Despite the fact that we are more than 50 people crammed down on fold out chairs, no voices can be heard. Instead it's the sound of nervously handled pens, important sounding footsteps walking across carpeted floors, bodies uncomfortably shifting in their seats. Everything added together creates that special atmosphere that usually sets in when members of the media are about to see something from a new game.
We are seated at Jumbo Kingdom, a floating restaurant in Hong Kong. The town that plays an important role in the game we are just about to see. And with a thunderous scream the trailer kicks off at frantic pace. The game that was once known as True Crime: Hong Kong is now known as Sleeping Dogs. It doesn't take a genius to connect the title to the old saying... Let sleeping dogs lie.
My thoughts are interrupted as a spotlight is directed at representatives from the developers United Front Games and their new publisher Square Enix. They are eager to throw carefully worded catch phrases, facts, and anecdotes our way. As expected the most interesting part of the presentation deals with sources of inspiration.
Naturally, GTA comes to mind. It's difficult to avoid when dealing with a free roaming action game, especially when it involves a city filled to the brim with gangs and violence. Some of the most intense action scenes speak to the same part of my brain as the best moments of Just Cause 2. When United Front's Stephen van der Mescht speaks there is little mention of other gaming franchises - and instead a lot of films are referenced.
And given that the game is set in Hong Kong it would almost be a criminal offense not to build on the heritage that is there. Names like Bruce Lee, Chow Yun Fat, and Jackie Chan. The list of silver screen acrobats based out of the former colony can be made as long as you want. Naturally you have to dig out references to the well choreographed Kung Fu baletts where cops have gone up against Triad gangsters in the past.
Special attention is given to Infernal Affairs, a film whose reputation only grew with the Academy awards won by its American counterpart The Departed. It's hard to name a better source of inspiration for a video game like Sleeping Dogs, but it also sets a difficult target to reach. Much like Infernal Affairs' Chan Wing-Yan, the protagonist Wei Shen, is a police man who risks his life infiltrating a brutal crime syndicate as he searches for justice in a world that is far from black and white.
The concept of a hero who is dealing with conflicting identities, or perhaps even an anti-hero, isn't exactly a novel idea, but that doesn't really matter here. It's a captivating theme, and Sleeping Dogs has every chance of challenging our preconceived notions. But in order to achieve this the developers need to keep the cinematic qualities of the game high throughout, and they need to master the difficult balance of captivating the audience with a spellbinding narrative while also providing a rich sandbox for them to play with.
There is no point speculating how well they will be able to pull this off at this point, so instead let's focus on what we were allowed to get our hands on at the event, namely two missions from the alpha version of the game on Xbox 360.
In the first mission we set out on the crowded streets of the city chasing some low life who has done us wrong. He doesn't seem to want to co-operate and runs off as soon as he spots me. As Wei Shen's knuckles long for a close encounter with his chin there is little choice but to chase him down. During the chase through markets and back alleys Wei Shen has to show parkour talents to keep up. The sequence is a nice return to the intense street life we witnessed and fell in love with during the last twenty-four hours in Hong Kong.
Soon the chase comes to an end and Wei Shen finds himself surrounded by bad guys. Finally some proper hands on action. One of the ambitions of the game has been to put a lot of effort into the fine details of the mechanics and it quickly shows. It's easy to see the inspiration taken from Rocksteady's Batman, and why not? It's a pleasure to fight your way rhythmically through a collection of baddies with the occasional counter and brutal finish along the way. The fights may not reach the same level of those in Arkham City, but that would perhaps be asking too much of an unfinished sandbox title.
The last section we're given a taste of is a fairly standard car race. Good looking girls, fast cuts, and the light turns green. Nothing out of the ordinary. It's hard to judge how well the cars handle after just a few minutes, but we're not overly excited about the driving here. Middle of the road stuff with rather jerky corners. Not what we'd expect from a proper racing game, but acceptible in a game that offers so much more, in other words. The developers aren't of the same opinion, and are happy to talk about past merits of team members who used to be a part of EA Black Box working on the Need for Speed franchise. We would be just as happy if United Front managed to deliver what they promise as far as atmosphere, story and kung fu goes.