I'm hypnotized by Sunset Overdrive's customization. As soon as I get the chance, I dive as deep as I can into the customization options—the hair, the clothes... anything I can find. And then everything clicks, and I suddenly realize that this is what I've been missing in Grand Theft Auto all these years.
I don't know why it didn't occur to me until now. From GTA Vice City all the way up through GTA V, I had tried and failed to immerse myself in Rockstar's opus. Something was always missing. Maybe it was just that I couldn't identify with Tommy, CJ, Niko Bellic, or the three guys in GTA V. Maybe I needed Rockstar to put aside any pretensions of rehashing Scarface and once again let me build my own avatar.
Thinking about it, it's surprising how few sandbox games in the mold of Grand Theft Auto offer true character customization. Red Dead Redemption, Mafia II, L.A. Noire, Sleeping Dogs, Infamous, and L.A. Noire all have scripted characters. Crackdown has a roster of pre-built agents, all men. As far as I can tell, the only real exception is Saint's Row, which is of course the exception to everything (and I appreciate it for that).
This is less to express my displeasure with the lack of female protagonists in GTA, though I wouldn't mind playing as a lady from time to time, and more to express my simple desire to feel more immersed in the massive world that Rockstar has so painstakingly constructed. Guy or gal, I would have an easier time getting lost in the world of Liberty City if I weren't forced to inhabit someone else's character. Or at least a character that I didn't have a hand in creating. The inherent disconnect inevitably takes me out of the experience and makes it harder for me to enjoy the freedom afforded by such environments, even if I do still like driving the odd car off a cliff.
Which brings me to Sunset Overdrive—Insomniac's new open-world shooter—where the first thing I did was create an African-American lady with a sweet afro (confession: I've always kind of wished I could rock a 'fro) before fleeing a concert full of mutated energy drink fanatics.* Once I got back to my apartment, I dug into the closet and found a pair of skinny jeans and hipster glasses, and I was on my way. To quote Weird Al, "The world was my burrito."
* The premise reminds me a bit of a similar theme in DMC. Or the Slurm episode in Futurama.
Much has been made of how Sunset Overdrive is like Jet Grind Radio, from its neon palette to the fact that the main method of transportation is grinding rails. To be honest though, I felt a little like I was playing a gonzo version of Infamous, if only because of the way I was using the terrain to keep my distance from my foes and blast them from afar. The missions are similarly Infamous-y: Kill a certain number of enemies, collect the five power cores, and other fairly bland objectives.
What ultimately sets Sunset Overdrive apart, aside from the fact that I could actually create my own character, was the sheer joy of its art style. Mike put it rather well in his own piece about Sunset Overdrive, "Who said that the apocalypse has to be sadness and drudgery? With society breaking down, isn't that the best time to have fun?"
Much as I like the art style and the action though, I'm not sure I would have liked Sunset Overdrive as much if I had only been represented by its equivalent of Default Shepard—the late '80s/early '90s punk figure who has populated the majority of the trailers. Not that I have anything against mohawks, but I would have a total disconnect with the character, much as I did with Infamous' rather generic Cole. I like to have a little ownership over my open world game, even if it's just a tiny bit.
It's an issue that kind of gets to the heart of what open-world games should be all about. Should they be about total freedome and escapism? Should they try to tell an interactive story, with a massive open-world serving as a backdrop? It's a question that Grand Theft Auto has struggled with to a degree over the years. More than a few critics have pointed out how incongruous it is for Grand Theft Auto IV's Niko Bellic to wrestle with the morality of being a gangster and his past as a soldier one moment, then run over a prostitute the next. That's the danger of trying to exercise too much control over an open-world game, especially when the actual gameplay is fundamentally at odds with the characterization of the protagonist.
Sunset Overdrive, for its part, seems perfectly comfortable in its own shoes. It knows what it is, and it's happy to hand players the reins and let them have fun. It's done much to raise Sunset Overdrive in my estimation, and I was already pretty excited about it to begin with. Time will tell whether it'll end up being the surprise hit of the holiday season, but regardless of how it ultimately does, it feels like a breath of fresh air in an occasionally stale genre.