It’s Always Sunny in Sunset City
Can the apocalypse be fun? That simple question was at the heart of what two creators at Insomniac Games wanted to do for their next major project, and the result was Sunset Overdrive. When the game starts, your character—customized to your liking in terms of gender, body size, face, hairstyle, and clothing basics—lives a boring, meaningless life. At the launch party for Fizzco’s new energy drink, OverCharge Delirium XT, they can only stand to the side collecting trash as they watch the rest of the world having fun.
That ends up being the best thing that could ever happen, however, when it turns out the company’s new product has a terrible side effect in humans: turning them into “OD”, hulking orange monsters that continually crave the sweet drink. Sunset City is soon overrun, and the last remaining human survivors struggle for survival—while also opening their eyes to the brave new possibilities the fall of their hometown brings.
With apologies to the team at Insomniac for making a direct comparison to another developer’s work, the easiest way to explain the core experience awaiting you in Sunset Overdrive is to say that’s it’s similar in a lot of ways to Volition’s Saints Row IV. Sunset City is a vast open-world environment that allows access to any of its parts right from the start, and it’s a backdrop filled with colorful characters, a variety of theme-based gangs, over-the-top weaponry, a plethora of both required and optional quests, a tongue-in-cheek sense of humor, and a hero who knows they’re the hero (one who doesn’t hold back in reminding the world of that fact).
I think that’s a fair comparison to make, but it’s also important to then clarify that what each game does with those elements is very different. This isn’t Saints Row by any means—even with so many similar qualities, the two feel miles apart.
Given its heavy reliance on more subjective design choices such as its fourth wall–breaking comedy or distinct sense of personality, Sunset Overdrive could’ve gone very wrong. As I progressed through my character’s story, however, Insomniac’s efforts did exactly what they were supposed to do: They grew on me. While the style of humor won’t connect with all players—and if it doesn’t, your opinion of the game could definitely be somewhat soured—my hero grew from a selection of character-customization choices into a person I actually liked and cared about. Her sass and attempts at wit weren’t always cool, but they gave her a certain charm. She always had a bit of an edge to her, but never so much that I thought she was an unlikable jerk. (Part of that credit goes to the vocal work of Stephanie Lemelin, whose efforts as the female protagonist I loved.)
Through my character, I met the other inhabitants of Sunset City. Some you’ll only interact with for a brief moment in time; others will come to be trusted friends, companions in combat, or contacts that’ll offer help so long as you’re willing to lend them a hand in return. Here, too, the writers and artists did a fantastic job thinking up with ideas that would stand out in the city’s streets yet still feel like they belonged as part of the larger narrative. I never thought I’d grow as attached to a virtual group of LARPers as I did during Sunset Overdrive—nor was I ready for how unbelievably awesome I’d find the game’s last introduced faction to be.
Of course, not everything and everyone inhabiting Sunset City will take kindly to you, and standing in your way will be a mix of mechanical, human, and used-to-be-human foes. Even the very first enemies you encounter in Sunset Overdrive can be a real threat if you don’t take them seriously, and as things escalate, new types of OD or Fizzco security bots are introduced that help keep the game both challenging and fresh. A few of the tasks you’ll be presented with can end up feeling like a chore—due to difficulty or requirements for success—but, for the most part, I’d find myself constantly getting sidetracked for a few moments in order to engage in a battle or two simply out of enjoyment.
Really, though, that joy doesn’t come from the enemies in Sunset Overdrive as much as it comes from its weapons. After initially wanting to keep things more grounded and realistic, the team at Insomniac decided to instead continue on with the studio’s tradition for fantastical weaponry. At this point, it’s pretty clear that you can trust an Insomniac game to have quality firearms, but I was—admittedly—initially iffy on some of the designs and ideas they’d come up with this time around.
Thankfully, I was wrong; Sunset Overdrive gave me far more offensive and defensive options than I could ever use at one time, and there wasn’t one that I actively disliked. In fact, some of the offerings that I initially thought I wouldn’t care for ended up being my favorite go-to armaments in the game. So, definitely, give everything a chance before you decide what is or isn’t your style.
That suggestion leads to what was, for me, the most significant aspect of Sunset Overdrive: its traversal system. In the months before the game’s release, I had a few chances to go hands-on with the game at various events, and—in all honesty—I had some major concerns coming out of those experiences. Insomniac promised players a world where they could grind on railings, slide along telephone wires, bounce off of environmental objects, run along building walls, and perform other moves that would make traversal fast, thrilling, and strategically smart.
The problem was, I wasn’t feeling that promise in either my brief demo sessions or the beginning of my playthrough of the full game. Movement seemed awkward, I never felt like I could really do the kinds of things that I wanted to do, and I kept getting frustrated by missing jumps or grabs. The learning curve was steeper than I’d expected—especially given that I was a grinding expert in games like Jet Set Radio or Tony Hawk. The more Sunset Overdrive put me through, though, the better I was becoming.
Then, I earned the ability to air dash; following that, I acquired the power to do a super-jump after a ground pound. Gaps between grinds that were simply impossible before could now be cleared, objects previously out of reach could now be snagged, and my natural timing and judgement for when to do what better honed to the laws of physics the game’s world lives under.
There comes a point when all of those things come together the way they’re meant to, and you’ll be pulling off feats of traversal that you may not even realize. I know, because it happened to me. I was just heading from one point to another in order to take on my next quest—using the built-in fast travel was a blasphemous idea to me—and it suddenly dawned on me how crazy a lot of the stuff I was doing by second nature was. More than anything else in Sunset Overdrive—more than its weapons, or its characters, or its freedom for protagonist personalization, or its colorful landscape, or its music—the simple act of movement brought me the most joy. Games become great when they find that hook, that aspect that really sets them apart and brings them to life in a way that few other games can claim. Here, it’s the freedom that you’ll feel as you gain the ability to conquer every nook and cranny of Sunset City.
Everything coming together as well as it does in Sunset Overdrive creates a problem that I’m sure many developers wish their games had: I was having so much fun that I didn’t want things to end.
Thankfully, once the main storyline comes to a close and you’ve accomplished every sidequest or weapon upgrade that’s offered as bonus content, there’s still something to do thanks to the game’s mutliplayer option, Chaos Squad. What originally seemed like it might turn out to be a simple Horde mode is instead a variety of eight-player challenges that build up to the final climax of trying to protect your vats of OverCharge from the waves of mutants who crave its taste. Each round, you’ll vote for one of two choices for what kind of challenge you’d like to do, which can include simply killing a bunch of OD, safely escorting a train through town, collecting supplies as they’re dropped from overhead aircraft, or grinding around snatching up points in a race for the top score.
As a group, you can play it safe and choose the path that’ll give you the lowest difficulty in that final Horde mode–esque round, or you can pick the harder route in order to try to snag better rewards in the end. In that bounty, you’ll earn in-game money, cans of OverCharge (to spend on weapons and upgrades), or even outfit items—giving Chaos Squad a real sense of value even beyond the enjoyment you’ll get from its competition and cooperation.
I wish there were more, though. Chaos Squad is more interesting and worthwhile than I expected, but it only scratches the surface of what could be done here. I want to run through the entire city with a friend or two, even if only to see who can outgrind the other. I want player-vs.-player modes like Deathmatch and Team Deathmatch, even if every other game in the world offers them. I love how Sunset Overdrive plays, how it feels, just being in it and existing alongside all of its offerings. The more I can do that, the happier I’ll be—even if those options come via DLC, something I typically avoid like the plague.
You might be surprised, then, when I say what I’m about to say next. Sunset Overdrive is not a system-seller—as in, I don’t know that anybody would or should buy an Xbox One simply for this game. That’s an expectation that’s too often placed on games, and I don’t think Insomniac’s first foray into the new-gen consoles needs to (or necessarily can) be that. It’s also because the game is missing a certain something that it requires to truly take it to the stage where it becomes one of those can’t-miss classics. It didn’t offer up as much as it really should have; it was never as crazy as it truly could have been; it didn’t turn the dial on the inventiveness or imagination of its quests all the way up to 11. There was never one moment, one exact point where I could say there was something truly wrong with Insomniac’s effort, but I also couldn’t shake the feeling that I wasn’t seeing the full potential of that effort.
At the end of the day, I see Sunset Overdrive as the hidden gem that you pick up while you’re waiting for that “next big thing” to arrive—and then, to your surprise, it grows into a bigger and better experience than you ever expected. That’s exactly what happened to me. I went into Sunset Overdrive thinking that it’d be a fun, interesting smaller adventure in between the big blockbuster releases; now, it’s probably the most enjoyable game I’ve played so far this generation.
|Developer: Insomniac Games • Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios • ESRB: M – Mature • Release Date: 10.28.2014|
Sunset Overdrive may not be destined to receive the same kind of attention or hype fellow Xbox One releases like Halo: The Master Chief Collection or Titanfall have, but that doesn’t stop it from being one of the most creative, enjoyable, endearing, or satisfying gaming options the console has to offer.
|The Good||Well-crafted gameplay, stylistic, and storytelling decisions that come together to form an engrossing videogame adventure.|
|The Bad||Its humor will be hit-or-miss with players, and one of the game’s core elements—its traversal system—will be tough for some to fully grasp or appreciate.|
|The Ugly||Poor, poor Troop Master Bryllcream.|
|Sunset Overdrive is available exclusively on Xbox One. Review code was provided by Microsoft Game Studios for the benefit of this review.|