes of the Sun On Yee, your ascent to power drags him into increasingly dangerous situations that are entirely your fault. His character grows on you though, and the comfortable friendship makes late game decisions even more difficult. The interesting characters are helped along by some surprisingly stellar voice actors, especially for an unproven series. Will Yun Lee (the Silver Samurai in the upcoming Wolverine film) plays Wei Shen to great effect, with the cast rounded out by big names such as Edison Chen, James Hong, Kelly Hu and the eternally entertaining Tom Wilkinson. The talent on offer shows how confident Square Enix are in their new franchise, and gives the plot a higher level of cinematic credibility than if the developers had procured unproven names.
The combat feels reminiscent of the free-flowing brutality of Batman: Arkham City. Many recent games have attempted to emulate the combat system that Arkham Asylum introduced (and Arkham City improved), with varying degrees of success. Sleeping Dogs has commandeered several of the developers who helped develop the Batman fighting system, and players familiar with that game will feel immediately at home. But Sleeping Dogs makes Shen feel like a very different beast to Batman, and years of gang association have honed him into a more than capable physical powerhouse. It's actually surprising and pleasing that the game slipped under the Office of Film and Literature Classification's radar, because some of Shen's finishing moves are beyond brutal. This fits perfectly in with the story and the city's dark underbelly.
Vehicles also play a huge part in the gameplay of Sleeping Dogs, with high-speed chases a particular highlight. Some of the team that helped develop the Need for Speed series have weighed in on the driving mechanics. This is obvious when you first jump onto your bike. The handling doesn't have the weight of more realistic driving simulators, but the emphasis is on conveying speed to the player. Coupled with a shunt move and the (endlessly fun) ability to jump from one car to another, mid-chase, means the driving segments are as fast-paced as they are action-packed. This is especially apparent later in the game when Shen obtains some hugely powerful cars befitting a high-ranking mobster. These endlessly respawn at your car park should you get a taste for running your sports cars up the back of unsuspecting motorbikes.
Sleeping Dogs doesn't aim to reinvent the wheel, but the game does offer a different perspective on the open-world crime drama. Players might have differing expectations on what the game is intending to deliver, as many won't notice the cinematic influences. Still, from the four hours that I played, the game has some exciting new ideas mixed in with the classic fun of an open-world game. This format, wrapped up in a dark undercover cop drama, should be more than enough to launch a successful new franchise for Square Enix, as long as it can overcome the aftermath of the mid-development woes that almost left it as just another True Crime game.