I have never been the best at racing games, nor have I ever been discreet when engaging in hand-to-hand combat in game. I am more likely to choke the crap out of someone and push them over without provocation than carefully calculate my moves. In short, I’m not very graceful with open-world action games. But Sleeping Dogs, the game formerly known as True Crime: Hong Kong, presents a work fluid enough that for someone who is used to bungling her play choices the experience felt comfortable, natural even.
Well, that is until I figured out you could drive your car into a building. I was then told quite explicitly that nobody knew that was even an option.
Sleeping Dogs has been jokingly referred to as “GTA Lite,” a statement with which I both do and do not agree. I agree in that the gameplay is similar at its core — third-person over-the-the-shoulder POV with snarling fisticuffs being the preferred method of defense while on foot, and of course the ability to hop in various vehicles and take them for a (rather destructive, in my case) spin. But what sets Sleeping Dogs apart is that its open-world vision of Hong Kong is truly gorgeous — and from what I hear, spot-on accurate. The production team spent time in the city, the real deal, in order to get things right — and get things right they have.
The demo opened on three of the characters conducting a roundtable in a gritty little Chinese restaurant. From there Wei Shen, our undercover cop protagonist, moved outside into a chase on foot through the streets of Hong Kong. Everything reeked of seedy realism, and as I ran I made absolutely sure to knock people out of way. Shen moves freely through the game world, with the ability to walk, run, jump, and climb over obstacles with fluid ease. Melee combat feels natural, a sophisticated upgrade from the simple punching and kicking of earlier titles. It feels almost like a game out of the Assassin’s Creed franchise.
What I love, and will perhaps draw some criticism from the ratings board, is the frequent, gorgeously messy use of blood. I’m not talking about a trail of spattered flecks here and there, or a puddle to indicate Shen has done his job. I’m talking about seeping pools of coppery red fluid and splattered sprays everywhere Shen’s fists or weapon make contact. I crushed some dudes’ skulls, pushed one guy’s face into a running air conditioner fan and then dumpster-slammed another. Glorious, glorious gore, and all in the name of stunningly accurate realism. If you’re going to make people bleed out in a game touted for its firm grounding in reality, you might as well go all-out.
The second part of the demo offered a taste of the game’s racing sim. The controls were sensitive — very, very sensitive — which made it feel more like driving an actual car that you are actually sitting in rather than fiddling around with a controller’s analogue stick and bumpers. Sharper turns have to be tightly executed, otherwise you risk crashing headlong into a tree or concrete barrier. Ramming into a telephone pole or person results in the destruction of said telephone pole or person, and while it’s super entertaining to watch yourself completely destroy a segment of Hong Kong’s roadway, driving into objects significantly slows you down.
The ease and realism of gameplay and beautifully designed visuals are what will set Sleeping Dogs apart from franchises like Grand Theft Auto and Assassin’s Creed. Open-world action games populate the market like rabbits, but this particular title’s ticket is its strong roots in the real world, in its credibility and strongly sense of player immersion and relatability. Of course, not all of us are undercover cops in China and can identify one-hundred percent with Wei Shen — but there is something real and charming about the game that helps it stand and provide an experience unlike anything we’ve already seen.