Expectations are dangerous. Dead Island found this out the hard way, working the audience to frothing excitement with a wonderfully crafted CG trailer that bore precious little resemblance to the actual game. It's with this warning in mind, and with my anticipation coloured by a glitzy live-action trailer, that I sit down to play Sleeping Dogs, an open world crime game saturated in new wave Hong Kong cinema.
Clearly, developer United Front Games has heeded that warning, too: pretty much everything you see in that trailer can be done in the game. There's bone-snapping close-quarters chopsocky, vicious slow-motion gunplay, frenetic car chases, death defying inter-vehicle stunts, ghastly blood-letting with kitchen implements, and environments whose every surface begs for context-sensitive violence: sizzling stoves await the face of a triad goon while fridge doors swing open to close eagerly on thuggish skulls. And not any of this is demoted to QTE, but remains an ever-available mechanic in a dynamic, bustling recreation of Hong Kong.
Even if the game matches the trailer's action blow for blow, Sleeping Dogs is, however, wrestling with another set of expectations which are aren't nearly as optimistic. Having been previously announced as True Crime: Hong Kong, publisher Activision first delayed the project from 2010 to 2011, and then finally swung the axe last year, saying that it just wouldn't reach the required level of quality.
"Even our most optimistic internal projections show that continued investment was not going to lead to a title at, or near, the top of the competitive open world genre," said Activision CEO Eric Hirshberg. "In an industry where only the best games in each category are flourishing, to be blunt, it just wasn't going to be good enough."
"Enough" is the operative word there; it may sound a gloomy prognosis but it's one which reflects the pitiless reality of the publishing business rather than the charms of the game - as is pointed out by Jeff O'Connell, Sleeping Dog's softly spoken and bequiffed senior producer.
"The statement made by Activision doesn't mean that the game isn't fun, or that it doesn't offer something new and original," he says. "It just means that it isn't GTA."
"It was a purely strategic thing," emphasises exec producer Stephen Van Der Mescht. "When we set up with Activision, we gave them a long term plan. We weren't going to get there on the first iteration. We were very transparent and upfront in saying, look, we're building new technology and we think we can get to this level, then with the second kick of the can we can get to that level and then the third time around we can make our bid for the top spot. We had a very clear strategy around that.
"But that drifted away from where they wanted to be. Business is business - there were a lot of people at Activision who wanted to continue with the game, but they had strategic imperatives to be number one in every genre they were developing in. If anyone does that first time around - my God, show me those people!"
Van Der Mescht is the epitome of diplomacy, stressing that there's no bad blood, and pointing out that Activision were hardly dumping a finished product: "Most of the content was playable, but it needed a lot of polish and a lot of additional work," he says. "And it's not only that, you have to throw the marketing cost on top of that, and bringing the product to market. It was a significant investment."
Cold strategic decision or not, the refusal to follow that investment through has nonetheless been a kick in the teeth for the studio - and something of a surprise given the considerable pedigree of its staff, founded by former members of EA Black Box, Rockstar and Radical Entertainment.
"It's hard," says Van Der Mescht after a long sigh, himself a ten-year veteran of Radical, makers of Prototype, Scarface and many Marvel-themed action games. "It doesn't matter why something gets cancelled; if you see something that you've worked on for three years, something you've given your life to, get cancelled, it's devastating. And we went from 180 people in the team to 60 in two weeks. That side of it is awful."
"It takes a big toll on everybody," chips in tech director Dave Roberts. "Just trying to regroup emotionally, and dealing with all the lost momentum."
"But we still believed in it," says Van Der Mescht. "And what became apparent very quickly is that other people believed in it, too."
Square Enix came to the rescue, bankrolling the remaining development and wisely electing to drop the True Crime moniker in the process. Sales receipts will ultimately tell if they made the right decision, but from the few short hours I had with the game, it's clear that the additional delay has only benefited it. In fact, I thought it was rather terrific fun, if delivered through what is now a very familiar GTA-esque structure.
"The upside of all this was that it gave us a chance to stand back and look at what we had and evaluate," says Van Der Mescht. "We got a rare second chance. We were able to say we can add this, fix that, make this a lot stronger."
Though it's hard to point to a single mechanic in the game which is wholly its own, Sleeping Dogs is instead an assiduous aggregator and intelligent iterator of the best ideas around. Although no doubt development was concurrent, it's hard not to feel echoes of Assassin's Creed's parkour pursuits, the parry-based melee combat of Batman: Arkham City, the context-sensitive brutality of Splinter Cell: Conviction, the slow-mo shooting of Max Payne, the acrobatic carjacking of Just Cause and an aggressive arcade driving model that owes a debt to the likes of Need For Speed. All this comes wrapped in the open world format epitomised by GTA, replete with cinematic cut-scenes, character drama, side-missions and assorted distractions. There's even a mahjong minigame.
You may have seen each bit before, but their combination here is unique, and unusually fluid. Design director Mike Skupa explains: "One of the mantras we came up with at the start of the project was 'no modes'. We didn't want it to feel like you were in fighting mode, and then in shooting mode or running mode. It's all about how quickly we can transition you from one to the other without the controls changing or becoming complicated."
"It really blossomed out," says Van Der Mescht. "If you watch a lot of Hong Kong movies you see how much they incorporate the environment. Jackie Chan is always flipping chairs into people or throwing somebody to crash through a table. It is an M rated game so we've, uh, kind of pushed the boundaries."
I'll say. Here are some notes I took while playing the game, under the heading, "Ways I killed the bad men."
- broke spine with shop window shutter
- thrown down a vent
- dropped over balustrade
- electrocuted by unsafe circuit breaker
- punched to death with a phone
- head slammed in car door
- garotted with electrical wire
- hog-washed in own piss
- skewered on girder
- cleavered in the neck, arms and face
- face pushed into table saw
- face lopped off by fan blade
- face set on fire with a cooker
Faces, as you can see, don't come out too well from Sleeping Dogs combat system. What makes this remarkable is not just the astounding violence of it, but the wealth of affordances for such action within the open world. Everywhere you look there's an object waiting for a head to be slammed into it. Every car in the game can be used as an impromptu bludgeon, and its boot a coffin. In any fight, grappling an enemy allows you to whirl them round at speed, slapping them into scenery before, say, pushing them into an open lift shaft.
Fighting itself is a wonderfully energetic mixture of confrontation and counter-attack. Offence provides a flurry of blows and grapples which turn into flying kicks and body slams when you add movement. Defence allows you to turn any attack against your opponent, parlaying your parry into vicious combos to snap arms and legs.
Keeping combat varied and gut-churningly violent gives you Face, raising your status within the criminal underworld, and Triad XP, which unlocks further horrible moves. But don't worry, it's all in the name of justice: underneath your brutish exterior you are actually a man of the law, and for every civilian casualty and act of vandalism you get penalised Police XP, denying you a perfect score and access to handy upgrades.
Melee combat easily segues into gunplay, in which vaulting maneuvers afford you momentary slow-motion, which additional kills extends. Gun-battles might then turn into on-foot pursuits, dodging through crowded markets and scaling scenery with timed taps - slowing you slightly when a sloppy button press leaves you bumbling over a fruit stall. Alternatively, you might take to the roads, shunting enemies into sidings with a not-terribly-Newtonian ram maneuver or taking out their tires and gas tanks with a hail of slo-mo pistol fire. Then, to confuse the pursuing cops, you leap from one moving vehicle to another, commandeer it, and zip off down an alley to make good your escape.
It's a lot to juggle, but the additional development time seems to have allowed UFG to keep all the balls in the air. And there's more besides: side missions in which you take photographs of scenic views, uncover lost idols, deliver chickens and rough up gang-bangers. These distractions may be par of the course for a game from the GTA mould, but it's housed by a theme that has yet to be really explored by Western games: a twisting undercover cop story heavily influenced by the macabre complexity of Infernal Affairs and Hong Kong action flicks, headed by stars like Jackie Chan and Tony Jaa. And this setting is a largely serious one: the game never strays into the excesses of frivolous carnage pioneered by Saints Row and others.
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Triad and tested.
"We have narrative themes that wouldn't be helped by making the player do things that don't feel human," says Van Der Mescht. "Obviously we hyperbolise a lot of the action, but it's still physically possible to do all the things in the game, it's just not physically possible to survive it all!"
Nor is this intended to be any sort of caricature of the East: UFG has assembled a Cantonese-speaking voice cast of considerable repute, and they pepper the English script with Hong Kong slang. The depiction of the city, too, is vivid - capturing a sense of intense, vital diversity.
"From a geographical perspective Hong Kong is really interesting," says Van Der Mescht. "You've got a city surrounded by water, a great natural border. But one of the things you notice when you go there is just how distinct the different neighbourhoods are. It was under British rule for 155 years and there's an amazing fusion of technology and tradition. You go into some neighbourhoods and they're full of night markets, bustling and alive with these small little alleyways, and then just a kilometre away you have one of the most iconic modern skylines in the world."
Creating a credible and culturally apt Eastern cityscape is only a small part of the challenge that Sleeping Dogs hopes to overcome: it's a new IP, built on new tech, and its open world contains a narrative-driven game that flits between sophisticated brawler, shooter and racer, with a cluster of supporting mechanics besides. Could it be a more ambitious project for a fledgling studio? As Van Der Mescht jokes, only if they'd made it an MMO, too.
Despite the palpable effort and skill behind it, Sleeping Dogs faces an uphill struggle with public perception thanks to its development hiccups, unknown name, and superficial resemblance to GTA. Well, okay, perhaps the resemblance is more than superficial. But this promises to be an intelligent genre piece, not a slap-dash cash-in, which compiles a list of the open world's most colourful features and weaves them into an ever-dynamic action spectacle that is all its own. That might be the idea - but perhaps it's best to go in with no other expectation than to have your expectations reset.