Those who follow gaming news relatively closely know that Sleeping Dogs is a bit of a miracle baby. Originally slated to be the third entry in the True Crime series under the name True Crime: Hong Kong, the game was canceled in February of 2011 by its then-publisher, Activision. But then in August 2011, Square Enix snatched up the publishing rights to the game, retitling it Sleeping Dogs, and now it’s due out later this year.
But it’s important to note that Activision said that it canceled the game for being “just not good enough” to compete in the open-world genre. And as admirable as it is that the game managed to survive against the odds, I think I would have to agree with Activision after getting some hands-on time with Sleeping Dogs at PAX East this year.
That’s exactly the issue with Sleeping Dogs: it’s a crime-based, open-world game competing with very similar giants like the Grand Theft Auto series or even the Saints Row games (ed. note: or the now-cancelled A.P.B., which launched as an MMORPG, was cancelled a couple of months later, and recently underwent a zombie-like resurgence, limping from the grave), and it doesn’t do much to set itself apart from its peers. It’s certainly not of poor quality – quite the opposite, actually, and its polish is the best thing it has going for it – it’s just that it’s not particularly unique.
At one point, one of the other journalists straight up asked Justin Kranzl, Square Enix’s PR manager who was walking us through the demo as we played, what made Sleeping Dogs different than, say, GTA. He responded by pointing out that Sleeping Dogs takes place in Hong Kong, a real location, as opposed to Liberty City or Steelport, which makes for more realistic and immersive environments. I must confess that the environments were very well designed, with the large number of shops and “people density,” as Kranzl put it, contributing to the immersion. But beyond that, I’m not so sure that’s much of a defining trait.
He also said that the game’s heavy emphasis on story (a popular claim in gaming these days) and the its attempts to be believable/realistic were other aspects that set the game apart from other open-world sandbox games. “Players see how the mental anguish and stress influences how [main protagonist] Wei Shen interacts with people,” said Kranzl. And the story takes such a front seat that it actually had an influence on the gameplay design, with Kranzl saying that Square Enix “didn’t want to make it so mercilessly unforgiving that you can’t progress in the story.”
But the fact that Kranzl so regularly referenced The Departed and its inspiration, Infernal Affairs, when describing the story of Sleeping Dogs was a bit of a red flag to me. Sleeping Dogs’ story about Wei Shen, an undercover detective infiltrating the Triads who is betrayed and exposed, is not the most original plot.
No, the best thing the game has going for it is that it aims to be better-rounded in all of its gameplay mechanics than its competitors. Other developers of sandbox games tend to put too much focus on creating an expansive, open world for players to explore and enjoy; subsequently they forgo fine-tuning gameplay aspects like shooting mechanics, driving, or melee combat because they’re not always necessarily a major part of the game. It’s pretty common to see half-assed driving mechanics, for example, in open-world games where cars have awful handling or make you feel like you’re piloting a hovercraft.
Not so in Sleeping Dogs. “Picking up Sleeping Dogs from Activision gave us the extra time to flesh out all of the game’s mechanics that were already there, since we weren’t on any sort of timetable,” said Kranzl.
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