Re-entering the highly competitive “sandbox” crime genre made famous by Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto series, Activision Blizzard’s Activision Publishing division today showed live gameplay footage of its reboot entrée, True Crime, at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco.

Many thought the series dead after a disappointing critical and fiscal second effort in 2006 with the second in the series, True Crime: New York. But Activision tapped United Front Games (maker of ModNation Racers). With former employees from Radical Games, EA’s Need for Speed franchise, and Rockstar Games, UFG has been in development with its own unique software tools to generate the third-person perspective, Hong Kong-based game.

Activision is trying to differentiate its title from the towering success of Grand Theft Auto IV and, to a lesser extent, THQ’s well-received Saints Row, by focusing on deep combat moves and an undercover-cop story generated by extensive research done with the Hong Kong police department and active members from the Triad crime organization.

“We’re treating the franchise as if it were a brand new [intellectual property],” said Lead Producer Jeff O’Connell. “True Crime is being developed by a completely new team using new tech, and a brand new storyline that’s serious, not campy.”

In the early (pre-alpha testing) version shown at the W Hotel, Activision demoed a fully working game offering with smooth transitions between exploration, open-world car chases, and hand-to-hand combat. Visually, the game reflects a relatively modern-looking Hong Kong, packed with dense skyscrapers, night-time marketplaces, and bustling streets. Gamers will play detective Wei Shen, an undercover cop who reports to a hot-headed, foul-mouthed crime boss “Winston” of the Triads whose mother and family have been threatened by a rival club. At this point in development, character facial movement and animations aren’t fully complete, and they looked slightly out of sync. But the game is due in fall of this year, meaning UFG has several months to develop and hone it. Character movement, particularly in combat interaction, was more impressive.

The first and only mission shown is to confront a rival gang at their manufacturing plant and remove everyone except Siu Wah, a key member of the gang. You’ll have to locate, capture, and usher him out of the building as enemies swarm in upon learning of your attack. One of the more impressive scenes takes place after you successfully leave the building. On a stolen cop motorcycle you’ll chase Wah in a stolen cop car, leap from the bike onto the car’s roof, climb into the car, and force Wah to surrender.

“We spent several weeks earning the trust of one real-life Triad members,” said O’Connell. “Once we were able to gain their trust, they showed us a lot. They drove us around the city, showed us their street fighting techniques, and helped us piece together how their organization works.”

Players will encounter a combat system that looks on the surface to resemble Midway’s John Woo-influenced Strangehold game, with an impressive array of environmental combat opportunities. Taking the combat a little further than competitive titles, UFG has clearly studied Jackie Chan films too. Live electrical boxes, open garbage cans, refrigerator doors — used to slam enemies in the face — stair banisters and tables are used for sliding and creating combination attacks as an advantage to confront un-even odds. You’ll wield a number of weapons from hand guns to Uzis, plus bloodier weapons, such as meat cleavers.

“Unlike the way the West perceives Hong Kong, the city isn’t a wild, crime-filled place,” O’Connell said. “There are very strict gun laws enforced there. You can get arrested for holding a single bullet. So we had to sex up the city. And that’s why the meat cleaver and chopping knives play a heavy role in combat. ‘Chopping’ is a real technique employed to show examples of those who cross the local Triads.”

True Crime provides a linear story with many options to take on “jobs” and missions that build up characters’ “face.” Face is equivalent to “respect,” a system in the game that enables players to use to open additional side missions. Side missions feature the ability to date girls (with the possibility of “tasteful” romantic scenes), upgrade your look with accessories such as new hair styles, clothes, watches, better cars, and the ability to get into otherwise closed night clubs.

“We haven’t announced the voice talent we are working with, but you will be able to date girls who are played by popular actresses who we believe players will want to ‘date’ in the game,” said O’Connell.

With an intense hand-to-hand combat system, arcade-style driving, and an serious, non-campy storyline (“there will no zombies, dragons, or flaming skulls” O’Connell said), Activision hopes to re-energize the True Crime brand in the tough-to-crack, GTA-dominated genre.