Insomniac Games is one of my favourite developers. Even when they were making pretty much nothing but Ratchet & Clank games, I still loved them because all the games were so polished, funny and mechanically amazing. They were famous for their sense of humour, tight platforming and wacky weapons. Overstrike looked like it was going to be an evolution of that, until EA gutted its soul and turned it into Fuse, yet another bland shooter devoid of anything interesting or memorable. When Sunset Overdrive was announced back at E3 2013, it looked like more of a return to form with colourful visuals, a wacky plot and something that looked akin to a Tony Hawk game meeting a zombie shooter.
I beat Sunset Overdrive and straight away, wanted to go back in for more but not before I immediately bought the DLC season pass. If that doesn’t give you a preview of my opinion, I’ll make it plain: This is among the most fun I’ve had with a game this year.
The plot of Sunset Overdrive is suitably nonsensical. It’s 2027 and an energy drink company called FizzCo has become the dominant corporate force over a world that seems pulled straight out of Idiocracy. A new drink gets its initial release in Sunset City. The problem is, FizzCo bribed their way out of health regulations and testing and unbeknownst to them, the drink turns anyone who consumes it into murderous, addicted mutants. The protagonist is one of your own making, created using the frankly incredible levels of customisation available. He or she works basically as a janitor for FizzCo but after all Hell breaks loose, ends up inheriting the task of saving the city from destruction by a company trying to cover up its epic mistake. You do this with a variety of wacky weapons, power ups known as amps and overdrives and by zipping around the open world by bouncing off cars and air vents, grinding on rails, hydroplaning and more. You’ll have to deal with the mutants but also squatters and eventually, FizzCo’s robotic army, with some other special encounters thrown in for good measure.
How are you able to do all this? What’s the crazy back story of your character that makes him or her knowledgeable of such things? How does a janitor end up saving the city by being Tony Hawk with guns? It’s never really explained. Realistic this ain’t but neither is anything else in Sunset Overdrive and that’s only to its benefit.
So many games try to be realistic and so many of the ones that aren’t still have an inherent need to explain the plausibility of everything they let you do. Sunset Overdrive has no such pretensions. It’s a save the world story but it doesn’t take itself remotely seriously. It doesn’t care whether it’s realistic or whether anything is relatable. Every time it introduced something new, I felt like it was silently proclaiming “Go with it because it’s a damn video game!” Why do you get around by grinding on rails and bouncing 50 feet in the air off cars and A/C vents? Because it’s a damn video game! Why are you using guns that do things like shoot explosive teddy bears or spray acid from dolls? Because it’s a damn video game! What exactly are amps and how are you “equipping” them to yourself? Because shut up, it’s a damn video game! I grew up on games that didn’t need to justify themselves, they just had good ideas of what was fun, made a platform for them and told you to enjoy. That’s exactly what Sunset Overdrive is about and in this era where even goofy games try to play things serious for fear people might actually–gasp–not take them seriously, this is so refreshing. It doesn’t care to explain itself to you, it’s just going to show you why it’s fun.
Much like Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor (another highlight for me this year), Sunset Overdrive’s open world is big but not so big that you need to pack a lunch to get from one end to the other. Sticking to the ground will get you killed in a hurry and you’re expected to move around the way the game wants you to. Figuring this system out is tricky at first and I think a better job could have been done at getting you used to it. I know I’m not the only one who ended up pretty frustrated for the first hour or so. Stick it out though because once it clicks, you’ll be moving super fast and wreaking havoc while you do it. Few games in recent years have so expertly made use of flow engagement theory. This is one of those games that you’ll sit down to play for half an hour and not realise when you get up that you’ve spent the day with it.
The campaign is a good dozen or more hours, especially if you do the side quests. Beyond that, there are a bunch of challenge missions (with online leaderboards of course) and a frankly insane number of different collectibles, many of which require mastery of the traversal systems to get. I can’t imagine how many hours it took to place all these in the world. These are all optional and if you choose to partake, I could see that easily tripling the length of time you’ll spend with it. Most of the missions have a decent variety of objectives and come attached to some hilariously different factions. Some are more interesting than others but aside from one really tedious series of side quests in the last act, I enjoyed basically every mission. There are only a handful of boss fights but without spoiling anything, they are all very memorable not just in terms of characters but in sheer scope.
Your character can be customised well beyond their appearance, with an huge, Insomniac-esque arsenal of weapons available, all of which are crazy in their own ways and play uniquely. Everything can be leveled up with use and you’re encouraged to experiment and there’s such a variety that it’s easy to ignore the ones you don’t like. You can purchase and equip amps and overdrives which are modifiers that boost the effect of certain types of weapons or traversal moves. It’s a deep system but the amps especially don’t provide significant benefits (it’s usually +1-3% to each statistic modified) and while I kept them up, I think you could easily beat the whole game while ignoring them altogether, especially since buying more requires grinding collectibles. Money is pretty common but some of the stuff you can buy is pricey so if you want some of the bigger ticket items, you’ll have to do some free roaming.
There’s also an online mode which I plan to spend more time with that pairs you up to an eight player party and throws various missions at you that are co-op in nature but can also have a friendly competitive element through the scoring system. These missions build up various team statistics that are used to determine how a night defense mission in the end plays out. The defense missions are absolute bedlam and a ton of fun. At the end of it all, your score is tallied and various bonuses are applied based on secondary objectives in the missions from your session. You get to spin for customisation loot and get more spins for hitting certain score milestones. Multiplayer can be jumped into at any time from the story mode and your same character with all their stats and weapons carries into multiplayer and anything you earn comes back out with you. This is an awesome design trend I hope we see more of.
The writing, humour and attitude of Sunset Overdrive has been divisive and I can see how it’s not for everyone. Everything’s presented with a very “punk” aesthetic from the art which has a very bright, graffiti-like colour palette to the hard punk soundtrack, which features several songs custom written for the game. I’m not normally big on punk music but I loved the energy this brought to things, even if there were far too few songs that resulted in a lot of repetition. If you don’t like rock music at all though, you’ll probably find it aggravating. Every character is unique and has their own distinct personality, making them all memorable, even if it’s for being annoying in some cases.
Many fourth wall breaking jokes are made, including making fun of video games themselves (there’s even a NeoGAF reference) and some even poke fun at what you’re doing in the game itself. There’s a school of thought I normally subscribe to which is that if you’re making fun of bad game design while making someone play it, you’ve missed the point. I get that but this game never really does that and often, it’s making fun of something by giving you the means to subvert it.
I’m also not normally a fan of referential humour, I find it lazy and unoriginal. Where Sunset Overdrive succeeds over say, Borderlands 2 is that it largely uses references to real life pop culture as a basis for original jokes of its own. Borderlands 2 doesn’t, it just points at pop culture references and Internet memes and goes “Remember this? Funny, amirite?” Sunset Overdrive may make a NeoGAF reference but it’s one part of a broader joke, not the entirety of it. This has been a staple of Insomniac Games for many years and they haven’t lost their touch. Anthony Burch should play this game and take notes, maybe one day he’ll learn how to actually write original jokes rather than just being the Ebaum’s World of video games.
This is a world that definitely needed the power of the new consoles to pull off. The draw distance is massive and some battles can have dozens or more enemies on screen at once and I never saw a dip below its locked 30 per second frame rate. Could this have been done on old hardware? Probably but it wouldn’t have been as fun. The load times are also quite short, something notable on the Xbox One which has become famous for making you wait. I never had any technical problems or even any real glitches. Given that this is Insomniac’s first open world game, that’s pretty impressive.
Sunset Overdrive is a breath of fresh air in a Fall release season that has largely seen rehashes of the same old ideas, many of which launched broken as well. This game is polished, runs like a top and is chalk full of original ideas and a personality that any gaming veteran can tell has Insonmiac Games written all over it. The rumour is now that publishers have been shown that tablets and phones aren’t taking over gaming and that people do still want AAA experiences, we’re going to start seeing more original ideas in the next couple of years. I certainly hope that’s true and that Sunset Overdrive is only one example of what’s to come. This is one of the best games I’ve played this year and honestly, I think it’s worth buying an Xbox One for on its own. It’s not getting the attention it deserves but if you’re someone who still plays games for raw fun first and realism second, you need to try this. Why? Because it’s a damn video game!