Back when Fuse was still called Overstrike 9 and looked like a badass Saturday morning cartoon stuffed with throwaway lines, brimming with personality, and looking both mechanically and aesthetically interesting, we were super excited for it. But apparently EA weren't. Insomniac never said it outright, at least not on the record, but it was clear that somewhere in between Overstrike 9 becoming Fuse, someone cracked out the mood-hoover and sucked all of the fun and characteristic charisma out of Insomniac sails. Still, they must have stashed it all somewhere, bottled it up and hidden it away from EA, because then along came Microsoft with a boatload of cash and creative freedom, and suddenly Insomniac have uncorked their creativity and are back with a bang in Sunset Overdrive.
The party line is clear -- "this is the game that we always wanted to make" -- but the smiles are back too. I canvassed the opinion of a few of my colleagues at the showcase and the top pick of the day was largely given to Insomniac's bright effort.
Sunset Overdrive is a mish-mash of Crackdown, Jet Set Radio, and Scott Pilgrim in many way. Community lead James Stevenson likened its underpinning concepts to aspects of The Omega Man, and that scene from I Am Legend where Will Smith is spanking golfs balls off of a roof in the middle of the zombie apocalypse. The whole point of Sunset Overdrive is to embrace the fun nature of gaming, centred around the philosophy that things don't have to be grey and grim and depressing just because it seems to be the End of Days.
How the world has reached that point in this game sets the tone perfectly for the action that follows. The story kicks off in the fictional metropolis of Sunset City, an urban sprawl industrially dominated by the massive corporation FizzCo. FizzCo has created a brand new energy drink called Overcharge Delirium XT, and they throw an enormous party to celebrate its release -- a party that you, the protagonist (a nameless character who's highly customisable...yes, you can even play a female assassin if you want) are hired to clean up. Unfortunately, everyone who drinks Overcharge Delirium XT turns into a slavering mutant, and you find yourself stuck in Sunset City, it's streets overrun by assorted monsters, Machiavellian FizzCo reps trying to cover everything up, and other human enemies capitalising on the frenzy.
"The apocalypse doesn't have to be a bad thing," said Stevenson. "There are some things that are really cool about it. You can do whatever you want, you can play your music really loud, you can blow shit up, you can grind thing, you can wall-run, you can dress however you want -- societal rules are gone. It's Burning Man now, for everybody."
The demo I played had me zipping around a beachfront theme park, dishing out damage to mutant hordes with outlandish weapons, before leaping on a rollercoaster with what I can only assume are Heelys, grinding my way around the rails, and destroying firework caches and enemy carts. In many ways, Sunset Overdrive handles like the lovechild of JSRF and Dead Rising. Forget assault rifles and shotguns, Sunset Overdrive is all about flinging exploding cuddly toys around the place with the TNTeddy, or using a harpoon gun named Captain Ahab to skewer persistent mutants at long range. There's a standard machine gun called the AK-Fuckyouup, but that concession to normality aside, everything else is suitably ridiculous, from the vinyl LP-slinging High Fidelity to a deployable RC helicopter carrying a pistol to an enormous Roman Candle that turns a firework display into an offensive weapon. Some of the weapons, such as the Ahab, will also come packing little canisters of Overcharge to attract even more mutants to the scene of your glorious crimes. Overcharge is catnip for mutants, you see.
Insomniac are done with cover systems and slow, ponderous tactics. Just as important as the weird and wonderful weaponry is the game's approach to traversal. Indeed, open world games can live and die by their methods of getting around the place. In Sunset Overdrive's case, traversal means super agility, it means grinding rails and power lines and any other thin surface, it means running up walls and backflipping onto rooftops, cartwheeling out of harm's way and dancing out of danger. It's speedy, fluid, and once I'd gotten a hold of the control system, I found myself having an absolute blast. The Overcharge Meter at the top of the screen rewards you for experimenting, chaining slick and stylish moves together, not letting your feet touch the floor, and taking out enemies with a spot of panache. You can fill up your Overcharge Meter several times over, unlocking new Amp abilities that allow you to really bring the rain down on your foes for a temporary period of time.
But it'll be interesting to see how the various factions out in the open world tie into both the narrative and, more importantly, the gameplay. As fun as the demo was, simply killing endless hordes of the same enemies will get boring over time. Stevenson assured me that this wouldn't be the case, stressing the diverse nature of the game's missions and side quests, but it remains to be seen if the content that the game throws up will prove truly expansive or tweaked variations on single theme. That being said, the hard bit is done. By blending combat and traversal into a fabulkously integrated core to this game, Insomniac seem to be on the verge of delivering a true sandbox playground that's all about positive gameplay and taking risks.
Realism be damned. Screw you physics! Insomniac have plumped for fun over everything else. That's not to say that the game isn't challenging, I found my protagonist to be highly susceptible to damage, but death and rebirth seemed to arrive with little by way of punishment for failure aside from the loss of some funds. But that encourages risky strategies and fosters unimpeded exploration. This isn't a game about being cautious or careful, it's about adapting to every situation and making the most of your extensive toolset. It's about having fun your way, tearing the place up however you choose, and stamping your personality on the world of Sunset Overdrive through gameplay.
And I rather like the sound of that.