It takes a Dog — Games that Get Close to GTA's Urban Open-World Action Formula

Dogs go woof!
Dogs go woof!

Many games tried to take a piece of GTA sales, but only a few managed to do it. When we look at it, the urban open-world action formula is pretty complicated, with an incredible percentage of games crashing and burning on their release because they tried, and subsequently failed to recreate the perfect formula established by GTA games.

Just take a look at this list: Watch Dogs, Mafia III, Mafia II, The Godfather I and II, APB Reloaded, 25 to Life, Scarface: The World is Yours, True Crime: New York City, True Crime: Streets of LA. All of these titles tried to recreate the magical GTA formula and failed some more and some less. You can argue that many games managed to come close to GTA titles, titles like Just Cause, Saints Row, Crackdown, Prototype, Dead Rising I and II, Infamous and its sequel, Red Dead Redemption, Batman Arkham games, LA Noire, Yakuza series, or even a couple of Assassin’s Creed titles.

But, those games aren’t urban open-world titles that feature driving, a story that isn’t a complete satire, aren’t games that put you in shoes of a regular guy without superpowers and not a superhero or a secret agent with tons of cool gadgets, and some of them don’t feature a huge city to explore and do stuff around it.

Now that we cleared what do we mean when talking about GTA-like urban open-world experience, after we showed which games failed to recreate it, and also listed games that cannot be considered as same experiences, lets talk about the two games that managed to recreate the magical formula that makes every Grand Theft Auto game a premier gaming experience. Let us talk about Sleeping Dogs and Watch Dogs 2.

Sleeping Dogs – Sleeping hit of 2012, and one of the best GTA clones

Sleeping Dogs.
Sleeping Dogs.

Sleeping Dogs came out in 2012 and positively surprised both critics and gamers. The game was little known during its development. It wasn’t in the focus of gaming media, with occasional reports talking about an open-world action game set in Hong Kong that should combine martial arts fighting mechanics with classic GTA-style urban experience, and the game that should have been part of the True Crime series but ended up as something else.

The story follows Wei Shen, a policeman born in Hong Kong who later moved to the US. He returns to his home city and becomes a double agent, trying to take down the Triad organization that controls the city’s underground.

The game was one of the best titles in 2012 and is still one of the best GTA clones. Sleeping Dogs managed to nail down lots of elements that make for a compelling urban open-world action game. Let’s talk a bit about each one of them.

Unique combat

Sleeping Dogs melee.
Sleeping Dogs melee.

While the game features classic shooting gameplay, the focus is on fantastic melee combat based on martial arts. The player can perform combos in quick succession, to learn new moves that can be combined in order to just mow down enemies, and to use environmental elements as help while fighting.

The combat is one the best parts of the game, and it gives it a recognizable element, one of the features that made the game so good. You can, and should, use weapons when faced with lots of opponents, but martial arts combat is used during lots of side activities and during some side missions.

Some of the best side activities, like fighting clubs where you are faced with waves of increasingly tougher enemies, are based on using the game’s melee combat mechanics the best way you can in order to get the highest score and gold medal. But the combat isn’t the only good side of Sleeping Dogs

The story

Sleeping Dogs feature more than a solid story filled with action sequences with lots of different characters and lots of interesting missions to solve. You play for both sides – the Police and Triads – making the game very interesting. The game plays out like the best Hong Kong action movies, keeping the player interested in it from the beginning to the end.

And story missions are also putting you on both sides of the law, showing how a double agent has to keep his cover while at the same time trying to advance in his investigation. Wei Shen has ties in both worlds, and until the end of the game, you don’t really know which side he will pick in the end. There are lots of interesting characters, and you won’t get bored while playing Sleeping Dogs. Instead, you will have lots of fun doing side activities.

Side activities

Sleeping Dogs: driving.
Sleeping Dogs: driving.

The game gives the player lots of different side activities spread all across the city. You can partake in fight club battles and practice your martial arts prowess, or can just drive in one of many races that are a joy to play.

The list includes karaoke clubs when Shen can sing, with player helping him not to embarrass himself. Other activities include carjacking, infiltrating one of many gang hideouts and stealing money, arresting drug dealers, and more.

There are also many different side missions to play, making the game filled with activities that give the player lots of hours to enjoy outside of the main story missions. In general, Sleeping Dogs is stuffed with side activities, making the game’s virtual Hong Kong a city filled with exciting stuff to do.

Unique XP system

Sleeping Dogs awards the player with three types of experience points. Each type of experience gives different rewards and bonuses, which is something rarely seen in any game, and especially in a GTA-like action game.

The player can earn Triad, Police, and Face experience points. Different side missions and activities give different types of XP. This way, the player is incentivized to partake in different activities, not just those tied with Triads, or the Police.

Earning Triad XP unlocks new fighting moves, Face XP is used for unlocking new cars, motorcycles, and clothing, while Police XP unlocks special abilities like the ability to quickly disarm opponents or to hot-wire cars. The unique XP system makes the game varied and with the addition of many different side activities, makes Sleeping Dogs one of the most fun GTA-like experiences.

The city

Sleeping Dogs: the city.
Sleeping Dogs: the city.

Virtual Hong Kong looks excellent and is filled with people making it feel like a living, breathing metropolis. There are also lots of vehicles buzzing through streets, and the map is big enough to make you wander through it, sometimes getting lost, and sometimes just enjoying the driving.

Developers managed to recreate the bustling streets of the metropolis filled with people, neon signs, and the general sense that the city is always alive and filled with life. Hong Kong in Sleeping Dogs looks amazing, and it is one of the strongest parts of the game.

Downsides

The game also has downsides, which put it below most Grand Theft Auto titles. For instance, while the story is interesting and there are lots of different characters, they aren’t really well written. Dialogs aren’t as compelling as those in GTA titles.

Further, the game suffers from graphical problems. The camera was pretty bad; animation leaves lots to be desired (especially for a game that relies on melee combat), with often crude movements and unrealistic behaviors.

But overall, Sleeping Dogs is an excellent urban open-world action game and should be played by all fans of the genre.

Watch Dogs 2 – A sequel that’s light years better than the original

Watch Dogs 2.
Watch Dogs 2.

Original Watch Dogs got so much hype before its release that no matter how good it was, fans would end up disappointed. And the game was mediocre at best, no matter its relatively positive reception. Ubisoft is also to be blamed, with the publisher presented the game like the best video game ever, and with its shameful misconducts when it comes to the quality of graphics, which was way worse in the final products than what the public was led to believe during the game’s E3 presentation.

Instead of crying over the spilled milk and canceling the series, people at Ubisoft sat back on the drawing table and started work on Watch Dogs 2. And the sequel is a perfect example of how you can learn from your own mistakes. The game features one of the best looking urban environments ever to be seen, it has a cast of goofy yet somehow strangely likable characters, an incredible amount of stuff to do, and an excellent single-player campaign. Let’s talk about the game’s best parts.

Drones

Watch Dogs 2: drones.
Watch Dogs 2: drones.

While Watch Dogs 2 features lots of hacking with some amazing results, the game shines when you drive drones. No matter if you drive the tiny bipedal vehicle called the Jumper, or the sleek flying drone, you will have so much fun its crazy.

Missions are so fun to play when you just take out the Jumper and use it to infiltrate inside a high-security building, unlocking doors without anyone seeing you. Using drones in inventive ways is one of the games strongest sides; you can have fun during every single mission by trying to find a new way in or using drones in unexpected ways.

And side missions where you have to hack by solving environmental puzzles while flying the second drone are some of the most memorable parts of Watch Dogs 2. By putting drones in the game, and by making them much more useful when compared to the first game, developers managed to improve one of the better parts of the original Watch Dogs.

Bay Area

Watch Dogs 2: Bay area.
Watch Dogs 2: Bay area.

Frisco, Oakland, and Silicon Valley together make one cohesive whole, one giant playground that can be considered as one of the prettiest virtual cities ever to be seen in a video game. The city is beautiful, it features lots of variation in architecture (something that Sleeping Dog’s Hong Kong lacks), lots of different areas to explore, a huge amount of roads to drive on, and many ways to get from one point to another.

Watch Dog 2’s Bay Area is prettier than Los Santos, and it is better designed. It is filled with an incredible amount of familiar sights and places, and it is just so rewarding to explore and to fill your eyes with the beauty of it.

Variety

Watch Dogs 2 is all about variety in missions. Single player missions are so different and so fun to play. There are also tons of side activities to partake in. You can drive electric go-karts, take selfies in front of the city’s famous locations, paint billboards, collect new songs, solve many puzzles, go drone racing, play driver missions, with lots of other stuff to do.

The game is filled with so many different side activities that it just can’t get boring and tedious, and that’s another way how Watch Dogs 2 managed to rise above the original.

The gameplay is fun, varied, and filled with possibilities. You can hack things and people while driving, you have thousands of options during encounters with enemies that you don’t have to fire a single shot. When it comes to the fun factor, Watch Dogs 2 is shining brighter than the sun.

Marcus

Watch Dogs 2: Marcus.
Watch Dogs 2: Marcus.

Watch Dogs 2 has a coherent story and more importantly, a coherent main protagonist. Aiden from the first game was a mess; you didn’t know what he wants, what is he trying to achieve. Is he good, is he bad, empathic or sociopathic? Really, the guy was a poor main protagonist.

On the other side we have Marcus Holloway. He is overly idealistic in his worldviews, but he has clear intentions and the player can relate to him. You know that he hates the invasion of privacy, which is happening both in the real world and in the fictional world of Watch Dogs 2. Marcus wants to shut down surveillance programs, and he is a character that’s easy to like. This is another huge improvement compared to the original.

Downsides

Watch Dogs 2 is a phenomenal game, and it really has just a couple of downsides. The most noticeable is the lack of people and vehicles in Bay Area, making it look like a ghost town on occasions. This really kills the immersion and makes the game to look too artificial and empty, like most people disappeared during some plague that happened before the game takes place.

The second serious downside is a horrendous driving mechanic. Cars are slow to respond to commands, each car behaves like it weighs in at ten tons. Go-karts are especially gruesome to drive. Soon you start to look for motorcycles to drive, which are way better to use on the streets of Bay Area.

These were the two games that came so close to the magic of Grand Theft Auto titles. They both offer excellent urban open-world action experiences, but their downsides prevent them from reaching the stars. Maybe we will see a game that will manage to climb this Mount Everest of gaming that GTA series is. Our money is on Watch Dogs 3 (the game will appear eventually, it has to). If they work out the driving, put more stations on the radio, make the next city lively and filled with people and vehicles, create another compelling main character, and write an interesting story, guys and gals at Ubisoft could finally offer the world a GTA-like game that’s better than the original.

A psychologist turned freelance writer and reviewer, Goran is a hardcore gamer with more than twenty years of experience, and interested in all kinds of technology. He also likes Sci Fi novels and basketball.
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