Released exactly 10 years ago – long enough for anyone who played it to feel deeply depressed by the accelerated passage of time – Sleeping Dogs is well known for its bloody John Woo opera cutscenes and surprisingly involved story. , in which former San Francisco police officer Wei Shen hunts through Hong Kong triads, one table at a time.
But perhaps it is more important to be the last of an extinct race. The latest great GTA-style game to come from a double-A developer.
This is not to throw shade at United Front Games. It’s just a simple fact. Previously, the developer only released one title, ModNation Racers, a well-received but modest kart racing game for PS3 with LittleBigPlanet-style user-generated elements. The studio received around $30 million to make Sleeping Dogs and had around 120 people working on it, based on a job offer (opens in a new tab) back in 2011 who seemed to be hiring for this project.
Compare that to GTA 5, which came out a year later and changed everything. It cost nearly 10 times more than United Front’s high-octane hug in Hong Kong: around $265 million. About 1,000 people worked there, in several studios.
GTA has set the bar, as the series has always done, at a new high mark for any open-world city game. A bar so high, in fact, that after GTA 5 most of the industry just stopped trying to compete.
As Sleeping Dogs turns 10, we can attach a kind of courage to it in retrospect. It was the Houser brothers’ David of the Goliath, and in that context, the overall quality of the game is even more impressive. Because the differences between the two aren’t as huge as the chasm when it comes to budget or team size.
Sleeping Dogs begins by introducing Hong Kong itself as the main character, throwing you on a chase through docks and fish markets that’s tightly scripted and awe-inspiring like a movie. Yes, there’s an excessive amount of jumping on things, but that just sets you up for the rest of the game – where the vault seems to be your main method of travel.
You enter and exit interior environments packed with just enough detail to wow you at the pace of the race, and most importantly, you’re absolutely certain what the game is about: crime lords, frenetic action movie sets, and Hong Kong. .
The setting was the wild card of Sleeping Dogs, a way to differentiate itself not only from the GTA series but also from other imitators – Saints Row, Mafia and Crackdown. United Front poured as much detail into its open world as Rockstar et al had, but instead of using it to pastiche the company, the developer was more serious about its vision. He just wanted a cohesive atmospheric and cinematic space, and one that credibly resembles a living city by 2012 standards.
And it succeeded. As you pass the market stalls, you can make out every fruit and vegetable that the greengrocers sell. Discount clothing is clear and distinct. The same is true of the city’s various neighborhoods, which feature just enough recognizable landmarks of the real Hong Kong to give a compelling sense of geography – while being utterly wrong in scale and layout.
Sleeping Dogs pulled off the same trick that Forza Horizon 4 pulled off, grouping remote parts of the UK together on a relatively tiny world map. One that still made sense to drive if you’re British and captured the essential atmosphere of each region. United Front just did it seven years ago.
For the blows
Batman Arkham-style combat was all the rage at the time of release, starring Robin Thicke and Jeremy Lin. And like those pop culture poster boys of the early 2010s, he hasn’t aged brilliantly. Animations seem a bit stiff now, lacking smooth transitions; you notice when the next seconds of combat kick in.
Thematically, however, the martial arts-inspired street brawls worked perfectly. One might well believe that Wei Shen was able and inclined to solve most of his problems this way. And when the fighting broke out, roughly every 40 seconds for 20 hours, the precise corner of Hong Kong that was the backdrop always looked right, one way or another. Ready to stage the scene.
And then there was the driving. We are not talking about driving. It’s about celebrating the game’s legacy, after all. To dissect his manipulation pattern would be like mentioning that Uncle Bob was fond of digging through bogeys when no one was looking in his eulogy speech.
Sleeping Dogs sold quite well in its first year, achieving around 1.75 million in sales. It did particularly well in Europe, outpacing North American sales by about two to one. But those numbers still weren’t quite what publisher Square Enix was hoping for, and it ultimately affected the chances of a sequel. A project got off to a good start, behind closed doors, but was later canceled.
It was perhaps the bankruptcy of THQ in December 2012 that really spelled the death knell for the franchise – and by extension, the brave double-A’s getting to dabble in GTA-style open worlds. Although THQ was not involved in Sleeping Dogs, the industry definitely noticed that one of its biggest and most established players had to step aside. A handful of significant intellectual properties were tossed to the wind or auctioned off in lengthy legal proceedings over the following months.
You could see this moment as the death of the double-A as a whole. It certainly seemed to herald a more risk-averse era from major publishers, who relied more heavily on sequels and DLCs than before, and barely on the new green IP.
There were, of course, a few who tried to chase the impossible standard of GTA, even after GTA 5. Ubisoft used its network of global studios to release regular Assassin’s Creed titles that offered something like the scale and mechanical depth of Rockstar games, if not Polish.
He even created a new franchise in Watch Dogs. But we have the feeling that he was particularly well placed to do so, having all these studios at his disposal to delegate and collaborate.
The indie game seems able to tackle most genres and service game propositions, but has yet to find a way to create similarities with Sleeping Dogs. Valheim, The Forest, Subnautica, and Outer Wilds all feature huge spaces, but they can’t do scripted sequences or kung fu fights in a fish market alley.
Maybe that’s why we still miss United Front, spectacular, full of atmosphere, almost impossible to drive even short distances, honestly what were they thinking… Sorry. Digressed there. Maybe that’s why we miss him. Because, in winner takes all triple-A game economics, hardly anyone is more equipped to make games like this.