True Crime: Hong Kong - 2011's most polished open-world?
4th Feb 2011 | 16:00
Barring a surprise from Rockstar this summer, True Crime: Hong Kong is very possibly the biggest and most polished open-world action game on the horizon - and we know, we've seen it.
Sit down with developer United Front Games and the team is keen to stress it's providing a lot of things above and beyond what the competition has to offer.
There are three core pillars; a deep Hollywood-scripted plot and protagonist, unique and intelligent sandbox gameplay and yes - lots of stuff to blow up.
As with previous entries, True Crime: Hong Kong yet again sees you getting in amongst the dodgy types as an undercover cop (though United Front's quick to point out it had nothing to do with the previous instalments).
You play as Wei Shen, a 20-something police officer born in Hong Kong with the sort of backstory that'd inspire John Woo characters to shoot up the room.
As a child Wei fled Hong Kong with his mother following his sister's involvement in organised crime, and subsequent death to drug addiction. Years later, newly settled in San Francisco, his mother kicked the bucket, leaving him with nothing left to do but return to his old corrupt stomping ground and lay down the law.
It goes without saying that, with his sister's death fresh in his mind, Wei has all kinds of personal motivations when he goes about his undercover work among the Hong Kong Triads.
UFG hopes to use these polarising forces to create a natural tension in gang situations, and as the player you'll be asked to make plenty of difficult decisions - with outcomes that please both your undercover and police objectives.
In a similar vein to Splinter Cell: Double Agent, Wei's Triad missions carry cop sub-objectives that if completed will unlock bonus rewards. For example, tasked by gang leaders with burning down a rival triad building, to keep the police bosses happy you'll have to make sure no civilians are harmed during your criminal arson.
Wei can perform side-missions called 'Cop Jobs', in which he has to wear special riot police gear so that Triads don't recognise him, and rescue hostages, provide back up and other noble deeds.
In one mission we saw him climb to a rooftop with a sniper rifle and point it at a gang member holding a gun to a civilian's head. Successfully filling his face with lead gained Wei additional bonuses, such as being able to call a handler to call off pursuing cop cars during chases.
It's clear that UFG wants to create something more than the anonymous hero we're used to seeing in open-world games; and that doesn't mean cut-scenes full of dialogue (despite having unannounced Hollywood writing and voice talent on board), but rather something more in the mould of many staff members' previous project, Scarface: The World is Yours (UFG also includes veterans of Prototype, Bully and Saints Row).
True Crime clearly lays out the type of character Wei-Shen is; he's an emotionally scarred, yet proud and proper cop with (some) morals. He'll do bad things if he has to, but he'll pay the price emotionally later.
His motives are also driven by a craving for respect in this very commercially-obsessed city, and you'll be rewarded for boosting his image with flash cars and sharp suits.
Wei-Shen is also a man who can throw a kick, and True Crime's spectacular looking melee combat, combined with a promising Parkour system, is perhaps its most defining feature.
The developer wants to fill every part of True Crime's punches with Hong Kong flavour; the fluidity, camera style, the effects... it's interior scraps are more akin to a traditional, polished action game than what we're used to from sandbox.
A good demonstration of the combat's high level of polish is a mission we're shown about halfway through the game, in which Wei's held hostage in the penthouse of a huge skyscraper.
He's being held by the Sun Yee Triad in a torture scene that definitely wouldn't look out of place in the aforementioned Al Pacino flick (knives, hammers and power drills are involved).
Battered and bruised, our man wakes up in a bloody pile on the floor and, in an in-game event, crawls over to his first victim who's swiftly strangled into a dead pile on the floor. The next poor sod he finds 'taking care of business' in the bogs is horrifically drowned in his own urine.
Wei's moves are brutal, fluid and loyal to Hong Kong cinema's tradition (apart from the piss), often making use of the environment. They also showcase the more primal, 'Kill Bill' side of his character, with his lust for revenge against his sister's killers turning him into an often inhumane killer.
As Wei progresses through the penthouse - which at this stage is being battered by rain against its imposing glass windows - he comes across a room full of henchman going about their evening.
The environment looks great, with interior detail definitely on par with GTA IV and characters that utilise the scenery; one guard's cooking up dinner in the kitchen, another pair are in the midst of a Guitar Hero battle. Unfortunately, Wei's about to ruin their night.
Dropping down from his balcony vantage point, Wei storms towards the nearest Triad goon and unleashes a flurry of punches and kicks - all of which can be learned and enhanced via in-game training.
During combat, environmental kill objects are highlighted and Wei's encouraged to grab hold of his opponent and shove them face-first towards a bloody death.
In a blur of action Wei electrocutes a man on a pair of cables, cuts another's face off with an electrical saw and oh yes - beats the third to death with his own Guitar Hero controller.
It can get even worse than that though; Throw a baddie in a furnace and he'll run around screaming and efficiently setting other enemies on fire in the process.
It looks good (and often hilarious) and full combo and counter systems are promised too - so it's not all automated glitz.
The action's more impressive in a later mission when the fight stumbles out onto the rooftops. Like almost every other genre entry these days Activision's Chinese crime spree features a Parkour platforming system, but unlike the competitors True Crime's gone for something a bit more skilful and a bit less sterile than the pack.
Hold down A and Wei will sprint like a madman - like in pursuit of this thug we're watching him chase across neon-lit rooftops. Tap the button again at key moments however, such as when you're about to vault a gate or hop over a table, and he'll perform the move in one smooth execution, often kicking a poor sod on the other end in the head as he does.
Miss time your press and Wei will be forced to clumsily clamber across the obstacle, losing you valuable chasing time.
Hardcore players can use the contextual free-running system (as it's officially called) to one-hit-kill and disarm enemies, says UFG, and when you slip or grab on to a ledge there's even a little QTE sequence to haul yourself back up.
There are contextual crowd moves such as dodges and weaves too (that work by moving the thumbstick just before colliding with a civilian) - they're all subtle additions but bound to add skill to an otherwise automated stalwart of open-world gaming, and it's another reason True Crime, on foot at least, is looking like it's got something exciting to offer.
HONG KONG PHOOEY
The second pillar of True Crime, UFG tells us, is it's gigantic and unique sandbox - the first set in Hong Kong, it proudly proclaims.
Now, Hong Kong is big (bigger than jungle... and jungle is massive) and a brief tour of the city shows off rolling hills, imposing skyscrapers, lush harbour docks, winding motorways and more than a few familiar landmarks.
There are also more than a few local activities, including karaoke bars, boat gambling parlours, fight clubs, mah-jong, races, massage parlours (with happy endings that offer a health buff), girls you can take on dates and cock fighting.
The UFG studio is rich with sandbox veterans from the genre's biggest names, and you can see the experience in the makeup of True Crime's metropolis.
The city's winding stretches of back-roads are makeshift race tracks, put together by the bunch of ex-EA Black Box Need for Speed devs employed at UFG. The crumbling rooftops and tight alleyways look like flowing Parkour playgrounds - the studio's had free-running experts in to share their tips - and, perhaps another legacy from loudmouth Tony Montana, there's plenty of dialogue; you can speak to literally everyone you find on the streets (though not every character will have much to say).
Key to the latter part is the Face system. Depending on your standing and reputation in Hong Kong, certain inhabitants will decide to either ignore you or open up, perhaps offering previously inaccessible side quests.
Lots of things affect Wei's Face in Hong Kong; the clothes he wears, the car he drives (and how well he drives it), the mission's he's completed and of course his level in the city's Triads (for some reason Bruce Lee's bright yellow jumpsuit also garners a ton of respect in the city - we also noticed Ong Bak and Kung-Fu Hustle suits).
Face even plays a part in combat and enemies will become intimidated and demoralised by your cocky attitude.
You'll notice that Wei's appearance changes as the game progresses, with bags appearing under his eyes in later missions when he's visibly more stressed.
HONG KONG, BANG BANG
The final mission we're shown is called The New Boss and takes place quite a way through the main game. This is where UFG's third pillar comes in to play; Wei's in one of the nightclub-come-Karaoke bars we mentioned earlier and he's about to blow the place up.
At this stage in the game Wei's managed to climb to a mid-level position in the Triad organisations and thanks to gangster politics some of the Triads he works for have been taken out by a rival gang.
Apparently this isn't a problem Wei can solve with his hands or feet, so he's got a big machine gun instead and is currently attempting to shoot his way out of the building.
True Crime's borrowed the body targeting system from GTA IV (along with the health system - the developers definitely decided to innovate in specific areas) and like Rockstar's game it looks effortless to target a goon's legs or head for maximum effect.
However, combined with the game's already great-looking on-foot melee and acrobatics systems, True Crime's interior combat looks more flexible and polished than its rival, with cracking gun sounds, smashing scenery and a whole load of bells and whistles on the side.
The cover system looks solid and Wei's able to blindfire, dive about and everything else you'd expect from the now mandatory genre feature.
The destruction is most pleasing, however, and our hero's bullets smash the dance floor tiles and he's even able to blast through a massive fish tank, spilling its fishy payload all over a pair of henchmen.
Slightly more original and exciting thrill opportunities are exposed - again - when the fight spills outside, and the gunfight turns into a high speed car chase. True Crime's opted for more of an arcade approach compared to the competition, with plenty of the few good ideas found in The Wheelman lifted and in full action.
When behind the wheel, Wei can sideswipe other cars, activate auto-acceleration and shoot out the back window or even leap onto over motors and hijack them.
Pulling a quick 180-spin is effortless. It looks and sounds like brilliant fun, and in this particular chase both Triad and Police cars alike are exploding with great abandon.
Police pursuits look to work similarly to GTA's own Asian outing, Chinatown wars, with the destruction of your pursuers - via either your own moves or tricking them into oncoming traffic - putting you a step closer to becoming anonymous.
With the extra year of development granted by Activsion, from what we've seen, True Crime is definitely shaping up to be one of the most polished open-world games of the generation. Whether it's the best to play however, remains to be seen.
UFG admits open-world is a difficult genre to inject fresh life into, which is why it's focusing on its core strengths. At the very least it should end up delivering the best sandbox action thrills of 2011... bar a surprise from someone else, of course.