Mohawks! Hyper-bright colours! Energy drink zombies! Giant death-robot balloon mascots! Snarky comments! Skate punk!
What do you get if you put all this together? No, it’s not just some random collection of non-sequitur nonsense, it’s actually also a load of stuff listed from Sunset Overdrive, Insomniac’s 2014 Xbox One exclusive open-world action game. If any of that guff listed above caught your attention, then you might well find yourself enjoying Sunset Overdrive.
Sunset Overdrive (Xbox One [reviewed])
Released Oct 2014 | Developed: Insomniac | Published: Microsoft
Our journey begins with a zombie apocalypse engineered by an evil corporation – stop me if you’ve heard this before. But wait, our zombies are different! These ones are energy drink mutants, not zombies! Our unnamed player character, a janitor cleaning up at a massive corporate event to launch Fizzco’s new drink Overcharge, witnesses anyone who drinks the luminous orange soda instantly mutate into a mindless ghoul, called OD by the game, before escaping. Barricaded in their apartment, they’re rescued by the grizzled veteran Walter, who ropes them into a plan to escape Sunset City.
So begins the setup for your average Grand Theft Auto-esque layout in which you trek around an open world, helping out various factions in order to get their assistance in furthering your own goal. Our quest will see us help out such strange allies as lazy post-millennial preps, LARPers, and even a samurai scout troop as our protagonist tries to cobble together a plan to break out of the quarantined city. However, between the hordes of OD, ragtag groups of hostile scavengers, and Fizzco’s own security robots, the odds seem stacked against us.
Of course, any good hero has to have an array of weapons and skills to overcome insurmountable odds, and that is certainly the case in Sunset Overdrive. At the beginning of the game you’re given the Compensator, a massive shotgun, and it only gets sillier from there. The High-Fidelity rapid-fires records, perfect for this game’s post-millennial appeal, the TNTeddy drops deployable detonating plushies, and The Dude lobs flaming bowling balls down the cramped Sunset streets; almost everything is in the same mould, drenched in a goofy self-declared awesomeness. Regrettably the most effective weapons are often the simplest; the Fiery Compensator combos particularly well with the Dirty Harry revolver, both of which you are given in the tutorial, and the late-game laser rifle is by far one of the most devastating pieces of tech you can pick up though in fairness, it didn’t stop me from experimenting a little throughout my time with Sunset Overdrive.
One of the most memorable features of Sunset Overdrive is its unique movement. You can grind along almost any lateral surface, bounce super high, wall run, air-dash, and even smoothly flip up and over walls and ledges. It all works together to create a seamless and effortlessly cool sense of style as you get about Sunset City. At its best it reminds me of the fluidity of the old Tony Hawk games and, gratifyingly, it doesn’t take terribly long for the game to get you to that point; once the initial tutorials are out of the way and the open world is set up you start being able to scoot across the City at high speed, and I think that’s the best possible way for it to have been played.
The movement also feeds into the game’s Style system. As you perform more stylish acrobatics, your Style meter raises and at various intervals activates, allowing you to use your equipped Amps. Amps are passive bonuses that augment both your weaponry and your movement skills, making it easier to keep at a higher style for longer. The marrying of your movement and the style mechanic is excellent, and something that truly shines throughout the game; by the endgame, the sheer force you can bring as you flip, run, grind, and bounce around enemies is joyous to experience.
Sunset Overdrive has one of the most friendly, easy-to-use, and extensive character customisation systems in a game since the Saints Row series. You can change not just clothes but any aspect of your character at any time, right from the start. It might not matter to many, but I think it’s a small thing that allows such a wonderful freedom of expression and I love it. I’d certainly be grateful for a few more clothing options, though; you can buy more bits and pieces as you progress through the game but it still feels like a relatively small pool of clothes to pick from in comparison to other games. You really have to want to commit to looking a bit like a loon, of course, and if you’re in the right frame of mind for it, then it’s brilliant! Personally I found it a bit too over-the-top and tacky to be entirely to my taste; I tend to want to at least feel a little co-ordinated when I make characters, but Sunset Overdrive has no time for such petty restraint.
In fact, that over-commitment to zaniness may be Sunset Overdrive’s greatest flaw. Humour is a tricky beast given how subjective it is; what is side-splitting to one person might not draw even the faintest of amused exhalations from another, and a large part of whether or not you enjoy Sunset Overdrive will come down to that reaction. Sunset Overdrive’s entire shtick is built around over-the-top nonsense, pop-culture references, and meta jokes. I can find those kinds of jokes funny once or twice but not consistently, and they wear so very thin over the course of a 12-15 hour game. I enjoyed some of the writing, sure, but after so long it tended to fall flat.
Once you get past the humour, it’s easy to see that the gimmicks Sunset Overdrive brings to the table are part of a paper-thin layer which covers some considerable issues. For a start, despite how colourful and pretty Sunset City is, it is also absolutely devoid of any sense of character. The greatest open worlds in games have a life all of their own when they’re filled with characters with personalities, and when they tell a story through the landscape; a hallmark of weaker worlds is not understanding that and using it simply as a setting and regrettably Sunset City falls into that latter category. There’s nothing to see or take an interest in to speak of, nor any story told through it; it might as well be a brightly-coloured collection of featureless blocks.
Like any mediocre open world, Sunset Overdrive’s is scattered with collectibles to hoover up. Some are quite standard, such as high viewpoints to climb to, while plenty others fit into the game’s sense of wackiness, including collecting scraps of toilet paper and hanging old shoes. There’s really no conceivable incentive to collect them all unless you’re a really die-hard addict; you can get some new Amps and the occasional tiny snippets of backstory but beyond that you’re simply putting in busywork hours. Sidequests offer a more engaging interaction with Sunset Overdrive, but though there are a few excellent ones, many are unfortunately repetitive.
Additionally, I’m a real snob for how weaponry feels in a game, and Sunset Overdrive fails spectacularly in that regard. The majority of the guns have no weight to them whatsoever, and because most of them suck you don’t get that much of a need to experiment since, as mentioned, only a small handful are even vaguely effective. It’s the same story for the Amps as well; once you find the ones that work, there’s little point to bothering with the other, less effective, options.
Sunset Overdrive also juggles a few too many hats, I think. There are a bunch of missions which introduce a random mechanic that is used only in that mission before being discarded, and it’s a real shame that the game doesn’t have that conviction to stick with and develop a few really solid mechanics. It’s also unfortunate that the one recurring mechanic the developers did decide to keep using is an extremely annoying tower defence thing which shows up multiple times through the campaign and never stops being a pain in the arse.
Comedy isn’t for everyone, but I guess that’s a known risk. Making a comedy game is, I think, probably even harder. You have to be funny for a significantly longer period of time than just a show, and if you commit to a particular brand of comedy then you resign yourself to knowing you’ll alienate at least some of the potential audience your game could have had. Still, that takes a sense of belief in a project, and I can respect Sunset Overdrive for that. I’m not going to pretend I didn’t enjoy it at all; to be honest, I think there’s some truly brilliant things about it. The movement is honestly second-to-none, and the way the combat is linked into it and gets progressively more chaotic the longer you can keep a style chain going is so fantastically addictive and empowering, and I can definitely recommend playing Sunset Overdrive for that alone. Still, if you’re going to get the most from it, you need to gel with the humour, and unfortunately that wasn’t for me, and I do think hiding underneath it is a slightly budget shell of a game.
4/7 – GOOD. Sure, maybe something doesn’t quite work but at least it has heart, or a spark of excitement that makes it worthwhile despite the faults. Definitely worth a go if you can at least find it on sale.