Exclusive to Xbox One
An unholy mash-up of influences from Jet Set Radio, Crackdown, Saints Row 3, Saints Row 4 and Dead Rising, Sunset Overdrive shouldn’t work half as well as it does. Insomniac has caught a certain amount of flack for Sunset Overdrive’s magpie approach to game design, and it’s not hard to see why. Its focus on grinding rails and rapid, super-human traversal is Jet Set Radio meets infamous. Its visual style, meanwhile, is part Crackdown, part infamous and part Dreamcast-era Sega, only amped up to exploit the power of the Xbox One’s hardware. Its gross-out-heavy, smart-alec, ludicrously OTT tone is straight from the latter Saints Row games, with a hint of the spectacular gore of Dead Rising. Spotting the influence of other games is like shooting fish in a barrel.
Yet there’s also plenty of the Insomniac’s own heritage in there too. This is the studio that mastered weird and wonderful weaponry in the Ratchet and Clank series, then managed to bring the same imagination to a gritty, sci-fi RPS in the Resistance series. It’s no surprise, then, that Sunset Overdrive features a smorgasbord of idiosyncratic and inventive armaments. Sunset Overdrive’s gruesome, postulant mutants, meanwhile, aren’t totally dissimilar to Resistance’s Chimera hordes. There’s also more Ratchet and Clank here than you might expect. After all, Ratchet wasn’t averse to the odd spot of rail-grinding, and there are certainly spots of wall-running, bounce-pad hopping platforming to be found in Insomniac’s latest. Sunset Overdrive might be heavily indebted to other games, but it works so well because it also plays to Insomniac’s own strengths.
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Forget your standard apocalypse – Sunset Overdrive presents us with an ‘awesomepocalypse’ where a sinister experimental energy drink has transformed the residents of Sunset City into hideous, ravening mutants. Its manufacturer, the all-powerful Fizzco, has managed to lock down the city in a bid to cover up the mess, encircling Sunset with a formidable wall. You play a young, shiftless ex-dogsbody for the company, now jobless, hopeless and fighting to stay alive. When all looks lost you’re taken up by a group of survivors, who pull you into a cunning plan to skip town and spill Fizzco’s secrets to the world.
It’s not too serious a premise, but then Sunset Overdrive isn’t too serious a game. It’s big, bright, knowingly dumb and close to being tiresomely exuberant. Sunset City and its denizens pop – sometimes literally – off the screen in a riot of dazzling colour. Mutants explode in a blast of comic-book lettering, or send showers of orange gore you can almost feel. The graphics aren’t the most detailed you’ll find on a next-gen console, but Sunset Overdrive effortlessly fills the screen with gruesome maulers and brawlers without a hitch, and keeps the action coming. Ultra-violence has never looked so ultra-vibrant.
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The characters are painful stereotypes, but seem aware that they’re painful stereotypes, and Sunset Overdrive never misses a chance to break the fourth wall and remind you that, hey, this is just a stupid game. In fact, it’s a stupid game that can’t even revive you from death without playing out some comic routine. It’s not always quite as gut-bustingly funny as it thinks it is, but Sunset Overdrive tries so hard to be liked that it’s an eager little puppy of a game. Only the most miserable curmudgeon could go away uncharmed.
As far as gameplay goes, its selling point is the mix of Jet Set Radio’s rail-grinding acrobatics with more straightforward platform game traversal and fast-paced third-person shooting. Sunset Overdrive places you in situation after situation where you have to take on a horde of mutants or a gang of scavenging punks, then dispatch them with your guns and melee weapon. Standing around – and particularly standing around at ground level – is only going to get you killed. Even the usual running, dodging and strafing action won’t keep you from getting overpowered.
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Instead, you need to bounce around on stupidly bouncy cars, ventilators, satellite dishes and awnings. You need to grind from one place to another on railings, cables or barriers. Squeezing the left trigger slows things down slightly, allowing you to aim with the right stick and blast with the right trigger. And the more of these tricks you use, the more acrobatic and exciting your kills, the more your style gauge shoots up.
This is a good thing. Why? Because as your style level increases, your attacks become more powerful and amps become active. Amps – distilled from the fiendish energy drink – are a big deal in Sunset Overdrive, turning the straight dodge and roll move into an offensive roll, or buffing weapons so that they send a typhoon blasting through the mutants, or add a random chance of a miniature lightning strike adding extra damage. The further you get through the game and the more ingredients you collect, the more powerful the amps you gain access to.
Meanwhile, you’re also growing more powerful thanks to a developing arsenal of weapons and a selection of smaller, purchasable (with in-game currency) perks, which give you extra ammo capacity for certain weapons, damage boosts and defensive bonuses.
The amazing thing is how well all these elements mash together. The traversal is fast but surprisingly fluid, and the city is built in such a way that there are always multiple routes to explore, whether you’re trying to climb a building or simply trying to get from A to B. At first it might seem strange, but within the first few hours you’ll be chaining grinds, bounces, pole swings and wall-runs together like a punk-rock Prince of Persia. The shooting, meanwhile, gets better and better – mostly because of all those awesome guns.
Sunset Overdrive starts small with a suggestive-looking, flame-throwing shotgun and an ad-hoc assault rifle that fires old vinyl hits. Soon, however, you’ll be blasting away with teddy-bear grenade launchers, firework pistols, guns that fire machine gun-packing drones, and ludicrous bowling-ball launchers. Sunset Overdrive might not go as far as Dead Rising 3 in its approach to crazy weapon combinations, but each gun is a joy to use, with its own strengths and weaknesses in relation to specific foes.
The game also has the sense to keep things varied, mixing up the standard mutants with gigantic thugs, mutant spawners and enemies with freezing and missile attacks. It also does the same with the scavengers, with rocket-launching goons and high-speed shock troops to complement the regular punks. The missions, meanwhile, might not amount to a whole lot more than go here, do this and kill anything that stands in your way, but they’re nicely dressed up to make you feel otherwise, with entertaining cut-scenes and interesting locations. You’ll meet and interact with different groups, each one needing some sequence of tasks completed before they’ll help you out. This ensures you’re exploring different areas of the city, and pushing to achieve different goals.
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There are also dozens of challenges to try if you feel you need a change, some involving stylish combat, some involving checkpoint races and some involving bombs. The action is also punctuated by regular Night Defence missions, which take all the normal action and add a tower defence flavour to the mix. In these you set up traps, fight off waves of mutants, and do your best to defend vats of brewing overdrive before they’re pulled apart. As the traps themselves are wonderfully gory, these soon become a high-point of the game.
Player customisation is another big plus. You can start with a range of body types and faces, then add and change clothes, costumes, accessories, hats, beards and hairstyles. The game constantly feeds in new options – often hilarious ones – and you can make your avatar look as ridiculous as you like. So what if it’s all a bit Dead Rising – that doesn’t mean it doesn’t make the game more fun.
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There’s dip-in, dip-out multiplayer too, with phone boxes around the city that open up an 8-player co-op mode, Chaos Squad. You take on various missions before tackling a climactic Night Defence, and while we’ve yet to really see it at its full potential, we’re certain it’s going to be a blast.
If Sunset Overdrive has a fault, it’s that it can feel slightly scrappy. There’s an awful lot to do and even more ways to do it, but some areas lack polish and there were moments playing our pre-release build where things went horribly wrong. In one mission we fell through the side of the building and then carried on falling through the scenery until we died. In another, we kept finding ourselves running along a rail when we wanted to grind it, making the train we were chasing impossible to catch. Oddly enough, it didn’t always reappear when we failed the mission and respawned.
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These minor issues will doubtless be fixed, but – like most games of its type – Sunset Overdrive can feel repetitive if you hack away at it for hours at a time. It’s generous to a fault, with death more a comic hiccup than a serious barrier to progress, but that sometimes means it lacks a little tension.
A handful of missions with novelty elements drag on longer than they should, though it’s hard to complain when you’re thrown a ferocious robot puppy to play with, or asked to defend a bunch of bewildered Live Action Role-Playing fanatics from ‘goblins’ with the aid of a catapult. It’s also a game of interlocking systems and steady progression, not one of big ‘wow’ moments or orchestrated drama. All these things play a part in its considerable charm, but they can make it feel – prepare for irony – just a little bit grindy.
All the same, it’s a game that slaps a big bad-ass smile across your face that lasts for hours. It’s not exactly original, of course, but then it's more than possible to argue that the way it mixes its elements is inventive. It’s certainly more unusual and less iterative or generic than 90% of the big action games we’ll see in the next six months. Most of all, it’s a big, full-to-bursting barrel of good old-fashioned fun. It won’t change the gaming world, but it might just rock yours.
It might not be the year’s most ground-breaking or innovative action game, but Sunset Overdrive is one of the most entertaining. Its mix of grinding and gunplay works beautifully, and the amps and the ridiculous weaponry ensure that slaughtering hordes of slavering mutants never gets old. It’s a little too scrappy and repetitive to be a classic, but who cares? Grab your biggest gun and let the good times roll.
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