After crafting a reputation as a Sony exclusive studio, Insomniac have ventured into Microsoft exclusive territory with the bonkers open world adventure, Sunset Overdrive. And their Infamous and Ratchet & Clank fingerprints are all over this game.
Sunset Overdrive launches you straight into the action, fleeing a huge orange mutant whilst also trying to make it back your apartment in an almost post-apocalyptic sequence. Once there, the game guides you through the back story of how the aforementioned mutant came to be. With more than a subtle swipe at the energy drink industry, we learn that the mutants are concert goers who have been consuming FizzCo’s latest product, Overcharge. As the promotional DJ reminds everyone, “you should consume at least 8 a day!”. Later, you learn that testing was skimped on and pretty much avoided in order to rush the product out, and what they haven’t picked up on is that there’s something within the drink that turns you into the OD’d.
In their eagerness to cover up this liability, FizzCo seal Sunset City with invisible walls and contain both the OD and the survivors. Your goal is to escape the city alive, and you will meet many other survivors along the way, each with a quirky personality and gimmick to boot. Whether that’s a group of trust fund brats hanging out in an arcade, or am adult Boy Scout troop refuging in a Japanese temple. Each of these camps you visit will bring more missions that bring you closer to your end goal
These are (mainly) one-shot enemies which are easy to take out in isolation, but if hordes gather then they can quickly become overwhelming. Still addicted to Overcharge, even in mutant form, a pool of the drink on the floor will attract dozens of OD from all directions. If you choose to stand still and fight, explosive weaponry is your only hope. If you try and pick them off on by one, you’ll soon be viewing the fantastic respawn animations.
Avoiding your enemies is made much easier by the fact that almost every surface in the environment can either be grinded on a la Tony Hawk, or bounced on to great heights. There are some fast travel locations to the various camps you unlock as you progress through the game, but Insomniac want you to grind, and they remind you constantly throughout the game as well making ground combat ridiculously frustrating. Once you’ve mastered the art of amped-up parkour, you can pretty much travel from one end of the map to the other without your feet touching the ground. When you’re able to grind and accurately aim and fire your weapon at the same time, you’ll be able to defeat large swarms without so much as a scratch on you – but until then, gameplay sessions are puntuated by frequent deaths and respawns, and having to do missions over and over again.
And speaking of weapons, the guns you use in Sunset Overdrive are reminiscent of the craziest combinations seen in Dead Rising 3 – only without the need to actually find the materials and combine them. Whether it be bowling ball cannons or acid sprinklers, they are as “out there” as the rest of the game. Here you can straight up purchase them from your buddy Two Hats in his various gun kiosks across the map. As extravagant as they are, you’re looking at the standard types – namely, pistols, shotguns, automatic weapons and explosives. I found myself using the exploding TNT Teddy gun the most.
You can also upgrade your weapons, but I found this process to be confusing and ultimately pointless, as none of the Amps really added anything substantial to my guns. 5% damage increase here, 5% cooldown reduction there. It’s a big effort for small gains.
It’s a structure that is replicated in your character upgrade screen too. You gather raw materials from the open world such as toilet paper hanging from lampposts, and sneakers dangling from powerlines, and give them to your buddy Floyd, who uses them to create Amps. As with the weapon upgrades, the early level Amps had very little to your arsenal. It’s only as you traverse through later levels stages you feel the benefits.
Without doubt the game’s greatest attribute is that it’s laugh-out-loud funny. The humor is a less racy version of that contained within the Saints Row franchise. Lots of tongue-in-cheek references are thrown at other games, and there’s enough self-awareness that Sunset Overdrive could have been called Meta Overkill. You have mini-bosses declaring their unhappiness with only being categorized as such, (“I’m a god damn maxi boss!”), as well as characters in cutscenes making reference to the fact that when the cutscene ends, they won’t be there but you will. The game is littered with this kind of self-aware commentary, and call me childish but when it’s mixed up with swear words, I can’t help but laugh. When you add in that the game is repeating many of the plot device failures that it’s criticizing, you realise just how off-the-wall this experience is.
Sunset Overdrive isn’t concerned with the usual tone seen in other post-apocalyptic experiences. There’s no doom and gloom atmosphere to be found here. Both the environments and the characters are tremendously bright and upbeat in the face of their reduced life expectancy. With that departure from reality, inevitably you struggle to invest emotionally in the characters, but that’s ok, because I’m not even sure we are meant to. Floyd is one of the characters you meet early on, and as he says in the game, they’re all exaggerated stereotypes. This is a game that isn’t interested in sticking to the rules, and there’s something to admire about that, but with a lack of emotional investment with the main protagonist, you’re not going to be kicking the door in to see him/her in Sunset Overdrive II – Stuff Got Even More Amped.
Depending on your taste in music, the soundtrack will either have you head banging, or banging your head against the wall. It’s punk rock on a loop, and you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s just one song playing over and over. I envisage a large number of players turning it off in the menus when a particularly frustrating level is causing stress.
The campaign is standard fare, with a series of missions that involve you “fetch this and take it there”, and “clear this area then move on to the next area and clear that” albeit given a colourful and amusing twist. For example, one mission requiring you to fetch stores of food for an NPC involves you grilling a series of live pigeons and taking them back in shopping carts. Another involves you clearing an area of OD whilst a group of LARPers throw out Game of Thrones references. But the humour is enough to make it an enjoyable experience, and is enough to convince yourself that it doesn’t matter that this is “tab A into slot b” formulaic. In fact the side quest challenges are so insignificant, they don’t even indicate when you’ve completed them.
But where the game gets exposed is in the multiplayer mode. There is no co-op mode for the campaign, but in Chaos Squad you join a group of other players in a common goal, whether it’s in a tower defence mode, killing as many OD as possible mode or the mind numbing task of finding a barrel and delivering it to a boat. It’s competitive in as much as scores are kept of who did the best amongst your squad, but there is no mode or option where you actually combat the other players. It’s also completely unscaled meaning it’s way too easy in a squad of 8 and way too hard in a squad of 2 (it even warns you of that when you create a part of just 2 players). One feature that I did appreciate was the ability to search for a multiplayer match, and continue to play your single player campaign whilst you wait for a match.
There are already plenty of open-world games on Xbox One, with Dead Rising 3, Sleeping Dogs, and Watch Dogs to name but a few, and although very enjoyable at times, I don’t feel Sunset Overdrive will have the same long term appeal that GTA or even Saints Row will have. It’s great fun, but once you’ve heard all of the jokes a few times, you’re left with a vibrant world with solid if not spectacular gameplay. The light that burns brightest, burns half as long..
Ultimately, Sunset Overdrive lacks the variety needed to sustain itself over the length of its campaign. For all its early energy and fizz, by the time you reach the finish line the experience has fallen flat.