Games Review: Sunset Overdrive (Xbox One, 2014)

Sunset Overdrive is Californian developer Insomniac Games (noted for PlayStation exclusives like Ratchet & Clank and Resistance) first Xbox One exclusive, a frantic, idiosyncratic, open-world third-person shooter that pulls elements from a number of different games and combines them, with a twisted sense of humour, to create something that feels quite fresh and different.

The crux of the game centres on Sunset City, where an evil energy drink manufacturer called Fizzco is releasing a new drink called Overdrive Delirium XT. The drink affects anyone who consumes it, mutating them into a grotesque, howling swarm of flesh-hulks called the OD. As Sunset City descends into anarchy, various surviving factions decide that they should be making the most of the “Awesomepocalypse” and use it as a means of starting over and living out their various fantasy lifestyles.

This is where your character comes in. Crafted from a surprisingly wide away of style and appearance options, it’s up to you to unite the various factions against Fizzco and, while not returning the city to order, defiantly punch evil in it’s ghoulish corporate face.

Sunset Overdrive reminds me of playing Conker’s Bad Fur Day for the first time on the Nintendo 64. It felt like Rare were finally able to cut loose from family friendly platformers and make something that didn’t conform to a certain content standard, and I got that feeling again here. It really feels like Insomniac are using Sunset Overdrive as a way to get away from Ratchet and Resistance for a minute. It feels like a teenager rebelling against authority, and the fact that the game relies on a punk rock aesthetic (both in terms of look, vibe, it’s anti-corporate story and it’s in-game music) rams home Insomniac’s fervent desire to rage against the machine.

Because of this drive to be different, Sunset Overdrive drips with personality – models are cartoonish without being overly so but can be decorated in various outlandish clothes, makeup, tattoos and hairstyles. You’re free to really make your avatar your own and it’s a welcome foothold in a game that doesn’t seem to want to slow down long enough for you to get attached to anything.

Everything about the game’s look is designed to emulate a kind of euphoric state – colours are bright and architecture is bold to match the game’s many huge personalities. This make’s Sunset Overdrive stand out even more, coming as it does in the middle of the 2014 Q4 release schedule, surrounded on all sides by games full of muted colour pallettes and the same mechanics we’ve seen a thousand times. It gives the game vigour and always gives you something interesting to look at.

Quite a few visual elements have been lifted from comic books and movies, with Scott Pilgrim vs. the World being the most obvious influence. Onomatopoeic sound effects are everywhere from giant, bloody “BOOM”s when a large enemy detonates to Borderlands-esque character introduction screens to cheeky, scrawled asides drawn over the top of the screen.

I want to give a special shoutout to the team that worked on the blood splatters in this game too. Amazing gibs. Gibs of the year. Pumping OD full of explosive shotgun shells and having them detonate, spraying orange blood in all directions is immensely satisfying. Thank you, gib effects team. You are the real heroes.

As previously mentioned, Sunset Overdrive cobbles together a lot of different gameplay elements from various titles. Sunset City is absolutely massive and is comprised of three main islands, ala Grand Theft Auto 3. To traverse this gigantic map, you build your combo (or Style) multiplier from grinding over powerlines, rails and building edges (Tony Hawk, Jet Set Radio), wall-running, pole-vaulting (Prince of Persia) and bouncing off of anything remotely bouncy (reminiscent of 16-bit platformers like Aladdin). Traversal is exhilarating. You can get from one side of the city to the other incredibly quickly and without ever once touching the ground.

The combat is similarly solid, taking inspiration from titles like Total Overdose and Just Cause 2, with most of the weapons feeling sufficiently meaty. The Compensator, an explosive shotgun, was given to me basically at the start of the game and it never left my arsenal. There are various enemies to tackle and each require you to change up your weapons and tactics to deal with them. The OD are fairly straight forward, shotguns and explosions will dispatch them quickly. Human enemies like the Scabs are weaker against explosions and automatic fire. Fizzco robots are much hardier but are susceptible to electric attacks. Enemies are also capable of doing a massive amount of damage so the key is to keep moving to dodge their fire (this component actually reminded me a lot of shmup’s like Raiden). The key is to keep moving. The moment you stop moving, or land on the ground and start running, you’re going to get owned hard. The juggling of traversal and combat is so cool, and will leave you feeling like a total badass, especially during the boss battles which – though simple – are big in scale and imagination.

The array of weapons the game presents you with are similarly varied and full of character – guns that fire lethal fireworks, a gun that fires deployable model helicopters that fire glocks, event a gun that fires vinyl LP’s. They’re as crazy as the rest of the game and a lot of fun. My personal favourite is the grenade launcher that fires explosive teddy bears. Each weapon has a personality and feel of it’s own and are more effective against some enemies than others – the key is making sure you have the load out to deal with any situation as you’ll frequently be up against more than one type of enemy. Will you need raw DPS for big bads or splash-damage stopping power for clutering minions? Why not both?

It’s not all beer and skittles in Sunset City, though. Sunset Overdrive isn’t without it’s problems and many of them come from character progression. There are a total of four different upgrade trees for your character. There is your weapon wheel where you can choose your combat loadout. The Amps loadout that allow you to upgrade your weapons with combat modifiers. There’s Badges which allow you to unlock character modifiers by playing the game in specific ways (eg. getting a lot of kills while Grinding will unlock mods that grant you better bonuses for getting kills while Grinding). And finally there is a Trap wheel, similar to your Weapon wheel, which allows you to place different unlockable traps during horde-style missions throughout the game. All of these things are fine seperately but the way they combined and overlapped had me confused for a good while before I was able to put it in order. Like the rest of the game, it’s systems are rather chaotic.

A lot of the missions were fairly repetetive too, with most adhering rigidly to the old “go here, fight some baddies, pick up the macguffin and bring it back” structure. There are a few defense missions thrown in, and the sidequests and post-game missions seem to have a lot more variety but it can’t save the single player campaign from feeling a bit repetitive.

There are also quite a few weapons that, even when upgraded, don’t feel like they do much damage at all. Many of these are automatic fire weapons. They just felt a bit like peashooters compared to my explosive and blast weapons, and I found myself going back to those a lot.

I found the game’s snarky, crude sense of humour quite charming at first but the longer the game went on, I found it began to wear on me. The game is full of chatterboxes and I caught myself getting agitated by the near-constant banter in my ear. Thankfully, the main campaign clocks in at around ten hours. It feels like a comfortable amount of time for it to run and it keeps the game’s enormous personality from wearing out its welcome. In that regard, I found Sunset Overdrive much more enjoyable in short bursts.

For completionists who can withstand the chatter, though, there is so much to do post-game. The map is covered in sidequests and collectibles to hoover up, weapons and clothes to save up for and pirate chests to discover. There’s also a multiplayer mode that can be jumped into at any time through phone booths called Chaos Squad that sees you and seven other players wreaking havoc in short-burst cooperative missions like killing a horde of OD or grinding up a really tall structure without falling off. Everyone votes on what they want to do next after each round and the final round a co-op version of the single player’s after-dark horde mode missions. It’s so much fun and, while it doesn’t have a lot of staying power, it’s definitely worth it’s weight in comedy gold.

Insomniac has managed to pull something entirely unexpected out of the hat – a game that wears it’s numerous influences on it’s sleeve but finds a way to combine them and iterate on them in a way that feels really different and fresh. Playing Sunset Overdrive is like trying to ride a mechanical bull – you cling on for dear life as it bucks and thrashes violently around, but the sudden insanity of the experience leaves you grinning anyway.

Review Score: 7.5 out of 10
Highlights: Traversal a joy, awesome soundtrack, satisfying combat
Lowlights: Complicated upgrades, some repetitive mission design
Developer: Insomniac Games
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
Released: October 28, 2014
Platform: Xbox One

Reviewed on Xbox One.


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David Smith

David Smith is the former games and technology editor at The AU Review. He has previously written for PC World Australia. You can find him on Twitter at @RhunWords.