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A forthcoming guilty pleasure: Sleeping Dogs

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Sleeping Dogs never used to be known as such.  No, instead the game that we now know by it’s slumbering canine monkier was actually going to be True Crime: Hong Kong and was going to be published by Activision Blizzard.

The reason for the name-change and the change in corporate overlords (from Acti to Square-Enix) was due to the fact that well, Activision thought the game ‘wouldn’t meet their high quality standards’, which was roundabout suit talk for saying that they thought the game was shit and as a result, the game was canned.

For the uninitated, True Crime: Hong Kong was to be an open-world, GTA-esque title set in Hong Kong mixing in free-roaming and martial arts combat elements to create something a little more brutal than what the genre typically sees.

United Front Games, the developers behind the game, kept the idea alive though and one thing lead to another and before they knew it, Square-Enix were poking their noses in and said to them – “You know what? You have something decent here, let’s take that ball and run with it”.

And so here we are – Sleeping Dogs.  A game that while perhaps lacking that top-tier spit and polish of Rockstar’s open world opus at this stage, certainly appears to have it’s sights set on satisfying the player with a heady cocktail of deep hand-to-hand combat (inspired by Batman: Arkham City no less – not a bad thing), free-roaming vehicle travel and combat and a twisty-turny story of undercover police work in the Triad gangs played out against the backdrop of China’s brightest city.

Below is the ‘Sleeping Dogs 101’ trailer, a nice little video which gives a fairly comprehensive overview of what to expect from the game:

As you can clearly see, the game certainly doesn’t skip on the brutality of visceral hand-to-hand combat with a myriad of disarmings, counters and environmental kills showcasing a the sort of depth in fighting system that open world games rarely enjoy.

Some of those environmental kills are downright nasty too; with folks getting their faces set on fire, their heads slammed in car doors and some poor chap getting split in two by heavy machinery.  Ouch.

It’s not just the combat either.  The driving and exploring facets of the game appear to be robust also; mixing up acrobatics (jumping from car to car and hanging off the side of lorries for dear life) with drive-by shootings and vehicle to vehicle combat – the game looks to carry the satisfying brutality wherever the action goes with due aplomb.

But why, despite this praise, have I categorised it as a ‘guilty pleasure’?  Well its due to a nagging feeling that despite the compelling nature of all of these parts, the final product might not quite equal the sum of its parts.

Firstly, the visuals.  The game looks good, but not spectacular.  A lot of the character models appear fairly generic and their animations immediately go into ‘spread your arms and legs ragdoll-style’ as soon as they die – appearing much less natural than the likes of GTA IV where the animations appear to be a lot more believeable, thanks to the Euphoria animation system that the game possesses.  The frame-rate also appears to vary quite wildly.  On-foot sections appear to shift along at a decent enough pace, but when the cars start speeding and the explosions start happening, things seemingly start entering jerk-o-vision, resulting in a choppy and less than smooth screen update.

Next up is the storyline.  Everything that we have seen so far, seems to lend credence to the idea that Sleeping Dogs is merely content to be a competent homage to Chinese action cinema, rather than trying to weave a tale with any sort of verve or surprises.

Finally, the other aspect of the game that could disappoint is the missions themselves.  How much variety can they possibly have beyond ‘kill this guy’ or ‘chase this guy’ or ‘pick this up for me’?  Again, this will likely tie directly into how sophisticated the narrative is, so if the plot falls flat than it wouldn’t be unreasonable to infer that the missions attached to them might as well.

Despite these reservations, the game still has a place reserved on my shelf for the simple reason that i’ve been a fan of roaming fighters like Streets of Rage and Final Fight for a long time now, and that, on face value at least, it appears to have a unique way with violence that very few games have.

Sure, Sleeping Dogs certainly attempts to join the clique of Saints Row and GTA but the Square-Enix published title has something unique to offer which it’s established rivals really don’t; a solid focus on melee combat and the cinematic elements of Hong Kong action cinema – which despite their signicant contributions to kinetic-action cinema at large, appear to be all but forgotten by videogames thus far.

Sleeping Dogs is due on 360, PS3 and PC in both standard and limited edition formats on August 17th, 2012.

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