Upon seeing Sunset Overdrive in action for the first time, you’d be forgiven for thinking that you’re looking at a SEGA game. An open-world third-person shooter from developer Insomniac Games – best known for the Resistance trilogy and Ratchet and Clank on PlayStation systems – Sunset Overdrive owes more than a few debts to Jet Set Radio.
Favoring constant movement over precision gunplay, and with a color palette so vibrant it makes the Ratchet games look positively drab by comparison, Sunset Overdrive is unlike anything the studio has developed in its 20-year history. Taking place in the fictional Sunset City in the near future, it’s your job to deal with an outbreak of mutants inadvertently triggered by excessive consumption of a new energy drink.
You do this, of course, by shooting most everything in sight with a wide variety of weapons, and in true Insomniac Games style, the game’s arsenal is suitably over-the-top. There’s the usual array of rocket launchers, machine guns and shotguns, of course, but the ones that stick in the mind are creations like the Roman Candle, which shoots out fireworks which fill the screen with color, or the High Fidelity, which fires vinyl records.
The real star of the show is the traversal system. Immediately reminiscent of games like the aforementioned Jet Set Radio and Tony Hawks’ Pro Skater, navigating the city is best performed by grinding rails, chaining together acrobatic moves and finding seamless routes throughout the game’s open environment while dealing out death and destruction as you go. While you can walk around at ground level, it’s not advisable to do so – enemies come thick and fast and can quickly overwhelm you if you stay still for too long, and they’re just as capable of clambering up buildings as you are.
Grinding is simple enough – jump near a rail and press the X button, and your character latches on to it, propelled forward automatically. It’s a simple, intuitive system which works well, with a generous margin of error ensuring that you don’t have to worry too much about precision while in the thick of a firefight. Wall running works much the same way, while jumps can be chained together by pressing A just as you connect with the right surface – an umbrella, a car roof, or whatever else the game deems to be a “bounce” spot. These simple systems make getting about the city a joy, and mean that you don’t need to worry too much about pixel-perfect platforming when surrounded by large groups of enemies.
Which is just as well, because slaughtering legions of foes while on the move feels a little awkward at the moment. An auto-aim system helps you to tackle threats on the move, though in the demo I played it felt a little inconsistent; sometimes the game failed to lock on to an enemy right in front of me, preferring instead to target another further off the screen. Squeezing the left trigger slows down the action a little and allows for more precision aiming, but when your character is moving at high speed – such as when grinding on one of the many rails that populate the city – it feels sluggish, the speed of the camera often outpaced by the speed of your movement.
Hopefully this is addressed in the final build – and sensitivity options included in the options – but on more than one occasion in the demo, I found myself struggling to aim at an enemy that the game stubbornly refused to lock on to because by the time I had moved the reticule over it, my character had turned a corner or the enemy had moved position. It’s perhaps because of this that so many of the game’s weapons are area-of-effect, and this does mitigate the problem to a degree, but it still leads to occasions where you often feel you need to stop moving in order to ensure you hit your target. In a game built around non-stop momentum, this is disappointing.
You’re rewarded for killing enemies on the move with Style points. Simply put, the more stylishly you kill an enemy, the more points you get, and chaining together kills will see you filling a meter which unlocks perks that boost your damage or trigger other effects – called Amps. Amps are customizable to a degree, allowing you to create specific character builds. The system is there to ensure that you’re continually moving, continually killing enemies, and doing so in the most fluid, stylish way possible. In full flow, when you manage to get into the swing of things and get your head around years of being trained to take time lining up your shots before quickly running to another spot, the feeling of satisfaction you get from chaining together a particularly impressive series of kills is addictive.
The game’s visuals are unlikely to disappoint. Bold, bright and full of color, Sunset Overdrive is a visual feast, and even with so many characters and effects on-screen at once I never noticed any slowdown or tearing. The stylized characters bound about their environment with exaggerated animations to match the cartoon chaos on display and while they don’t always feel truly connected to the world they inhabit – some of the animations have a slightly weightless quality about them, while I noticed plenty of clipping through walls, or hands which didn’t quite grasp the surface they were latching onto – with so much going on at once, it’s unlikely that you’ll notice too much during the moment-to-moment gameplay.
Environments are pleasantly detailed, too, with few of the identikit buildings which litter so many other open-world games, and an impressive draw distance affords some great views of the city as you zip high above the ground. It would be impressive enough in itself, but combined with the sheer number of enemies on screen, it’s surprising that the game holds up as well as it does. Sunset Overdrive offers nowhere near the amount of on-screen NPC’s seen in Dead Rising 3, but it’s still hard to see any but the most cynical or churlish find fault with the action on display.
The soundwork is a little less impressive, though. Most annoying is the player character’s propensity for repeatedly commenting on where you should be going, which soon becomes annoying and feels downright bizarre in an open-world game built around freedom of movement and anarchic violence. When you’re encouraged to cause mayhem and be as stylish as possible, having the character constantly trying to nag you into going back to the beaten path soon wears thin. Weapons don’t quite sound as powerful as it looks like they should either, which creates a disconnect between the chaos happening on-screen and noise generated as a result. None of the sound is bad, it just doesn’t match the quality on display in the game’s visuals.
If Jet Set Radio and Tony Hawks come to mind with the game’s traversal mechanics, then it’s Dead Rising which comes to mind the most in the personality and over-the-top humor. Sunset Overdrive shares that series’ penchant for ridiculous weaponry and characters, and just like Dead Rising, you’ll need to tackle human psychos – called Scabs here – as you work through the game. There’s more than a touch of Capcom’s open-world zombie apocalypse about Insomniac’s latest title, and I can’t help but wonder if that’s exactly why Microsoft took the game on in the first place – something they can stand up with and say “this is for fans of that other exclusive we put out”. The weapons allow for some ridiculous kills which raise plenty of smiles, and so long as the final arsenal is sufficiently large and diverse – not something that looks to be a problem based on my time with the game – then it could be a great way to kill some time after a hard day at work, or when you have friends around and want to show off the increasingly diverse library that Microsoft is gathering for its console.
The demo I played was brief – a simple 10-minute trip across the city to a theme park, where an impromptu roller-coaster ride along the rails was required in order to destroy a couple of fireworks caches – but it was enough to get a feel for the various systems that Insomniac has used as the foundation for their latest title. Despite lingering concerns over the game’s sluggish aiming, Sunset Overdrive is a lot of fun. Questions remain over whether it will be able to sustain that fun during prolonged play or whether a sense of repetition will set in, but so far all the signs point towards Insomniac’s first game on Microsoft’s latest console being a solid addition the system’s line-up of exclusives.