Insomniac built a legacy on Spyro the Dragon’s colorful words, Ratchet & Clank’s creative weapons, and later on blasting aliens in the Resistance franchise. The studios latest IP, Sunset Overdrive, blends all these fun components into a big, beautiful open world. Insomniac recently invited me to its studio in Burbank, CA for an extended hands-on session with the third-person open-world title. My time grinding across the vivid environment and experimenting with goofy artillery like exploding teddy bears left me hopeful for Insomniac’s first foray into open-world game design.
Sunset Overdrive abandons the gritty, desperate tone of most post-apocalyptic games including Insomniac’s own Resistance series. Insomniac calls their catastrophe an “awesomepocalypse”, emphasizing the fun of free reign during end times. The protagonist is working a dead end job when a tragic energy drink launch party turns citizens into soda-infused mutants. With the city quarantined and the government abandoned, aesthetically customizable protagonists can run amuck blasting mutants and exploring the colorful world with the goal of eventual escape.
What makes Insomniac’s open-world game different from new-gen titles like Infamous Second Son and Watch Dogs lies in the tone and traversal elements. Sunset Overdrive includes snarky commentary on big businesses’ stranglehold on society complete with irreverent fourth wall-busting humor (Deadpool writer Gerry Duggen join’s Insomniac’s Jon Paquette on writing). Over Charge: Delirium XT soda is literally coursing through enemies’ veins, a poke at how deeply affected we are by the types of advertising plastered across Sunset City.
Speaking of the city, the most fun I had in my hands-on time stemmed from creatively traversing across the rooftops. Players can grind across rails, hook onto power lines with a crowbar, and bounce off car roofs and awnings to keep the momentum going. Chaining lofty jumps into grinds on high balconies is tricky at first, but things clicked once I tapped into my long-dormant Tony Hawk skills. Successfully linking together flashy, risky movement stunts together reminds me of the satisfying feeling that comes from nailing a tough trick in the classic skateboarding games. Series like Infamous and Crackdown elevated open-world traversal with empowering new abilities, but Sunset Overdrive adds finesse and skill to traversal in ways I haven’t seen in the genre.
Not only is expertly navigating the city fun, it’s integral to the gameplay. Linking together traversal techniques builds up your Style Meter. Touching the ground causes your level to gradually lower. Special weapon and ability augments, called Amps, activate as your Style Level increases. For example, some amps bestow your roll dodge with a force field, another sends out a shockwave when you hit the ground, and a very powerful amp has a chance of turning a regular bullet into a nuclear explosion. Unlocking these powerful augments requires players to skillfully blast enemies while zipping through the environment – a challenging and fun dynamic. New amps can be earned by completing missions and eventually crafted, though Insomniac isn’t offering specifics yet.
Experimenting with the quirky variety of weapons is also important for building your Style Meter. The standard AK-FU is a reliable all-purpose machine gun, but Insomniac’s tradition of unique weaponry continues here. TNTeddy turns stuffed bears into explosive grenade rounds. A harpoon causes mutants to ooze their soda blood, which lures groups of enemies attracted by the drink. One gun launches a drunken salvo of fireworks into the sky. Another rapidly launches vinyl records into enemies. This is just a taste of the weaponry available, but Insomniac says the overall selection will be on par with the biggest Ratchet & Clank arsenals. Similar to the Ratchet & Clank series, Insomniac says each weapon will also level up as you use them to encourage experimentation.
A weapon wheel filled with powerful guns comes in handy when embarking on one of the various missions. One main story mission took us high above the city to destroy a massive communications antennae array. Destroying the complex structure causes the dishes to collapse into conveniently placed, bouncy platforms which can be used to access new heights. This sequence concludes with a face-off with a huge inflatable Over Charge mascot named Fizzie. The tremendous talking balloon launches missiles and other payloads while you dodge the volleys by grinding along rails and bouncing on radars. Chaining a few successive jumps across the radars sends out a stunning shockwave, leaving Fizzie vulnerable. The battle ends dramatically with flames pouring out of Fizzie eyes as he explodes. Along with main missions like this, side-missions like reclaiming comic books and smashing TVs are examples of fun distractions.
My hands-on time with Sunset Overdrive answered a lot of questions, but a few still remain. Insomniac says multiplayer will be integrated (hinted at in the trailer), but isn’t going into details regarding any cooperative or competitive modes. It’s also unclear exactly how large Sunset City will be, though Insomniac says several sections of the world will open up as you play. Finally, the open-world genre is oversaturated with scavenger hunts and time trials – boring pitfalls that Insomniac will need to avoid to entice players to explore its world.
Sunset Overdrive is a bold, gorgeous step in a new direction for Insomniac. Open-world games are leading the charge into the newest generation of consoles, and this Xbox One offering is among the most promising of the bunch. The colorful, goofy style gels well with the unique open-world layout, creating a promising combination of classic Insomniac sensibilities and modern game design. Xbox One owners only have to wait until this fall to check it out.
For more on Sunset Overdrive and Insomniac, read our interview with president and CEO Ted Price.