Platform: Xbox One
Developer: Insomniac Games
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
Sunset Overdrive promised to bring the fun to Xbox One. Mission accomplished.
It's an explosive, anarchic and angry thing. Free to create the game they wanted to make after Overstrike was butchered into a generic shooter by EA, Insomniac vented their frustration in an all-out orgy of sweary gory irreverent ultraviolence as we take to the rooftops of a city gone to hell following a soda-related apocalypse. We'll create our character and destroy massive hordes of mutants and robots with outrageous evolving weaponry, grinding on every balcony and bouncing off every parked car. The city is a playground. Go play.
This is a game that lets us murder a robotic focus group (revenge for Fuse, perhaps?) and team up with weaponised LARPers, swears profusely, incinerates flocks of pigeons with no regard for animal welfare and insults practically everyone with a smile on its face. It gleefully pokes fun at videogame conventions by acknowledging the absurdity of respawns and the 'rule of three' in sarcastic fourth wall-breaking dialogue, because why the heck not. Whereas many AAA titles are grim and gritty, this is violently vibrant and edgily humorous, backed by thrashing punk rock and gleefully aware that it's a videogame.
Punk isn't just the soundtrack. Punk is Sunset Overdrive's entire deal.
By the same token, though, it's also sarcastic, smug and self-assured to the point of arrogance. Thankfully there's a difference between arrogance and confidence, and despite a few missteps stemming from Insomniac's lack of experience with games of this open scale, Sunset Overdrive succeeds on the strength of its traversal, mobility and firepower.
The premise is fairly simple, introduced by a playable tutorial and lack of cutscenes. Sunset City plays host to the high-profile launch of a new fizzy drink, Overcharge, which has the unexpected side effect of mutating almost the entire population into colourful agile zombies known as the 'OD.' They're soon joined by 'Scab' human looters and brilliantly-designed corporate cleanup robots, providing three unique enemy types that battle each other and all feel totally unique in terms of design and attacks.
Once a janitor, we'll now turn the ruined city into our own personal playground, meeting various bizarre survivor factions (such as a troop of Samurai Scouts who wear neckscarves and body armour) and revelling in our ability to grind, jump and dash around the environment. Killing and dashing, we'll express ourselves both through acrobatics, gunplay, a suite of unlockable Amps that grant unique (often hilarious) abilities and a massive expanding wardrobe of deeply silly outfits.
Sunset Overdrive's story and narrative is silly and referential by design, throwing up loads of fourth-wall shattering dialogue, overt references and criticisms of other videogames, memes, unpredictable dark humour and corporate culture, often threatening to become far too 'meta' and self-indulgent to hold together, but strong voice acting and characters keeps an utter mess on some semblance of a track.
As a tip, be aware that the male and female protagonists' voice actors seem to have interpreted their identical lines differently. Whereas Yuri Lowenthal goes for a traditional sarcastic videogame lead, like Nathan Drake only twice as obnoxious, Stephanie Lemelin brings much more energy and verve to the role; enjoying and revelling in all of the silliness even while simultaneously mocking it. You can freely change gender at any time and I'd urge you to do so, even just to see which vocal performance you prefer. Or tell me that it's all in my head. Either way, do it.
This 'too cool for school' tone would have fallen flat if the mechanics didn't hold up, but thankfully they do and then some. Halfway between Jet Set Radio Future, Skate and The Club, Sunset Overdrive makes getting from A to B an absolute joy, and travelling to your destination as if not more enjoyable than what happens when you arrive. You can grind along any straight-line surface including balconies, kerbs, train tracks, power lines and rooftops as you cover entire kilometres in the blink of an eye. Practically any scenery object from cars to trees acts as a trampoline. Any vertical surface is fair game for a wall-run, whether curved or cornered. You can even skate across water if you time it right or use an aerial ground pound as momentum for a super jump.
There's a learning curve, and the mechanics don't quite flow until an air dash linking move is introduced in the early game, but after an hour everything suddenly clicks. Much like Valve trained us to "think in Portals," Sunset Overdrive encourages us to "think in grinds" and see the entire city as a playground. Often I just set off into the city without an objective in mind, chaining insane combinations of jumps and dashes together for the sheer fun of it. We haven't seen traversal this fluid and fun from practically any open world game, and playing it feels like blowing off steam in an adventure playground.
You're therefore encouraged to stay constantly mobile, generating style combos that gradually power up weapon and character upgrades known as amps, which confer a host of useful, outrageous and downright funny effects. If you want to freeze enemies, blast out random lightning or even have your own personal narrator, you absolutely can.
This being an Insomniac game, you can also expect a host of silly boomsticks, not limited to freeze rays, acid-spewing garden toys, hovering helicopter turrets, firework guns and a great big pistol appropriately named Dirty Harry. Generous auto-aim and generous AoE allows us to concentrate more on staying mobile and staying alive, as the mobile enemies will absolutely maul you if you stay on the ground too long or don't pay attention to telegraphs.
Or telegraph poles. Every time I go outside, I see each parked car and rooftop as a potential shortcut.
Finally, this all ties together thanks to the design of Sunset City itself. This is one of the most thoughtfully-designed and dense environments we've seen since Jet Set Radio Future's Shibuya Junction, since there's always a power line to grind. a train track to leap onto, a car to bounce on, a mattress to propel you to new heights and an awning to link your combos together when you need them. It's a playground, pure and simple.
It's important to note the distinction between a playground and a sandbox, though. Compared to the likes of Saints Row or GTA, Sunset Overdrive's streets can feel empty due to the lack of pedestrians, police and drivable vehicles (especially in the early game before all three enemy factions are introduced), but the point is to keep moving, shooting and generally shredding about the place, not getting bogged down. Make sure that you're aware of the difference and set your expectations accordingly.
So Sunset Overdrive gives us incredible traversal, enjoyable firepower and a fitting playground to mess about in, but what of the missions? Many of the story missions make the most of the mechanics, such as crazy chase set pieces or grind-able bosses. Many subquests benefit from more effort than other competing games, with their own unique dialogue, mini-storylines and even soundtracks on occasion. Fetch quests are also a surprising treat since you'll never say, "bugger, I've got to travel 500 metres to the next objective," rather "f*ck yes, 500 metres of freestyle aerobatics coming up!"
Unfortunately much of your time will be spent defending zones, whether guarding a particular object or person from attack, searching for a tiny object at ground level (instead of placing objectives in plain sight and challenging us to actually reach it) or even participating in a tower defence minigame at regular intervals. To be clear, these sequences are fun because Sunset Overdrive is fun, but their conventional design clashes with the core mechanics. When a game's underlying systems are designed around getting from A to B in spectacular style, having to hang around A for a while just doesn't feel anywhere near as satisfying, and there was a missed opportunity to really push the boat out on races or city-wide mini-boss battles.
Insomniac's inexperience with open-world games also leads to a number of annoying quality of life bugbears that all add up. The interface is cumbersome and full of nested menus, meaning that equipping different weapons, clothing, Amps and Overdrive powers breaks flow and takes much longer than it should. Quest markers and important collectibles often blend into the background, The soundtrack could have used some licensed music -- too many songs sound a little like a mediocre Hives cover band or Guitar Hero filler -- and a few bugs and cutscene glitches show up infrequently. All little annoyances, but all keeping our biggest numbers off the table.
The credits rolled after 16 hours of gameplay, which included most (but certainly not all) of the optional quests, only a scant few of the dozens of challenges and a goodly amount of time spent just enjoying the traversal on my own terms. I'm now up to 20 and counting. There's a decent amount of content here, not as much as the big sandbox games, but much more than you'd expect from a traditional shooter.
Including the Chaos Squad multiplayer. The lack of campaign co-op is odd, but there's some barmy fun to be had by teaming up with other players for competitive cooperative romps throughout Sunset City's four districts, facing off against each other in a variety of challenges before collaborating on a massive tower defence showdown; unlocking new gear and upgrades in the process. Rounds often descend into an outrageous conflagration of explosions and fireworks, but hey, that's rather the point. Considering the relative lack of endgame content beyond cleaning house, I'd recommend leaving this for last, or at least after mastering the ropes.
Is Sunset Overdrive a legendary benchmark for open world games? Not quite, and hopefully we'll look back on this score years from now and laugh at how far we've come. But for now, this Christmas, Sunset Overdrive is one of the games of the moment, a burst of fresh air and one hell of a playground.
- Utterly fantastic traversal and level design turns the city into a playground
- Barmy intense combat and some great quests
- Unpredictable, anarchic, colourful and punk personality (and soundtrack!)
- Excellent voice acting -- especially the female protagonist
- Inconsistent mission design; defensive sections don't fit the mechanics
- Slightly too smug and obnoxious in parts
- Streets feel empty until the mid-game; campaign co-op would have been nice
- Poorly-designed UI make equipping Amps and upgrades a pain
The Short Version: Sunset Overdrive brings the fun. Though Insomniac's inexperience with open-world games leads to inconsistent mission design and a few oversights, its infectious energy, breathtaking traversal, silly weapons and violently colourful playground make for a brilliant way to blow off steam.
8 – GREAT: Great games typically provide competent production values with a degree of innovation, personality and soul that's sometimes absent in titles that score lower. Or even just exceptional raw value on top of competent execution. There'll usually be a little something to stop games like these from reaching the very top - innovative but slightly flawed, fun but not groundbreaking - however you can buy games that score 8/10 with confidence.