We’ve all come to know games that heavily strive for a particular tone that, in the end, often compromises the value of the experience. Azura’s Wrath, Blue Estate, and Anarchy Reigns are just a few examples of titles that really push their over-the-top message to unexpected heights (and lows), but ultimately fail to connect with the player in anything other than the occasional provocative images and sequences.
As purposefully outlandish as Sunset Overdrive’s tone is, such is not the case here. Its aggressive style of internet meme jokes and punkish flavor is evenly matched by its incredibly deliberate and surprisingly accomplished game systems, making it not only one of the best original open world games of 2014, but possibly even Insomniac’s best game yet.
In a city saturated in electric guitars, incessant dick jokes, and pop culture references, Sunset Overdrive feels like Insomniac’s strongest effort to distance themselves far away from their last flavorless third person shooter, Fuse. The premise of a metropolis overrun by mutated citizens called “ODed” (not-so-poor souls who’ve had too many energy drinks) creates a tone that’s mostly clever, but doesn’t always work in a post-Borderlands and Saints Row era. Sunset Overdrive certainly looks the part, with a piercingly “red-dye-number-5” color palette and slick animations that even made my custom character look canonical to the story. However its best moments, like the LARPing through-line – which is one of the most brilliant satirical attempts I’ve seen in years – are countered by over-used black humor and occasionally flatlining, fourth-wall breaking parody.
Despite these comedic issues, Sunset Overdrive’s play style is acutely gratifying. Its level design, mechanics, upgrade systems, and enemy encounters all signpost a single message: Move your ass. It’s an open world game that’s all about locomotion, one that will reward you for staying mobile, and punish you for sitting still.
Old school Tony Hawk and Jet Set Radio junkies will gather a sense of familiarity here. Power lines, building edges, pedestrian railings and the like are all used for surfaces to grind on which allow for speedy movement. Roof-top fans, scattered vehicles, and shiny tent tops, on the other hand, sit in as trampolines ushering you skyward in between gaps of environmental traversal options. Grinding and bouncing – along with wall running and surfing – all feed into a visual vocabulary that’s far more rewarding to engage with than games like Assassins Creed have ever attempted. With players being fully capable of making it from one end of the city to the other without losing any momentum, Sunset Overdrive succeeds in offering a magnetic and intuitive traversal system that feels easy to pick up, but especially difficult to master.
This amazing sense of movement isn’t immediately evident in Sunset Overdrive, however. The early game is marred with restricted mobility that makes it even more challenging to conceptualize Sunset’s strange systems. In spite of this, I strongly urge you to push through the first few hours, especially when trying to make sense of the game’s unusual and ambitious combat.
As an open world third person shooter, Sunset marries movement with gunplay, insisting that you rain death upon your enemies while in constant motion. To make up for your mobility, a generous aim assist draws fire to your targets without the hassle of pinpoint precision. Insomniac proves to be incredibly effective in emphasizing this preferred way of playing by having enemies bring you swift death if you make the mistake of gunning it out on foot, and then immediately respawning you so that you can try again. It is essentially the opposite way in which roguelikes incorporate punishing death.
As you continue to do well, you’ll build a style meter which activates amps at different tiers: one set that’s designated to your character, and the other that can augment your ludicrous weapons. Sunset Overdrive’s guns carry on Insomniac’s tradition of goofy and creative artillery. Expect bouncy grenade launchers, automated turrets, acidic geysers, and penis-shaped shotguns. Weapon amps alter their behavior even further, allowing for elemental, explosive, and even mind control effects. Character amps are activated at two different tiers which are split between Hero and Epic amps; both offer active and passive bonuses to your character. Some are as basic as activating extra damage, while others trigger devastating phenomena such as allowing you to lead a powerful lightning storm. Amps are almost always rewarding to use, which in turn feeds into the incentive to play Sunset Overdrive the way it is meant to be played.
What this ends up looking like is a constant exercise in murderous crowd control. Sunset Overdrive’s enemies spill into the streets in droves begging you to change direction constantly in order to effectively wipe them off the face of the map. Varying enemy types such as Fizzco Bots and heavier classes of OD force you to alter your battle tactics on the fly. Some encounters may encourage you to use the OD-attracting Captain Ahab harpoon gun to lure them into land mines “amped” with spawning piranhas; others may call for the use of the Freeze Bomb, which is the perfect set up for the explosive TNTeddy.
Sunset Overdrive’s self-awareness of this emergent calamity carries onto its mission design with surprising effect, making it one of the few open world games that constantly considers its own real estate. Many will have you moving to different areas of the map, while others will designate a wide area that’s open enough for you dart around in. Escort missions, believe it or not, are among my favorite. These usually involve defending a moving vehicle of some sort, which fits in perfectly with Sunset Overdrive’s purposeful locomotive combat. Fetch quests, however (despite the game being less tedious in transit), can still be a drag. They typically involve you scouring a highlighted area for a single object, which often forces you to move around on foot. But Insomniac reserves its best moments for Sunset’s incredible boss battles and intense tower defense stand-offs.
Both of these mission types are painfully few and far between (though all can be replayed at any time), but their scarcity, in turn, make them all the more special. Boss encounters often ignite elaborate chase sequences that either spread across half the city or take place in gigantic rail-connected structures. They all effectively create this fantastic sense of speed and control that’s easily compounded by their massive sense of scale. Night Defense missions on the other hand aren’t nearly as mobile, but are no less climatic. They are the game’s greatest tests in crowd control that have you defend fortified vats, which are used to unlock new amps. However, Night Defense missions are also the only moments in which you can place down traps that somehow don’t feel nearly as effective as your carried-on arsenal. With the exception of boss battles, distilled versions of all mission types find their way into Sunset Overdrive’s multiplayer: Chaos Squad.
Now I’ll come right out and say it, Chaos Squad is absolutely bat-shit crazy, and is easily the most successful multiplayer gesture from an open world game that I’ve ever seen. Chaos Squad is strictly co-operative, where up to eight players complete a series of missions. Every single moment – including transition periods between objectives – give players a chance to show off their traversal skills, even in brief moments of competition. The emphasis on stylish shooting is less present here however, as you’re better off concerning yourself with the quantity instead of the quality of your kills to reach the high score. But what’s so spectacular about Chaos Squad is that it takes all of the action from single player and quite literally multiplies it by eight. The result is a cacophonic, outstandingly focused (albeit difficult to track at times) multiplayer experience that aligns itself with Sunset Overdrive in the best way possible.
Sunset Overdrive is a very specialized open world game, one that ambitiously departs from the conventions of the modern metropolitan format while using the familiar strengths of developer Insomniac. It may have just missed the classic charm seen in their beloved Ratchet and Clank series by instead focusing on cartoonish adult humor, but Insomniac’s newest title is positively difficult to ignore and even harder to resist.