The open-world action game Sleeping Dogs was one of the surprise hits of a recent pre-E3 tour of major upcoming video games by a gaggle of video game reporters.
What was once a game left for dead, abandoned by Call of Duty publisher Activision is once again without the True Crime name it had at E3 2010. It's back to being its own thing, by way of being the thing you might expect if you mashed up Grand Theft Auto with a Hong Kong action movie.
The game went down so well because its modern day Hong Kong looks are distinct from the American cities we've been playing in these kinds of games and also because development studio United Front has made a game that feels good to play… feels good to play if you don't abhor action movie violence.
A highbrow game of clean action this is not. A highlight reel set the tone with a car hood slicing through a man's body, a drill applied to some legs, a man beaten down with a phone, another with a shovel, another with his face shoved into an oven burner.
You're an undercover cop in this game, getting as dirty as you can with the Triad criminal gangs you're infiltrating to both keep your cover and justify the kind of bullet ballet and kicks to the face that suit the Hong Kong action movie vibe.
United Front make ModNation Racers games, so they know driving and unsurprisingly have slipped some car and motorcycle chases into this, complete with a Pursuit Force-style "action hijack" system that lets hero Wei Shen leap from the vehicle he is in to the next one he needs to steer.
Our of the car, Winston's adventures feel more distinct, as this is an open-world game with a healthy amount of hand-to-hand combat. Wei Shen is proficient enough in parkour and martial arts that he can leap a table in a sprint to tackle an enemy, can disarm them mid-flow and can utilise many of the objects near him — refrigerator door? furnace? Sure! — to kill somebody who is both hassling him and has the misfortune to stand near such an object. In general, hand-to-hand combat and character movement feels more, more akin to what you'd experience in a brawler than an open-world game. Guns are available, of course, but shootouts in Sleeping Dogs are its least distinct element, bringing the game back into potential GTA wannabe territory. Yes, you can slide across just about any table to shoot someone, John Woo Stranglehold-style, but that feels less fresh than it did a couple of years ago.
As perhaps a knock on GTA (a point of differentiation, they might say!), the Sleeping Dogs team talks about their belief that they can make an open-world game that plays well whether you're driving, fighting or shooting. If that's the arena they want to be in, then their story will have to be as well-acted and their characters as interesting and memorable. We'll see.
What they do have that GTA doesn't is their role-playing game twist, an accruing of points for impressive actions that can be used to upgrade your fighting abilities, the respect you command from the local population and your affinity to the cops or the game's Triad gangs.
Sleeping Dogs is a mid-August game, which seems right both for the "dog days of summer" puns we'll inevitably get and for the kind of quality we see here: not so immediately impressive as to seem like it can thrive against the heavyweights of the fall, but possibly over-achieving enough that it can improve a slow part of the year and please people early before they get to the games they were expecting to love.