As a teenager I began an intimate love affair with Hong Kong cinema. Naturally, my initial gateway drug into this world came in the form of Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao and their collective performances in films like Wheels on Meals, Project A and My Lucky Stars to name a few, before discovering their individual talents in the likes of The Iceman Cometh, Police Story (series) and Enter the Fat Dragon.
These action flicks had a specific style to them that dominated the Hongkie movie scene for a long time, and many others followed in their footsteps like Jet Li and his performances in films such as My Father is Hero, Doctor Wai in the Scripture with No Words, Fist of Legend and the Once Upon a Time in China series, among others. But it would be my discovery of Chow Yun Phat and his work in John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow series that truly opened my eyes to the brutal, hard-boiled world of the Hong Kong underground, as romantically portrayed in Eastern cinema.
This obviously continued with the likes of, aptly, Hard-Boiled, then The Killer and Bullet in the Head (again, to name a few). From there, it was just a case of finding all the best movies delivering on the genre in ways Western cinema had never thought of. Wong Kar Wai’s Fallen Angels, and even Chung King Express before it, took away any of the sheen of Woo’s movies in favour of a dimly lit, less-than-romantic view of the Hong Kong underground. And of course, there’s City on Fire by Ringo Lam, which also starred Chow Yun Phat, though it’s probably more famous as the movie Tarantino derived his idea for Reservoir Dogs from (which incidentally took him a while to admit).
So why the lengthy history of rad Hongkie movies preamble? Well, it’s important to point out the importance
of Hong Kong cinema on modern popular culture. Hell, even a movie like The Departed being as well directed, written and acted as it was, was still lifted from Hong Kong cinema (Infernal Affairs for all the slow ones). But even more than this, was the idea that ultimately, the videogames industry seems to have been left out of this loop on the most part, and as an avid fan of both, and active employee of the latter, this just doesn’t seem right.
Which brings us to Sleeping Dogs, a game whose name is as much a homage to Hong Kong cinema as it is a slight dig against an industry hellbent on the sequel monetary model, over the fostering of new, original IP. You might have known it as True Crime: Hong Kong, as it was called during a tenure over at publisher Activision, who promptly pulled the plug on the game after a handful of unsuccessful showings and a clear issue with developer, United Front Games.
I saw the True Crime: Hong Kong back in May of 2010
. That’s a long time ago, and even back then it had been in development for a while, and games on long design tracks like this have a tendency to lose their way. I’ll definitely say that while promising all the way back then, it still lacked a lot of polish and certain sentiments of direction the type of game it was trying to be, needed to be, but it looks like being dumped off Acti’s radar and picked up by Square Enix has done the team some good. Like, maybe ending a notoriously long and heavy bender, in favour of a bit of detox - cleansing the soul, so to speak.
What hasn’t changed since all the way back in 2010 is the game’s basic direction: a sandbox title set in a videogameified Hong Kong starring an undercover cop infiltrating the triads. It borrows heavily from its top tier peers, like GTA (obviously), Batman: Arkham... either one, Just Cause and Need For Speed. To name a few. But it’s also still borrowing from its original self in that there are a number of issues I found with animations, animation trees and the controls in general.
There’s enough here to not just make this a good game, but a seriously great game, and wearing your heart[s] on your sleeve[s] is never really a bad thing, if its done in a homagenous sense, which seems to be the direction here. But given the game is trying to recreate action built from a genre where action means as much as sex does in a story-driven porno, they need to spend some time building a more rewarding combat system.
The parkour felt a bit rigid at times, and the game’s sticky camera through chase-sequences worked, but also borked my field of direction a few times, which didn’t make for an intuitive run through, in either a gameplay, or cinematic, sense. Moreover, actual hand-to-hand combat missed a lot of opportunities. There are a number of great environmental takedowns you can perform based on where you are, such as shoving a bad-guy’s face into a rooftop fan system, or on a hot stove like he was Sylvester The Cat, but there were really only three inputs on the active action roster - Counter (ala Batman), Attack and Grapple. These were then strung together in basic combinations that would make old Bats shy away in shame - not at their ineffectiveness, but more at the missed potential of a game based in a country where martial arts reigns supreme.
It’s by no means broken, and that’s something I need to stress, because it’s still fun, and that’s as important as being able to perform a 40+ hit combo with Variation and Gadget Bonuses in Batman, but environmental takedowns retract from a sense of freedom in combo choice, and action on the player’s part, and become, dare I say it... cheap. Why would you use everything at protagonist Wei Shen’s martial arts disposal when a few punches followed by a grapple and a press of a button while next to an environmental takedown-specific area, can do the work for you? Meanwhile, the victim’s buddies are largely standing around just watching; waiting their turn for comedic or brutal death...
a preview though. And a lot of what we saw was still “early days” we were being told, and again, it’s not that any of it was broken - it just could have been much more. Where the game did shine, in my opinion, is driving. GTA always has a great, robust physics system applied to its vehicular component, but often this is almost too sensitive for the type of game GTA is. What we’re left with is a control system that’s fun, but touchy, and in a clincher, more of a liability than a sure thing. Not that success should ever be assured, but there needs to be a fine line between arcade fun, accessibility and a feel for driving a car on suspension and carrying weight. Sleeping Dogs nails this with gusto.
I partook in a race as part of game’s clear myriad of mini-games, and was accompanied by one Lucy Lieu voicing one of the game’s main characters, but none of that mattered, what mattered was that driving through the narrow, windy streets of Hong Kong was in check here. I felt like I had top control all the way through. Handbreaking felt right
, drifting actually felt tangible
, like, I was making this shit happen, and happen how it was meant to happen. And as expected, I drove through the ribbon at the end of my race, first time, a winner. Which left me wondering if maybe the team had over-simplified the overall experience. Combat could do with an extra layer or two, but not everyone plays Batman to the degree I do (ie, obsessively), and not everyone wants a game that pins you against a wall because you can’t work out all of its systems. In effect, maybe Sleeping Dogs is actually a pretty approachable old pooch.
And this brings me back to a resonating point - none of what I saw was ever broken. The game is more than capable of keeping you glued to your seat, and I, for one, am already hooked on its Infernal Affairs-homaging tale. Alongside this is its XP system that marries being a triad, a cop and building “Face” (a Hongkie respect term) and its clear manifest of great side-missions and sandbox gameplay options (such as the GTA-inspired stunt-jump locations, of which I stumbled upon one), keeping everything at a point of well and truly interested.
If anything, and in keeping with the aforementioned “lengthy” preamble, United Front Games could be forgiven for hoping Sleeping Dogs is a success, if only to flesh out all the potential I mentioned above in a sequel, that wouldn’t be so much like a sequel in the way much of the games industry treats its properties, but in keeping with the whole Hongkie movie love - which is all about giving the fans what they want.
Stay tuned early next week for a video interview talking a little about the game’s genesis, what happened over there at Activision and being able to drop the True Crime name.