Insomniac Games' Sunset Overdrive is one of those games that you can broadly explain to enthusiast gamers by citing other genres or titles. It's an open-world game with a bit of zombie action, some Jet Set Radio, and a helping of the developer's own Ratchet & Clank series. The studio has also thrown in a love of classic punk rock. The resulting concoction is an absolute blast.
Sunset Overdrive's setting and basic plot are just a backdrop for all the insanity. Sunset City is about to play host to the global launch party of Fizzco's new energy drink, Overdrive. Unfortunately, the soft drink company is more concerned with sales than safety, so they've inadvertently created a drink that turns people into mutated, zombie-like creatures. You were too busy working and cleaning up after everyone else to drink any Overdrive, so you've missed out on mutation. Now Sunset City is ground zero for an outbreak, most of the population isn't human anymore, Fizzco has the place on lethal quarantine, and it's up to you to find a way to freedom.
To do so, you'll need hook up with the various groups of survivors in the city. These groups all have specific themes, from the samurai scouts of Troop Bushido to the LARP-heavy Fargaths. The story has you bouncing from group to group - they all hold different parts of the city - before wrapping it all up in a bow. All told, the critical path will take 10-15 hours. It felt satisfying, but a bit light, and the last group feels shortchanged compared to the earlier factions.
Bob just wrote an article about the lack of funny games, but Sunset Overdrive's writing is full of wit. It didn't have me hunched over in breathless guffaws, but the story did make me smile and chuckle. Most of the characters are rather endearing in their own ways and seeing them play off of you is fun.
It's Your Life, So Go Your Own Way
I say "you" because you're the hero or heroine of Sunset Overdrive. From the game's beginning, you're given the chance to customize your character as you see fit. That means four body types (two male, two female), a host of faces, and motherlovin' crap-ton of clothing and accessory options.
It's worth pausing on that last part: Insomniac has filled Sunset Overdrive with all the shirts, pants, jackets, underwear, glasses, gloves, and other items it could think of. These items range from t-shirts and jeans, to odd bits like the kangaroo codpiece or panda paws. The best part is Insomniac looked ahead and made everything gender-neutral; every piece of clothing, from sports bras or chest plates, can be worn on any of the models. That means you can look however you want to in Sunset Overdrive and it's one of the main strengths of the game. Some of the items are locked behind specific points in the campaign, but you'll begin the game with enough clothing choices to leave your fingerprint.
Insomniac was also nice enough to not lock players into any specific choices. If you visit the clothing vendor, you can change entire outfits and save your choices in specific sets. You're not even constrained by your original body type and facial choices. Want to play the next mission as a man or woman? Rock out. I personally had one outfit for the story's early beats, switching to a different outfit for the later game. You can change more often if you'd like.
Your character is never named and the only real break down in the personalization effect is that there are only two voices to work with. Both voices establish your character as a bit of a self-centered douche, but it works for the story campaign's eventual path and helps when your character breaks the fourth wall. It's best to imagine Marvel Comics' Deadpool with a bit more restraint. Just... grit your teeth on the early part; it all came together for me by the game's midpoint. Yes, I would've appreciated a few more vocal options, but the clothing choices more than make up for that particular problem.
I'm Bouncing Off the Walls Again
In play, Sunset Overdrive feels a whole lot like Sega's cult classic, Jet Set Radio. Traversal is everything in the game. The X button handles most of your moves, from grinding on rails to wall-running. That combined with jumping and air dashing serves to get you around Sunset City. It's not as technical as Jet Set's high-end play, but the system sings once you unlock all of the moves and you get used to the basic rhythm of play.
The city is clearly designed to maximize your movement options: you can grind on rails, power lines, and the edges of rooftops, or get a huge vertical boost from bouncing on cars, bushes, and awnings. You can fight on the ground, but Sunset Overdrive wants you to be airborne and mobile most of the time. Expect a lot of bouncing or grinding back-and-forth while fighting groups of enemies and bosses. This could have made things uncontrollable in the heat of battle, but Insomniac added a soft lock-on to make things a bit easier. Combat works, but traversal is the game's second highlight; it got to the point that I'd rather grind my way across the city than fast travel from place to place.
Outside of its excellent design for traversal, Sunset City looks damn good. In fact, Sunset Overdrive looks grand. The game runs at 900p and 30 fps, running pretty smooth with a number of enemies and explosions on-screen. It's not Dead Rising 3 levels, but things get hectic. More importantly, Sunset Overdrive is bright and colorful with a host of blazing yellows, red, and greens on display. Combined with the game's original punk music and you have a title that feels like an irrevent celebration of life. (In the midst of cold, callous, and relentless death of course. Just not yours.)
We're All OD'd on the Olden West
Sunset Overdrive's focus on personal customization extends to the weapon and progression systems. The weapons trade on Insomniac's years of experience with Ratchet & Clank, providing a variety of different effects. You'll start with the basic Dirty Harry pistol and the phallic Flaming Compensator shotgun, but your arsenal will grow to include the explosive TnTeddy, the bowling ball-spewing the Dude, and the fireworks-laden One-Handed Dragon. You can unlock and purchase more than the eight weapons you can equip, so what you carry with you becomes a matter of what fits your playstyle and the situation. I was partial to the Acid Sprinkler for clearing bands of OD in a specific areas; I'm sure you'll find your favorites too.
Each weapon has different effectiveness ratings against the game's major enemy types - basic OD mutants, giant OD, Fizzco robots, and humans - and they all level up as you use them. You can further improve them with Amps, unlockable add-ons that provides additional effects like setting enemies on fire or making them fight for you for a limited time. There's weapon Amps and then there's Amps for your character.
The trick with Amps is they're only active at certain Style levels. You gain Style by grinding, bouncing, wall-running, and even dispatching your foes. Everything you do adds to your Style combo, which pushes the meter higher. With high-level Amps and the higher levels on the Style Meter, things get really crazy. I had one Amp that caused random lightning strikes at high Style levels, which was pretty helpful in certain encounters.
There's also Overdrives, which end up being more important than the Amps, in my opinion. You purchase Overdrives with badges than you gain for doing things around Sunset City. If you grind everywhere, you'll have a surplus of Grind badges. If you're a wanton destroyer of Fizzco Robots, there's a badge for that. Do you favor certain weapon types, like single-shot guns? Badge for that, too.
Once you have these badges, you can use them to buy (and upgrade) related Overdrives. Use your Bounce badges to buy an Overdrive that increases your Style generation when you bounce around. Spend your OD badges on a passive boost to your damage when facing OD or to lower their incoming damage. Love Automatic weapons? Those badges can be used to increase the damage or ammo capacity of that weapon type. It's a solid system that rewards you for doing what you like to do with further improvements in those areas. It reinforces the idea of being able to play your way.
I'm on a Submarine Mission for You, Baby
Sunset Overdrive is an open-world game, so the city is littered with story missions, extra missions, challenges, and collectibles. While the game's story campaign hits some definite highs, most missions are largely the same: go here, kill things, find things. The challenges switch it up slightly by having you killing things with a specific weapon or go here within a specific time limit, but the overall mission structure lacks a bit of variety. That's a charge I can lob at many other open-world games, but overall Sunset Overdrive felt a bit slight at times. Collectibles include toilet paper, Fizzco balloons, and old sneakers; once you've collected enough of the various items, you can use the materials to craft more Amps in the Night Defense mode.
Night Defense is the other large part of Sunset Overdrive's gameplay. It's required to craft new Amps, it pops up in the story campaign a few times, and it's the capper to the game's multiplayer Chaos Squad mode. Night Defense has you holding off OD and protecting certain points within a fixed level. You can place traps - you'll unlock more during the story campaign and within extra missions - to slow down and kill the OD, but a large part of the work relies on you wading into combat. Night Defense is like a 3D Tower Defense where the lanes are less-defined and you're personally involved in the defense. This wasn't my favorite mode, because I'm not a big Tower Defense fan, but I eventually got a hang of it. (Read: I eventually purchased or unlocked a loadout that makes defending points easier.) Night Defense is signifcantly more fun with other players though.
Sunset Overdrive isn't perfect, but I enjoyed the hell out of it. It's review season, so I'm in the middle of a few games, but Sunset Overdrive is the one I keep wanting to jump back into for 15-20 minutes here and there. The story campaign could've been a bit longer, the missions could have more variety, and there's always going to be room for more clothing options, but I'm pleased with the first apocalypse in Sunset City. Getting around the city is an absolute treat, the weapons are a blast, the script was enjoyable, and customization is top-notch. Sunset Overdrive makes me glad that I own an Xbox One.
Welcome to Sunset City. It's the apocalypse. Let's have some fun.
The Nitty Gritty
- Visuals: It's not top-of-the-line, but Sunset Overdrive's presentation is bright, colorful, and light on the stutter.
- Sound: Insomniac Games has produced a ton of original punk rock songs that I just don't appreciate because I don't know punk.
- Interface: Every light needs a shadow. Every game needs an interface that does it job. Sunset Overdrive has one.
- Lasting appeal: The story campaign is rather short. Otherwise, there's extra missions, challenges, and Chaos Squad multiplayer. The developer is also adding weekly challenges to the game.
Sunset Overdrive is a welcome change of pace from the dour, serious AAA games we've been playing all year. Insomniac asks "who do you want to be?" with tons of customization options, some great weapons, and a very physical way to get around the city. The game feels a bit light in the content department, but it's undeniably fun.
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