'Sleeping Dogs' explores the very real, very brutal world of the Triads

In the three years since that trip developer United Front Games' title changed publishers once and names twice. But Sleeping Dogs has always been at its heart the same sort of experience, a game built around an exploration of the brutal, dangerous, close-knit world of Hong Kong organized crime.

The cleaver is a nasty piece of kitchen cutlery. Everything about the rectangular hatchet is brutal. The tough blade is designed to be hammered into thick meat, using the sheer force of the blow to cut through flesh, tendon, cartilage and bone.

Its efficiency at parting limb from body and finger from hand is also why triad members use the blade to deliver warnings to people who have displeased them.

The first time Dan Sochan heard of the Triad Chop was the night before he and two others were set to meet with members of major triad Sun Yee On in the back room of a Hong Kong social club.

Sochan and two others were in Hong Kong on an eight day trip to research organized crime for their game Black Locus. The group were having dinner with the middleman who arranged the meeting, when he explained the triad warning.

A local radio station host, he said, had said something disparaging about the triad. That night, he was grabbed off the street, held down and repeatedly chopped with cleavers. His attackers were careful not to kill the man, wanting his tortured walk and scarred body to serve as a warning to others.

The next day, the group of three developers and their middleman were heading to the meeting when their guide pointed out the window to a man hobbling down the street. He was the survivor.

Sleeping Dogs is built around an exploration of the brutal, dangerous, close-knit world of Hong Kong organized crime.

In the three years since that trip, developer United Front Games' title changed publishers once and names twice. But Sleeping Dogs has always been at its heart the same sort of experience, a game built around an exploration of the brutal, dangerous, close-knit world of Hong Kong organized crime.

In the open world game, players take on the role of Detective Wei Shen, an officer of the Triad Bureau of the Hong Kong Police.

Sochan said those early meetings with members of Sun Yee On (the game features the fictitious Sun On Yee triad) helped color the game's brutality, but also its more subtle exploration of the interpersonal relationships in a organized crime society that dates back nearly 100 years.

"In those meetings we talked a lot about what it meant to be part of an organization in terms of the brotherhood and their relationships," Sochan said. "We talked about what kind of commitments you're expected to hold.

"It gave us a better sense of the relationships that form in these groups."

His hope is that the team used that to create a game that draws on the experiences of what its like for an undercover cop to first infiltrate the triad and then slowly start to form bonds within it.

"You start out as an undercover cop, but as the game progresses Wei befriends some of the guys," he said. "When people are hurt and killed he starts to feel responsible.

"We heard a lot about that when we talked to undercover cops. It's the Donnie Brasco effect."

Those early meetings, and the stories of cleaver attacks, also convinced the developers to redefine how they portrayed violence in the game. Initially the game wasn't going to have any guns or melee weapons. It was going to mostly rely on martial arts, but the developers soon learned that cleavers are the weapon of choice for the Triad.

The game also leans heavily on the horrific violence of those gangs.

"They are ruthless," Sochan said, "how they dispose of rats. It's not just that they shoot them. It's torturing them, chopping them, burying them alive, things like that, that are horrific."

Our short time with the game during E3 didn't show any of the darker elements of the game, instead it had us taking control of Wei as he did the bidding of a member of the triad. The short mission started with Wei walking through a section of Hong Kong looking for someone who could tell us where our target was. The controls felt a bit loose, with Wei unable to make tight turns while weaving his way through the crowd. The issue was a bit more pronounced when he ran.

Once we spotted our target we had to free run through a section of the city, pressing a button to leap over tables or free run up trash containers, walls and over fences. Finally, the bad guy calls in a bunch of goons to try and take us out.

The combat was the most rewarding experience in the short demo. Combat was built to feel a bit like the free-form pummeling found in Batman: Arkham Asylum, allowing players to quickly switch between enemies while tapping or holding a button to deliver chain attacks. Players can grab enemies with another button and then take them out with highlighted object in the area. For instance, after grabbing one enemy, a nearby trash container lit up to let us know we could drag the man over there and bash his face into one of the steel sides and then toss him inside. A third button is used to counter attacks. When an enemy attacks you, his body is briefly silhouetted in red. If you tap the button immediately, it triggers a fast counter-attack.

Future games will revolve around a sense of unease, of disguised horror and fascination.

The show down with Wei's target at the end of the demo required you to use the counter-attacks to defeat him.

While movement on foot through the world of Sleeping Dog felt a bit uncoordinated, the combat mechanics was surprisingly tight and intuitive. Driving, Sochan said, would be a similarly polished experience.

"A lot of us worked at (Need for Speed developer) Black Box on Need for Speed games," he explained.

While Sleeping Dogs is meant to be a Grand Theft Auto-esque open world game, the team hopes that their time spent creating and polishing the mechanics of driving, fighting and shooting will help them differentiate themselves from Rockstar's popular series.

Ultimately, though, the game is still a sandbox title — one that promises to deliver a nearly 18-hour single-player campaign beefed up with more than "120 pieces of secondary content." All of this is wrapped around what Sochan says he hopes is a compelling, gritty narrative.

It's a game they have been developing for four years, for two publishers (and a brief time as a self-funded project). Sochan says the team believes not just in the game, but the ability to turn Sleeping Dogs into a lasting franchise.

Any future game, he tells Polygon, would likely be pinned to the work of an undercover cop, to the game's hand-to-hand combat system and how the budding franchise takes those different elements and mixes them together.

Future games may not take place in Hong Kong, or even include the Triads, but they'll definitely evolve around that sense of unease, of disguised horror and fascination that the team felt when they met with Sun Yee On.

"It was an unusual experience," Sochan recalled, "We spent a lot of time scanning the room for cleavers."

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E3 2012: PC coverage
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    'Sleeping Dogs' explores the very real, very brutal world of the Triads
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