These streets mean
You're racing down the wet-market streets of Wan Chai, semi-automatic on the passenger seat, police cars to the left, triad vehicles to the right. The crowded roads are hard to manoeuvre, and a pedestrian walks across your path - you swerve, the car flips, crashes and burns. You crawl out of the fiery wreck, gun in hand, ready for the duelling cops-and-robbers factions that are speeding towards you.
It's a scene out of any triad flick, a thousand cliches all rolled into an action-packed ball - except for one small difference: there's no 'you' in a movie.
This August sees the release of Sleeping Dogs, the first major game set entirely on the mean streets of Hong Kong. With video games regularly outselling movies and music releases, and the entire industry growing at a substantial rate, many pundits predict that Sleeping Dogs will be one of the largest promotional tools for our city in years.
'We've spent the past five years immersed in Hong Kong in one way or another,' says United Front Games senior producer, Jeff O'Connell. 'We've tried our best to represent what the city's all about, but also put a twist on it to make it fun for the gamer.'
The impetus for Sleeping Dogs began in late 2007, when the developer was tossing around ideas for an open-world game in the mould of the popular Grand Theft Auto series. Martin Scorsese's The Departed - a remake of Hong Kong action film Infernal Affairs - had just won best picture at the Oscars, and it got the ball rolling.
'The inspiration of undercover cop cinema got us excited, and when we started to look into Hong Kong, it ended up being an amazing place to set an open-world game,' says O'Connell. 'You've got natural boundaries because it's an island; you've got the good guys and bad guys in the history of cops versus triads; and there's the tradition of action cinema.'
Soon enough, the team was on a flight to Hong Kong. They returned to their Vancouver headquarters with more than 30,000 photographs, hours of video and, of course, first-hand experiences that could only come from our fine city.
'Most of our team spent anywhere from a week to a month in Hong Kong, and we each got different data out of it,' says O'Connell. 'The producers and designers gained an understanding of the city and the culture, our writer was lucky enough to speak to members of the undercover police and even a couple of triad members. We paid attention to details and anything that inspired us.'
The production process of a game is much more complicated than say, that of a movie or music album, and not nearly as interesting. O'Connell instead focuses on the three goals that were tacked onto their office wall on the first day of production - and are still up today.
The first was solely about the story: the classic 'undercover cop working for the triads' tale that any local resident would recognise. 'We were inspired by Hong Kong movies, and tried to create a story that is both mature and has that undercover cop feel to it: the fish-out-of water, sense of dual identity,' says O'Connell. 'We've focused on how the action plays out with these heroic, almost hard-boiled characters, and we wanted to replicate that.'
The second goal focused on the most important aspect: gameplay, which has at its core what O'Connell calls 'Hong Kong action cinema': a heady mission-based blend of fighting, shooting, running and driving. That meant taking heavy inspiration from some of the popular releases of recent memory: Batman: Arkham Asylum, Assassin's Creed, LA Noire.
But it also involved adding aspects that most modern games weren't known for, including bringing in current UFC welterweight champion George St-Pierre to consult on fighting mechanics, as well as embracing the addictive nature of smartphone games through various action upgrades and reward systems. 'Missions you'll go on will feel like a local film, and we've made it so the player can create their own action scenes in recognisable Hong Kong places,' says O'Connell. 'If we made a Hong Kong game and people didn't feel like it was the best fighting game around, they'd laugh at us.'
The third and final goal was the sandbox aspect: that all important free-roaming approach in any open-world game that makes it accessible for all types of gamer, whether they're a die-hard obsessive or a granddad who has just picked up a controller.
The game is set only on Hong Kong Island, and just four districts have been named: North Point, Central, Kennedy Town and Aberdeen - but pedantic types cursing the lack of big city authenticity shouldn't be so quick to judge. The developers have filled those districts with Hong Kong's most familiar landmarks, from the house-on-the-hills feel of a Peak-inspired neighbourhood to the seedy vibe of a Mong Kok-like night market.
And among the many random exploits away from the standard drive-and-shoot are all the local places and pastimes you know and love: gambling dens, mahjong parlours, karaoke clubs, and even our city's much-rumoured street races and dockside fight clubs.
'A lot has contributed to the sandbox - it has gameplay components, but it was also about representing Hong Kong,' says O'Connell. 'Ambient pedestrians will talk on cellphones in Cantonese; we've brought in a Canto-pop producer to write songs for the car radios, and even the ads all over the city are brands inspired by things from Hong Kong.
'With those three goals, we've tried to strike a balance between a modern open-world game and a strong linear story, while not forgetting part of the reason people buy these games is to have fun in a sandbox,' says O'Connell. 'We wanted to honour Hong Kong with mechanics that felt as if you were a local action star.'
But while most reading this article have a homegrown reason to be intrigued by the game's release, the real test will be whether O'Connell and his marketing crew can convince the Western world that a game set in this city is worth their purchase.
'That's something we had to overcome: gamers can identify with New York or London, but when people think of Hong Kong, they think of stereotypes like Fu Manchu,' he says. 'That's hopefully changed in recent years with The Departed's impact, but the most rewarding thing would be for gamers to say 'I didn't know anything about Hong Kong, but now I want to go there'.'
Initial reviews for Sleeping Dogs have been positive, while a live-action trailer filmed on Wan Chai's streets has given international gamers a glimpse of the real Hong Kong. Come August, it'll be interesting to see what Sleeping Dogs has in store, especially considering that what's fuelling this fire is pure Hong Kong love.
'What struck me were the differences in Hong Kong,' says O'Connell.
'You can be in Kowloon and have the night markets, the lights, smells and all the people. Then you can be in Central at the IFC tower, and it's overwhelming. The blend of Eastern and Western, old and new - it's a city of contrasts and we hope we've captured that.'
Been here, done that
Here are five titles that used Hong Kong as its canvas, but never quiteset the video game world alight.
Hong Kong 97 (1995, Superfamicom): often cited as one of the worst games ever made, Hong Kong 97 saw you playing as a relative of Bruce Lee who's hired by the city's last governor, Chris Patten, to kill all of China's billion people. Gaining a minor cult following for its horrible graphics and terribly racist approach, the game can still be found online to this day.
Kowloon Gate (1997, PlayStation): set in the former Kowloon Walled City, this supernatural adventure has you taking on the role of a fung shui practitioner sent into the lawless town to set yin and yang in order before the handover. A Japan-only release, it can still be downloaded from the PlayStation Network.
Shenmue II (2001, Dreamcast, Xbox): arguably the most popular Hong Kong-set release, Shenmue II was an action/adventure/fighting/role-playing game that saw your character Ryo roaming around our intricate city in search of his father's killer. It met with weak sales, but genre blending and an involving storyline saw it recently ranked 10th in IGN's Top 100 Games of All-Time poll.
Wreckless: The Yakuza Missions (2002, Gamecube, PlayStation 2, Xbox): the first release to offer a glimpse of a Hong Kong open-world adventure, Wreckless was a racing game that offered an option to play as a corrupt police unit or a pair of undercover spies, both attempting to take down the city's organised crime (erroneously labelled 'yakuza'). Positive reviews were no match for poor sales, and it's now the unsung hero of Hong Kong games.
Stranglehold (2007, PC, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360): 'directed' by John Woo Yu-sum and featuring the voice of Chow Yun-fat, this game sequel to local action movie Hard Boiled follows detective Tequila as he scours the city to take down a ruthless triad syndicate. Praised upon its initial release, it unfortunately contributed to publisher Midway's bankruptcy.