I’m a lifelong enthusiast of video games, someon who carried a Nintendo 64 to high school for after-class Mario Kart, snuck in Sudoku during lectures at university, and eventually found a career in game criticism. Being so completely dedicated to the medium has had its drawbacks in the past few weeks and months, though I still get chills when I finish a particularly engaging experience crafted by a developer who takes pleasure in letting intelligent gamers know they “get it.”
The people at Insomniac Games have proven themselves perhaps genre-focused masters, but masters of the medium nonetheless. Ratchet and Clank stand tall as friendly, welcoming third-person shooters and the company’s Resistance series sunk its teeth in me through its finale. I certainly couldn’t point to another developer with such a unique sense for weapon design, though the studio’s latest in Sunset Overdrive knows no boundaries in verticality, speed, and it even manages to do something more difficult than the fourth-dimensional wink some veteran studios lean on. It made me laugh out loud.
While the introductory sequence can feel like a mess jumping between narrative and tutorial segments, Sunset Overdrive wastes no time in wearing nostalgic influence on its sleeves in patches and buttons, or outrageous hair cuts, or high-flying grinding gameplay. After picking your avatar’s size, gender, hair, face paint, clothing, and more, you’re immediately thrown into combat with Sunset City’s energy drink-swilling masses. These poor citizens have imbibed a bit too much Overcharge, an energy drink that coats the environment as if a Fanta-selling model spit on it. These OD, short for Overcharge Drinkers, line the city streets and come in various sizes with differing powers the further you get into the game. Some can launch green slime from a distance, others can freeze you, and still more feature more health or just get bigger and tougher to kill.
Still, Sunset Overdrive doesn’t rest on OD alone and soon throws mercenary-looking Scabs and Fizzco Robots wielding laser weaponry or blades, each of which come in tougher and more powerful varieties as well. Fizzco itself represents the evil corporation behind all of the Overcharge madness, though any sense of intrigue or mystery behind its destructive force gets lost as you meet new characters. Preppy rich kids can’t get off their cell phones to recover their own bottled designer water and a group of Japanese-themed survivors hold honor over energy drinks. They also collect merit badges and feature a quadruple-amputated troop leader who eventually rides a giant mech suit to the end of the game’s campaign, though even this finale can’t really hold a candle to the way Sunset Overdrive plays with the player, literally.
Even the user interface offers a few visual gags to compliment the way no one really knows or understands what’s happening. Insomniac’s focus with Sunset Overdrive remains clear from start to finish, regardless of what you think about the game’s story or how many of the high-score focused challenges you tackle on the way, and there are dozens and dozens of them. Some will offer unique traps or opportunities for killing a lot of enemies, but my favorite gameplay inevitably came from the game’s locomotion mechanics. In writing and presentation alone, this game will lead the Xbox One console’s personality this generation through indelibly unapologetic hopefulness whether the hardware comes to match PlayStation 4 sales figures or not.
Sunset City has been dressed from head to toes in rails for grinding, bounce pads for launching into the air and onto rooftops, and plenty of other various opportunities for swinging, dashing, wall-running, and clearing ever-expanding gaps. Better still, the city’s infrastructure complicates to accommodate a learning curve in this gameplay with one early section featuring a lot of grinding loops and long traversal lines while a later section pushes you to get better at recognizing what will and won't allow you to bounce from car to launch pad. I totally lost myself to certain rhythms both in and out of combat.
Above all else, everything is made better by the way the game reacts to your inputs. Mashing the X button to continue a wall run around every corner of a building before launching to a railing, hooking it with your melee crowbar, and then hitting X again to flip topside and jump to a bounce pad decorated to look like an air conditioner feels responsive and sticky in only the best ways… As in, not like you’ve been drenched with soda. At one point I felt so sucked into Sunset Overdrive’s decidedly whacky take on open-world traversal that I forgot about some of the more fantastic locomotive elements we’ve been served thus far on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One which renders everything on-screen in fantastic fashion. A few environments seemed fuzzy until Sunset Overdrive rendered another layer of graphics-sharpening as I was playing, but the game’s effects look drop dead gorgeous.
Flames, especially those cooking a dozen overcharge drinkers with a single bounce-ignition, look incredible as they lick upward and eventually burn black clouds into the air. Hitting a frozen enemy with your crowbar naturally results in shattered ice and a few of the game’s Amp power-ups modify weapons further to electrify baddies or even kick up a tornado effect that looks painted onto the landscape with every blast and dissipation.
At several points through the campaign, you’ll get to engage in the Amp-creating process to generate and subsequently earn new weapon and locomotion modifiers. These sequences require ingredients found throughout the city, followed by a successful defense against waves of enemies. You can place traps before engaging with the OD that hope to steal your own Overcharge supplies, though this mode will only prove more entertaining in multiplayer and you can’t apply any Amps until you’ve upgraded weapons beyond the initial Level 1 you obtain them at. If Power Stone featured guns and moved about ten times faster, you could say it might feel something like Sunset Overdrive particularly thanks to the game’s emphasis on combat.
I loved a few of the boss encounters and endgame content thoroughly enough to leap to action with this review. While shooter fans may be left wanting as aiming hardly means anything in Sunset City, you’ll still need to be deft with your thumbs and trigger fingers to make it through. Enemies are painted with a red icon when they’re within your sights, though it becomes exponentially more important to grasp the game’s locomotion above anything else given that a style meter determines which of your Amp upgrades activate and how much damage you do. Bouncing from treetop to power line to rooftop allows for plenty of opportunities in resetting your orientation, though struggling to do so while on-the-go inevitably leads to trouble.
Chaos Squad makes up the game’s multiplayer component, offering a slightly competitive edge to cooperative OD blasting and Amp-generating. Players will take on waves of enemies before finally progressing to the Night Defense wherein traps help to defend Overcharge stations “cookin’ up new amps” as resident Amp-chef Floyd would say. Of the characters you meet in-game, you yourself will be the hero throughout the story and into multiplayer such that entertaining personalities in the campaign fall by the wayside after you finish the story. You can certainly complete more challenges for the Live-Action Role Player group you meet, though once you’ve completed the story string surrounding them, you’ll likely say goodbye.
While I expect multiplayer relationships you’ve forged with friends near and far will continue with plenty of fun, Insomniac does approach the depth of writing that powered Resistance 3 by taking a few of the freaks and geeks you meet along the way and twisting them into even more likable archetypes. A Joseph Gordon Levitt look alike named Sam starts as a sniveling suck up to the preppy kids that ignore him in favor of their cell phones, though he eventually tells them to shove it in the best way.
Sunset Overdrive doesn’t take itself seriously, making the action and character of the game stand out about as much as its vibrant color scheme. Sequences that slightly alter gameplay or offer a big boss manage to delight beyond most of what’s available on the latest consoles today. If I couldn’t recommend the game to you based on its intense sense of motion or wild enemy and environment design, then I’d say the third-person shooter combat and unique upgrades will do the trick.
And I didn’t even have to reference Jet Grind Radio to get the job done.
Code provided by publisher. Available exclusively on Xbox One.