I've already talked about the the history of open-world games in a previous article. The idea has been around a very long time and we've begun our next console generation, which also means the PC baseline can move forward. Developers are now beginning to explore what they can do with the additional power and their experiments are carrying them in different directions. This series of previews will cover how these developers are bringing their own spin to the open world genre. Last week, I previewed Batman: Arkham Knight, Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor, and Assassin's Creed Unity. Today, we're trying something decidedly less serious and grimdark.
Ever played the Resistance series from Insomniac Games? There's no joy there, only sadness and lamentation. After wrapping up work on Resistance 3, directors Drew Murray and Marcus Smith decided to do something completely different. They pitched something far removed from the greys and browns of Resistance, while still retaining the setting of the end times. Who said that the apocalypse has to be sadness and drudgery? With society breaking down, isn't that the best time to have fun?
Their pitch became Sunset Overdrive, an open-world romp coming exclusively to Xbox One. (Insomniac owns the IP, so there's Titanfall-esque hope for PlayStation gamers) The premise: soft drink maker FizzCo is about to kick off the worldwide launch of its newest sports drink, Overcharge Delirium XT. The problem is, they've never tested it and it actually turns people into monsters. You're a nameless person forced to work the night of the Overcharge release party in Sunset City, so you never get to taste any of the sports drink, which turns out to be a good thing. Now it's up to you to save the city and look cool while doing it.
When I say "you", I mean "you." Yes, the trailers and Insomniac demos all feature the same shaved-head, punk rocker voiced by Yuri Lowenthal, but once you get past the opening, you can make your character look however you want. Male, female, punk rock, suit and tie, hoodie, a dress; it's all up to you. Every clothing item works on both the male and female models because Insomniac wants players to have a ton of options. For Murray and Smith, this decision was influenced partially by the birth of their children towards the end of Resistance's development.
"If I let [my daughter], she would dress like a crazy person every day of her life," explains Murray, showing a photo of his daughter dressed as half-Wicked Witch of the West and half-Glenda the Good Witch. "When I, as her father, explain to her that she can't go to school dressed like this, I sound like the jerk because the reason is you're going to be judged. So we thought about what would happen if societal norms broke down."
You can further customize your character with weapons and Amps. The weapons should be self-explanatory (aim the open-end at enemies), but Insomniac is bringing some of the Ratchet and Clank magic to Sunset Overdrive. That means you can expect weapons like the High Fidelity, which shoots vinyl discs that bounce between targets, or the Captain Ahab, which lures enemies to a specific spot via a can of Overcharge strapped to a harpoon. I was partial to the propane tank launcher myself; more satisfying explosions that way.
Amps are abilities you can add to your character that impart certain effects during your game. At any time you can have four Amps equipped on your character, with another on your weapon. While one Amp can turn you into a fireball when you dodge, another creates random lightning storms, one creates windstorms when you use melee attacks, and a particularly cool one creates flames when you grind on rails. You'll find recipes around the city to craft these amps, but you can't use them willy-nilly. To activate them, you need to keep your Style Meter up.
The Style Meter is where the Ratchet and Clank run-and-gun gameplay meets Jet Set Radio. To keep your Style up, you need to leap, wall-run, rail grind, and combo your way to victory. Sunset Overdrive doesn't want you on the ground, and most of the time, trying to play it like a normal third-person shooter will get you killed. Leap into the air and with the press of a button, you're either grinding on top of or below a rail or other grindable surface. Hitting the button again changes your position on a rail and you can switch your grinding direction at will. If you leave your character alone while grinding, they'll happily grind away on connected surfaces until they reach the end of the line. This is to free you up for shooting the Overcharge zombies below; grinding itself isn't super-fast because Insomniac wants player to have the ability to make strategic gameplay decisions while grinding. They are open to having abilities that increase grind speed, but there's nothing in the game just yet.
And it's not just grinding; cars, bushes, mailboxes, and other items around the city act as bounce pads to keep up on the higher ground. In fact, everything in Sunset City seems to be designed so there's always something to trick on. Insomniac wants traversing the city to be fun and easy. There's challenge in linking together tricks and combos to keep your Style Meter high, but if you just want to grind and jump around the city, rock out.
I only got to see the single player played in front of me, but I did get a chance to get my hands on the game's multiplayer mode. Entitled Chaos Squad, multiplayer pits you and seven friends against a horde of Overcharge zombies all converging on specific points. Chaos Squad acts as its own mini-campaign, with the group choosing between two maps of various difficulties. Choose the harder maps and you'll get better rewards. These mini-campaigns all culminate in Night Defense, a Tower Defense-style mode with all eight players running every which way, explosions, Overcharge zombies, and traps you can place to defend your resources.
Sunset Overdrive is pretty crazy when you're in the middle of the fray. It's bright, colorful; just explosions and neon covering your vision. Sunset Overdrive looks gorgeous and it's tons of fun. Does the frame rate hitch up at times when tons of stuff in happening onscreen? Yes, but there's tons of stuff in happening onscreen. Insomniac has prized free-for-all funageddon over a hard cap at 30fps (according to Digital Foundry, it's running at 1600x900), and they still have some months left for further optimization. How you feel about the currently-unlocked frame rate is up to you, but for the most part it holds onto that 30fps target, which is good enough for me.
I'm looking forward to Sunset Overdrive, if only because I need that crazy refuge from Batman: Arkham Knight, Shadow of Mordor, and Assassin's Creed Unity. I know I'll enjoy all of those titles, but occasionally you need a change of pace, a palate cleanser of sorts and Insomniac is heading in the right direction with the game. It'll also be nice to finally have something to play on my Xbox One other than Killer Instinct. Sunset Overdrive hits retail on October 28, 2014.