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Nov 11 2014

Review of Sunset Overdrive

8742c3fd-e9d1-4205-bd1e-c67261adb69c4.5 Stars

Sunset Overdrive is Insomniac Game’s opus; I say that not to imply that it’s perfect, but rather I mean that it is what Insomniac has been building up to as a developer for the last 15 or so years. Gameplay-wise it acts as a third person shooter masterclass but with special focus paid towards the elements Insomniac has always been best at and the visuals showcase their penchant for interesting world and enemy design, with touches of Resistance and Ratchet & Clank throughout. It’s in the story and atmosphere though that it becomes clear how important this game was to the developer itself, hitting many of the same beats they’ve already played for us but doing so in a different more genuine kind of way. Again, it’s not perfect and we’ll talk about why in the review proper, but Sunset Overdrive is very clearly the game this developer has been wanting to make for years now and if you’re a long time fan of theirs then you owe it to yourself to check it out.

When it comes to Insomniac’s games, one thing is always guaranteed, the weapons will be fucking awesome, and Sunset Overdrive is no exception. The game is loaded top to bottom with guns that defy the standards, that fire in bizarre ways and require some genuine practice to figure out how to utilize properly. They have character which helps set them apart from the boring armaments we’ve become used to these days. They can also be modified in some interesting ways, while some come with some degree of element affinity or inflict a natural status effect, you can also earn and apply mods (called Amps) which can make it so your teddy bear rocket launcher freezes dudes in their tracks or so that your bouncy vinyl firing machine gun causes enemies to become enraged and start fighting each other. As a result you end up getting a real personal feel for each gun as you figure out how they fit into your load-out and how to better modify them to fit your needs. Aside from Amps, the guns also level up naturally over time as Insomniac’s guns almost always have, but sadly those natural upgrades are actually pretty boring. They’re straight up stat boosts and nothing else, the gun won’t gain any unique abilities nor will it change cosmetically which is frankly something of a bummer when you consider the dev’s past work. Taking the time to level up a gun in a Ratchet & Clank game, perfecting your strategies with it and eschewing other methods of devastation over it, was rewarded by getting to watch a humble pistol morph into an over-designed implement of doom. While the lack of added natural abilities here are supplanted nicely by the Amps, that lack of visual growth in the weapons made using each one a little less enjoyable. The range of the weaponry here is quite wide and I can see how making variants of each model would have been tough but not having that little touch makes the progression feel less personal and the game overall is lesser for not having it.

There's a wide range of activities to do in Sunset City, such as the base defense pictured above. There's also multiplayer if that's your bag.

There’s a wide range of activities to do in Sunset City, such as the base defense pictured above. There’s also multiplayer if that’s your bag.

The other thing Insomniac has always been really good at is movement, especially considering that they are arguably the inventors of the video game grind rail as we know it today. Unsurprisingly grinding and movement in general is a huge focus of Sunset Overdrive and gaining mastery over the way your character moves is just as important as getting a handle on all the weapons. You see Amps aren’t just applied to weapons, they’re applied to your character as well, allowing you to do all sorts of cool stuff like put out a momentary force field or spawn random lightning bolts. In order to activate Amps though, you need to fill up your Style meter, which is done by doing cool stuff and keeping your pace up. To accomplish this, the game lets you grind on pretty much everything in the environment, as well as bounce sky-high on anything even remotely bouncy, and wall-run on any wall you can find. You can shoot during any of these movements as well so combat breaks down to you zipping across the battlefield, taking down enemies as you go, and looking pure badass while doing it. All of those mechanics are also used to navigate the game’s open world and bouncing from car to car only to then grab onto a powerline and go grinding off in another direction is really fun and feels like a unique and surprisingly natural way to get around. That said though, it does take a while to get a good grasp on the movement and they limit what you can do in some specific ways at the start, which makes getting around somewhat frustrating at first. However once you’ve gotten a handle on how the character moves, unlocked the later traversal skills, and figured out how the city is designed, it all clicks into place and becomes one of the most enjoyable and fluid games you’ll ever play; it just takes a hair too long to get to that point which might turn some people off early on.

Of course that isn’t helped by the fact that this is Insomniac’s first true open world and as a result it suffers from a certain degree of open world jank, especially with the movement in some scenarios. It’s very reminiscent of Assassin’s Creed in that sense, where getting to a specific spot can sometimes be made unnecessarily difficult thanks to the character naturally wanting to do all sorts of crazy of movement when a simple leap or step up would suffice. You also get the open world occasionally intruding in on cut scenes with an OD (the game’s most common enemy type) wandering into scene and rubbing up against the characters; it’s rare as most of the scripted stuff takes place in bases of some sort, but when it does happen (which is mainly during side quests) it looks weird. Probably the most egregious thing though is the fact that the game can be a little buggy at times, especially when it comes to quests. There was one mission near the end of the game where I was supposed to clear out an area and then climb to the top of a penthouse but for some reason the game wouldn’t trigger the next stage of the quest when I did that. Instead it would spawn more enemies for me to fight, not a large group of them that would indicate another wave but rather singular enemies, and upon defeating one another would immediately spawn in its place, making it impossible for me to complete the mission. I ended up having to manually retry that mission three times, and even fully close and restart the game, before it would finally let me move on from that point. To be clear that was only the worst example of what I saw and, aside from a mission item falling through the world at one point, that was the only time the bugs were ever game breaking; in fact I imagine many people will play through the entire game without ever encountering such issues, but it’s still important to note that they’re there.

You can also make a lady character if you want, either way you're going to be doing some crazy stuff.

You can also make a lady character if you want, either way you’re going to be doing some crazy stuff.

Let’s talk about the story and writing for a bit now, as it’s one of the most interesting parts of this game. The basic plot here is that a monolithic and implicitly corrupt soft drink/robot/frozen treat manufacturer named Fizzco unleashes a wave of monsters upon Sunset City while test marketing their new energy drink, Overcharge. The player character (who is never actually named) happens to be working as a janitor at one of Fizzco’s Overcharge launch events during the initial outbreak and gets to witness the effects of the drink first hand, it turns people into hideous mutants who want only to drink more Overcharge and wreak havoc. He luckily manages to escape back to his apartment and ride out the opening of this taurine filled apocalypse in relative safety. Upon leaving his hidey-hole, he meets up with some other survivors and finds out that Fizzco has quarantined the entire city and is hiding their mess from the rest of the world. These survivors aim to escape and spread the word about Fizzco’s misdoings and as such you explore the whole city, meeting all sorts of colourful characters, and fighting several different flavours of OD, in order to help achieve them that goal and save Sunset City.

The star of the show is definitely the player character, a wise cracking, fourth wall destroying, Deadpool-esque every-man whose shiftless and slightly anarchic attitude acts as a perfect fit for this vibrant and oddly effervescent apocalypse. He’s got a quip for every situation, regularly addresses the player, and makes humorous reference to the game’s mechanics; while those sorts of antics can get quickly tiresome if done wrong, Sunset Overdrive manages to keep it fresh by knowing when to pull back and by giving the player character a slight arc rather than having them simply be a bad joke dispenser. For as much as they go out of their way to keep his background as vague as possible, they make clear what kind of person he was before the outbreak and the story is as much about escaping Sunset City as it is about the player character growing up and learning how to take responsibility. In fact I’d go so far as to say that the underlying message of Sunset Overdrive is one of responsibility; it’s about how we can’t rely on society to provide everything for us and then rebel when it doesn’t, rather we┬áneed to take personal responsibility and understand that we need to support and shape our society as much as it does for us. Of course that’s only my personal interpretation and the game itself certainly never tries to be so philosophical. Its got some really fun characters and some great dialogue but most importantly it’s not afraid to take things easy and laugh at its own farts; regardless of any message the game has to convey, it wants the player to have fun more than anything else and that stands out in really enjoyable genuine kind of way.

Sunset Overdrive happily puts a little style on from time to time, especially during it's bigger moments.

Sunset Overdrive happily puts a little style on from time to time, especially during its bigger moments.

Lastly we have the presentation, which is a hyper stylized punk-rock fantasy that leaps off the screen in a blast of vibrant colour. Rebellious punk is what this game seems to be going for in absolutely every facet and frankly when the apocalypse comes-a knocking, it’s a pretty good style to be-a rocking. All of the costume designs (of which there are many) have that specific deliberately torn up and shoddily repaired look, clashing colour scheme, or ironically out-of-place normal feel that we’ve come to associate with the sub-culture and the world is littered with irreverent graffiti that hearkens back to the early-to-mid 90’s. Fittingly, Sunset City has a very So Cal feel to it. Despite the name, the sun seems to be eternally shining and the world is decked out in sun-baked near-pastel shades that are then accented with fiery explosions, splashes of neon energy drink, lush verdant public parks, and gaudily designed signage. It’s a world with a lot of energy to it and that really comes across both through the environment as well as through little visual affectations like having enemies explode into massive onomatopoeias. The soundtrack is also just bursting at the seams with excitement, composed mostly of straight up punk-rock but with the occasional slight variance here and there. For as much as I’ve always been more of a grunge guy, the music definitely hits all the beats you want it to and the soundtrack really brings a lot of life to the game. Helping that out is the fact that the track list here is absolutely massive, with the music part of the credits lasting a solid 5 minutes as it lists off band after band. Combine that with some really well done and enthusiastic voice acting, especially from Yuri Lowenthal who voices the player character, and you get a game that feels like a joyous love letter to punk-rock as a whole.

As I said at the start, I feel like this is the game Insomniac has always wanted to make; it focuses on all the elements that they’ve pioneered over the years and there’s a distinct genuineness to it that I find really endearing. While it’s not perfect, it’s definitely some of their best work and the world they’ve put on display here feels so much different from anything else out there. Sunset Overdrive really ended up growing on me by the end of my time with it and as such I’m giving it a 4.5 out of 5 stars. While I’m not sure I’d go so far as to say it’s worth buying an Xbox One for, it’s certainly a compelling point in Microsoft’s favour and if you already own an Xbox One then you’d be crazy not to pick this game up.

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