For the better part of a decade, Insomniac entrenched itself in war stories for its new console universes, taking players to the brink of extinction in Resistance, and to the race for resources in Fuse. Prior to creating these gritty experiences, Insomniac’s fingerprint was colorful, cheerful, and used to forge Spyro the Dragon, a coming-of-age tale set in a magical kingdom, and Ratchet & Clank, a journey into deep space that puts as much focus on the bond of friendship as it does blowing the living crap out of every evildoer in the galaxy.
Insomniac comes full circle with Sunset Overdrive. It’s vibrant, fun, and though it occasionally waves a stern finger at corporations and pressing issues of the day, jokes always come first. I don’t think one story moment is free of a punchline or sight gag.
The humor is entertaining, but the unconventional concoction of gameplay is the heart of Sunset Overdrive. On the one hand, it plays out like your typical super hero game, where city traversal is the backbone of most of the action. On the other hand, it’s a shooter, placing heavy emphasis on skillful running and gunning. On an unexpected third mutant hand, it’s a sprawling collect-a-thon, pushing players to hunt for hundreds and hundreds of hidden goodies spread across Sunset City’s colorful architecture.
Although Sunset City is mostly painted in bright tones – almost looking like a set from Sesame Street – the atmosphere that hangs over it is that of death. You won’t see people driving to work or mingling on the sidewalks; most of them are dead or worse. But it wasn’t always this way.
Set in the year 2027, the story kicks off with a different vision of the city – alive, noisy, and showing people congregating in floods for the outdoor launch party of a new energy drink called Overcharge Delirium XT. With the music pumping and the dance floor swimming, we see people downing this vibrant orange drink, clearly loving its taste and the festivities surrounding it. The fun doesn’t last long, however. Fizzco, the company behind Overcharge, didn’t test its beverage on humans before rushing it to market. Within seconds, every person who consumes a drop of this carbonated fluid mutates into a vile beast – kicking off a world-ending apocalypse. These mutants (called ODs) are obsessed with Overcharge, much like zombies hungering for human brains. They’ll do anything to get more of it.
The player-created character, a down-on-their-luck nobody, becomes the unlikely ray of hope that can bring humanity back to prosperity. Much like Marvel’s loudmouth mercenary, Deadpool, this character (who you create as a male or female in whatever image you can dream up) is a nonstop joke generator – and a pretty damn good one. The hero occasionally leans a little too heavily on profanity for emphasis, but is mostly successful in upping the humor and ridiculousness of a particular moment. Time and time again, Insomniac shows us that nothing is off limits for a joke. The death of a loved one, politics, focus testing – the fourth wall is even broken to poke fun at video games.
The humor and gameplay coalesce in a workable way that makes cruising across Sunset City one of the most approachable and enjoyable experiences I’ve had in an open-world game.
City traversal delivers an addictive, Zen-like quality that harks back to the glory days of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, and the thrill of chaining together the biggest combos possible. The protagonist isn’t super-powered, but just happens to be one of the most aggressively nimble characters to step foot in an open-world environment. Possessing the gift of a 10-foot vertical and the ability to free-run along any building exterior and grind on any rail, exploration is almost effortless for this oddball lead.
I rarely used fast travel to navigate the city’s three boroughs. I immersed myself in creating massive chains linking together rail grinds, wall runs, pole swings, air dashes, and bounce maneuvers. The game rewards the time commitment well; every action accumulates experience through use, eventually culminating in badges that enhance the character’s passive skills.
The controls, while sounding complicated, are surprisingly simple in design, linking most of these actions with one button press. However, skill is required to nail the timing, and plot combo paths. It’s easy to create miles worth of combos without ever touching the ground.
Sunset City itself is the key to making this work, as almost every object – be it a bush, awning, power line, air vent, or car – can lead to a grind, bounce, or combo-extending maneuver. The city is teeming with beautiful details, but its most impressive quality is the strategic cluttering of interactive objects that feed into combo strings.
Chains aren’t compromised solely of free-running techniques; combat is beautifully woven into them, making precision gunplay while zipping along a high wire easy to execute. From the silly weapon designs to melee strikes cracking open boxes, the influence of Ratchet & Clank is undeniable in battle, and that’s okay. Ratchet’s gunplay has always worked well, and its inspiration feels right at home in Sunset Overdrive.
Most of the armaments are designed for close-range mayhem and against large hordes of OD, but a few firearms open up strategies or have a high risk-reward tied to their usage. One gun, Captain Ahab, creates a pool of Overcharge that lures ODs away from your location. Another arm, Fizzco’s Charge Beam, deals plenty of damage, but takes a few seconds to fire up. The weapons selection is diverse, and all of them are fun to use in their own right. And again, players are rewarded well for putting in time, as all firearms gain levels through use and can be modified with a wide variety of amps (devastating modifiers that are unleashed when the combo meter rises). This is where you see Insomniac’s gift for inventive death-dealing; you turn downed foes into explosive teddy bears, summon a reaper, and electrify nearby rails.
Amps are tied directly to the third activity: collecting. For whatever reason, the store owners in Sunset Overdrive trade these powerful mods for stinky shoes, toilet paper, neon signs, surveillance cameras, and inflatable Fizzco balloons. Here’s the kicker: There are 150 of each of these collectibles, and all of them act as independent forms of currency. An amp that generates fire area effects costs 55 pieces of toilet paper.
If this lot of junk isn’t enough to find, the city contains 40 tagging opportunities, nine eavesdropping locations, 20 scenic binocular views, 40 collectible smart phones, 25 emergency supply drops, and 25 blimps. The hunt for collectibles may sound daunting, but I was stumbling over them left and right, and had a blast scaling skyscrapers and scouring the city to nab them.
Some amps, weapons, and collectible pieces of clothing (of which there are hundreds) are rewarded at the end of missions. Humor plays a large role in making most of these tasks fun, but Sunset Overdrive’s biggest problem (which it even harps on) is its reliance on fetch quests. All too often, the assignment is to find three or five objects in a set location. While I like that I had to look high and low to find them, it starts to get tedious. The best missions veer away from this crutch and focus on one-off instances such as battling a Fizzco balloon, helping a LARPing community seize control of a kingdom, or becoming a part of an RPG quest. The Night Defense and ring-based challenges are also excellent.
Cooperative multiplayer is integrated directly into the campaign. Stepping into a photo-booth matches your character with seven others for Chaos Squad, a series of missions that culminate in a Night Defense battle. The more chaos caused in the missions translates into increased difficulty of the Night Defense encounter, in turn producing greater rewards (like currency and clothing). Cooperatively battling the OD can be a bit overwhelming given the insanity erupting onscreen, but it is satisfying to lock down the perimeter with a group. I enjoyed my time with Chaos Squad, but it didn’t have the deep hooks to keep me engaged. I’d much rather spend my time cruising across the city collecting goodies.
Outside of the mission monotony, Sunset Overdrive is an immensely rewarding experience that has a look and style all its own and a great gameplay package to complement it. It’s a colorful return to form for Insomniac games, and a hell of an exclusive for Xbox One.