Different name, new setting, same old series? We find out how the title formally known as True Crime: Hong Kong handles in our first hands-on.
We know what you're probably thinking: Sleeping Dogs? Has GameSpot, my favourite video and/or computer game internets website lost its mind and moved into the fast-paced world of pet accommodation? No sir, we have not. Sleeping Dogs is the recently revealed name for the game formerly known as True Crime: Hong Kong, a title Activision kicked to the curb a little over a year ago after saying "it just wasn't going to be good enough". While Square Enix swooped in to save the game from cancellation, the name has been overhauled, but is still the same Hong Kong cinema-inspired open-world game that was always planned.
The game follows Asian-American cop, Wei Shen, as he leaves US shores to return to the motherland in hopes of infiltrating and stemming the tide of Triad control across the region. We recently got an updated look and chance to play this (hopefully) second-time lucky game.
Our demo opened with Wei Shen being held prisoner in a jail cell. The familial bonds of a previous and less scrupulous life were mere feet away, and seconds pass before we run into a former gang brother, Jackie Ma. The pair catch-up briefly, and Wei is emphatic he wants back in on his old turf. Jackie provides instructions on who to meet, and where, before Wei is dragged off to an interrogation room. Away from prying eyes, Wei gets a little verbal abuse before a senior officer reaches over and disables the camera in the room. It's all a ruse. Wei has been called in as a deep undercover officer who knows the scene, the players, and the way they operate. The friendly chat ends and Wei leaves without as much as a scratch--a telltale sign of a jailhouse snitch. The camera lingers, and the pair of officers discuss whether he can be trusted. One suggests Wei's history of "extreme behaviour" and risk of exacting revenge for the slaying of his parents at the hands of the Triad makes him more of a liability than asset.
Inside the kitchen of a dingy local restaurant we meet with Jackie and his boss, a heavily tattooed but small-time crime boss. There are no fancy cars, no suited entourage, and his mother, Mrs Chu, mills around the workspace with food and drink as we chat. There are no illusions about the sort of people her son associates with, or the business her son conducts, but she remains silent and without judgment. Her son needs protection, and we're out to build our reputation. A man named Ming owes money, and our job is to teach him a lesson in manners.
Outside on the street, garish neon lights assault our senses, hawkers spruik suits and I love HK t-shirts, as a dragon performance entertains watchers. You can interact with some stalls, spending money earned from combat and completed missions to buy short-term buffs, such as reduced physical damage for 10 minutes.
The city is nowhere near as dense as the real place it's modelled on--though we're unsure if it's designed this way for the comfort of the player navigating the world, or simply a technical limitation of the hardware the game runs on. We push through the odd body blocking our path and after confronting Ming, we take off at speed down narrow alleyways, over locked fences, and vault waist-height obstacles. The same button handles sprint and interaction, so you need to ease off the gas, release, press to scale or jump, and then repress to resume pursuit. There wasn't a great momentum penalty for the multiple presses, but it felt like it would benefit from being mapped to one of the other face or trigger buttons during these encounters.
Our chase came to a halt when we were confronted by a handful of Ming's cronies. Low-level grunts were easily belted into submission with a few quick jabs, while larger and more experienced fighters required adept use of the one-button counter-grapple mechanic. When it came time to finish the job, we could grab a target and push them around the arena to trigger finishing moves--slamming skulls against walls, pushing bad guys into electrical boxes, or shredding faces in spinning fan blades. Rival gangs seldom appeared to roll alone, but even while beating on one of their friends, they were often reluctant to attack more than one at a time. We felt brief flashes of Batman's fluid melee system here, but the hand-to-hand combat wasn't as natural or free-form as the Dark Knight taking out the trash. Goons defeated, we took on Ming alone, but before we had the chance to finish the job, Hong Kong officers stormed the rooftop.
The timeline jumped around greatly during our demo, and with her son now mysteriously out of the picture, the once quiet Mrs Chu was out for blood like any mother scorned. Criminal, Johnny Ratface, was implicated in the disappearance, and we used some of the more advanced detective tools at our disposal. Making a prank call and keeping him on the line long enough to triangulate (or is that Triadulate?) his position, we arrived at a nearby industrial estate. As you'd expect, Wei knows his way around a machinegun, and we blasted our way to the end of the area, blowing up cars and wasting suckers shooting back from ledges.
The chase gained speed when we borrowed a motorbike to follow the fleeing Johnny Ratface's car. Aiming weapons while driving cars and riding bikes slows the world around you to give you a chance to fire accurate, well-placed shots, rather than spray and pray. Vehicles that take enough damage, or have their tyres shot out, spin and flip like stunt cars. Once close enough to our mark, we leapt from our bike to the roof of his car, taking him hostage and driving back to Mrs Chu, who was waiting, meat cleaver in hand, to serve up her own justice.
Though the storyline will focus on Wei Shen and remain quite linear, this is an open-world game. We weren't given much chance to explore the wider city area, but side missions, called Favours, will give you a reason to complete optional content and reward you with money and "Face" points--the game's reputation system. One side mission we saw had a friend asking us to destroy a rival street racer's car with a tyre iron, which we gladly helped with. Think of it a bit like a Triad stress ball.
After its tumultuous development, fans will be happy to know the game is finally going to make it to shelves. While not bearing the same name, True Crime supporters can rest easy knowing this looks and feels like a genuine follow-up experience that melds melee combat, third-person shooting, and on-road antics. While our hands-on gave us a limited taste of all three elements, we're hoping for a chance to explore more of the city soon. Can Wei Shen stay on the straight and narrow, or is the lure of returning to a life of crime too great a temptation? Stay tuned to find out when the game shoots up consoles and PCs this year.