If Square Enix's Sleeping Dogs had any buzz, it certainly never reached the heights of the giants, Grand Theft Auto or Saints Row. But even without all the pomp and circumstance, Sleeping Dogs deserves to be included in the conversation of the best open-world games.
Square Enix, which acquired the game from Activision and is best known for its Final Fantasy series, had to know that gamers would love Sleeping Dogs' strong narrative, its Grand Theft Auto-like open world and a melee fighting style similar to the Batman series.
Sleeping Dogs initially was scheduled to be released as True Crime: Hong Kong, the third installment in a series that made its debut on the first generation Xbox and PlayStation 2. True Crime: Streets of LA (2003) and True Crime: New York City (2005) were decent games that encouraged you to uphold the law rather than break it, as in Grand Theft Auto. There was nothing truly spectacular about either of those games, but both developed cult followings.
In February, however, Activision canceled True Crime: Hong Kong as part of series of cuts. Activision Publishing CEO Eric Hirshberg said only "top tier" games — like Activision's Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 and World of Warcraft — could compete in today's market.
United Front Games producer Dan Sochan said his crew was scooped up by Square Enix three months later, though Activision kept the True Crime game.
The concept for what would become Sleeping Dogs was born about four years earlier, Sochan said.
United Front, based in Vancouver, British Columbia, had been working on an open-world game with a cop. The team wanted the game to be set in Hong Kong with a focus on martial arts. Minor tweaks were made for consistency with the True Crimes franchise, he said.
The new start gave United Front an opportunity to regroup.
The fighting style in Sleeping Dogs was essentially the highlight of the game. But Sochan said his team wanted to add a lot of depth to the game because they "wanted to put the genre on its head."
Sleeping Dogs was built with a solid plot, and that's one of the key elements in establishing a good open-world game. Among the others are strong controls, freedom in a virtual city, a stunning similarity to reality and the joy you get out of creating chaos.
The protagonist is Wei Shen, an American undercover cop who returns to his native Hong Kong to help get a handle on the city's criminal enterprises. It's a lot like the movie In Too Deep; the deeper Shen embeds himself into the Triad underworld, the harder it is to see whose side he's on.
The developers did an excellent job moving Sleeping Dogs beyond basic genre moves such as kicking and punching. There are a bevy of martial arts moves that can be mastered in a training module fashioned as a local dojo. Players also can brush up on fighting styles by joining the underground fight scene. Winning in these fighting circuits increases street credibility and assists Shen in his undercover role.
Guns were purposely limited, Sochan said, and fighting ability is critical. The occasional tire iron can make quick work of an opponent, but it's far more rewarding to grab an enemy and toss him head-first into a breaker box or an aquarium with flesh-eating fish.
The mini-games in Sleeping Dogs are similar to what players have come to expect from this genre that spawned Grand Theft Auto and Saints Row. But there are enough side missions — like finding Shen a girlfriend — to keep gamers busy for days, even if they deviate from the true plot of the story.
The game is not without its annoyances. For example, Shen can steal a car (and lose points for being a bad cop), but he cannot store it in his garage. I prefer to have that freedom.
I also found it annoying that even after investing hours in the game, Shen still could not purchase certain clothes and cars because of low credibility. It's a good concept, but some of my purchases were foiled even after I beat the game.
But those are minor quibbles.
The controls for gunplay, especially the slow motion mode, are a nice touch. And driving presents a different set of challenges — not just because players have to learn to drive on the opposite side of the road — but because they occasionally will be required to hijack another vehicle by jumping from their own.
United Front's Sochan would not say whether there would be a sequel. For now, he said his team is focused on creating expansion packs so they can have "more fun" with this gritty crime drama.
However, Sochan says Square Enix has given them a good push, and most people have found out about the game by word of mouth.
"It's challenging to go out and battle some of the giants of the industry. ... We're really thankful how people latched onto the game," he said.
Delano R. Massey: (859) 231-1455.