The Apocalypse. As a narrative structure within games, it’s tried-and-tested. Dropping players into a world ravaged by aliens, war, zombies, disease or some other such miserable occurrence has fuelled sales for decades and produced countless brilliant titles — from The Last of Us to the Fallout franchise, from Half Life 2 to Gears of War. There’s something about a world in decimation — or suffering the effects of post-apocalyptic life — that hooks gamers and keeps them coming back for more. There’s just one problem: rarely, if ever, could a game set in a world-ending scenario, be described as fun. Certainly, many games are fun to play, but in this instance it’s the pure sense of the word that’s usually missing. The kind of fun that leaves you grinning from ear-to-ear with a buoyant sense of joy. That’s exactly what Sunset Overdrive brings to the table — and it’s utterly marvelous because of it.
Everything in Sunset Overdrive is geared towards maximizing the amount of fun that you, the player, can have while holding a controller. Insomniac Games — breaking from tradition and developing a game exclusively for Xbox, as opposed to PlayStation — has turned the fun-o-meter up to 11, added a bucketload of LSD, jammed in a highlights reel of some of the best components of other games and then soaked the whole thing in the kind of soda you couldn’t have as a kid because it would leave you bouncing off the ceiling. To say that you’ll enjoy your time with Sunset would be an understatement.
As an employee for the giant corporation Fizzco, you’ll find yourself thrown headfirst into Sunset City in the outbreak of a mutant crisis. Fizzco’s latest energy drink, Overcharge Delirium XT, turns anyone who consumes it into a mutated monster — dubbed “OD” — with a desire to kill. Here, you’ll quickly learn just how ridiculous Sunset’s world is. With zero explanation, your character is able to grind along almost any surface, from barriers to building edges, power lines to train tracks — if it has a sharp edge, you can slide along it. You can also jump off of any remotely bouncy surface — tires, mattresses and parasols — as well as dozens you wouldn’t normally think, such as cars, skylights, roof vents and water spouts. Wall-running is also thrown into the mix, and later in the game you’ll gain a glide ability and a host of other upgrades to enable your traversal of Sunset City’s terrain.
Combat is handled through melee attacks and guns, both of which offer a wealth of variety in gameplay. Fighting is simple — mash B to swing whatever weapon you’re holding at whatever is attacking you, or jump in the air and press B to dive bomb at the ground. Gunplay offers a customizable loadout of 8 weapons, which can be selected at whim, while an auto-targeting feature makes shooting as simple as vaguely aiming in the right direction and pulling the right trigger. That assistance is necessary, as Sunset’s combat is frenetic. You’re constantly urged to maintain height and speed, whether bouncing, wall-running or grinding, in order to hold an advantage over enemies. This is compounded by a deliberately slow running speed and a vulnerability on the ground that will leave you dead in a matter of moments unless you seek safety on a building or power line — something that becomes particularly important as you unlock tougher enemies, including Scabs (human gangs) and Fizzco’s automated robot security guards, or even more advanced OD, such as the Herker (a giant, fleshy, bulbous creature that wants nothing more than to crush your skull). There’s a steep learning curve to overcome as you master Sunset’s controls, switching between jumping, shooting, grinding, shooting, bouncing, bashing someone with a crowbar and then shooting some more, but eventually — and especially after a few upgrades to your abilities — it all starts to gel into a rewarding, enjoyable experience.
It’s compounded by an upgrade system that rewards you for playing as you see fit. While in combat, you’ll have a Style meter that constantly fills as you execute enemies while making use of terrain and acrobatics, unlocking more powerful abilities in your weapons and bigger rewards when you make the kill. Sunset’s upgrades are categorized as badges, overdrives and amps. Badges can be earned by playing with greater Style and are swapped for overdrives, which are active buffs that improve specific stats. Prefer to kill while grinding and using a single-shot weapon? Unlock and upgrade overdrives that give higher style when grinding and offer bigger damage and ammo capacity for single-shot weapons. Sunset gives you the flexibility to make combat more rewarding. Amps, meanwhile, are special abilities applied to weapons and movement. Want your pistol to generate a shockwave with each shot? Or, for your dive bomb to send glass shards flying in every direction? What about a forcefield to knock back any enemies who get too close? You’ll want amps, unlocked by completing missions or scavenging for the hundreds of collectibles in Sunset City, ranging from neon signs to dirty sneakers to balloons of Fizzco’s mascot. If you’re a collectibles-hoarder like me, you’ll sink countless hours into Sunset Overdrive trying to get every… last… one.
While the core gameplay is an enjoyably rewarding experience, it’s in presentation and narrative that Sunset really sets itself apart from the pack. From a visual standpoint, Sunset Overdrive has few peers. Insomniac Games devised a particular style, and ran with it throughout. Sunset City is bursting with color. It’s vibrant, bathed in sunlight and teeming with bursts of green and red and pink and purple, amid orange and blue buildings. Unlike many other apocalypse-set games, there’s a dearth of grey, brown and black — heck, even the game’s mutants are bright and colorful (and deadly, never forget that). When you kill an OD, they’ll explode into the bright orange liquid which turned them into a mutant. Poppers, grossly swollen with energy drink, explode with a giant “POP” above their heads written in liquid — a theme that extends to other parts of the game. Use the freeze bomb gun and enemies will solidify with a giant “BRRRRR,” straight out of a comic. Explosions or powerful melee attacks can net a “BANG” or some other such humorously emphasized response. Weapons themselves are a treat, ranging from standard guns to cobbled-together masterpieces such as the hairspray bomb, which fires cans of the stuff to create giant explosions; the TNTeddy, which lobs explosives-stuffed huggables at enemies; or the Roman Candle, which is a machine gun, if machine guns fired colorfully painful fireworks instead of bullets.
Indeed, Sunset is bursting at the seams with humor, references and fourth wall-breaking moments. Actually, it doesn’t so much break the fourth wall as stick a crate of fireworks next to it and light that sucker up, while winking knowingly and getting on with business. At the start of the game, you’ll suddenly hear a disembodied voice — called “The Announcer” — which will give tips on how to play the game, much to the bemusement of your character. Speaking of which, the player’s character will frequently look at the camera and interact with it (load a save and the camera will appear tight against your character, before they smack it back to its correct position), cutscenes will reference the fact that you’re in a game, dialogue will make fun of the fact that none of this is real. Even respawning after death is handled with humor, as respawn animations offer homages to Portal, The Ring, Bill and Ted, Risky Business and more, while your character will make frequent mention to the fact that he can’t die during cutscenes. The entire game is laugh-out-loud funny, and consistently pokes holes in classic gaming tropes. In one scene, two characters are next to each other while on a conference call with a third. Neither are holding a phone, which one comments on — the player’s character will chastise them for trying to pick flaws and disrupt the game’s narrative. Insomniac is so very much aware that this is a game, not a game trying to be a film, or art, or an emotionally-drive experience — and it’s all the better because of it.
Even the story is saturated with humor — and it doesn’t sag over the ten hours it will take to beat the game’s main campaign. It’s consistently and repeatedly funny, and that helps, as what’s underneath is something we’ve seen in countless other games. The Player, as your character is always known, is tasked with uniting various factions around Sunset City before taking on Fizzco, which has sealed in Sunset City’s residents to shield the outside world from the mutant outbreak. Missions can usually be broken down into “Go here, speak to someone or collect something or kill various enemies, then go here to deliver something or collect a reward.” It’s fetch quests and delivery quests and bodyguard quests ripped straight from countless other open world titles. What saves these missions, though, is not only the relentless humor, but Sunset’s core gameplay. It’s so much fun to see and explore its world that you’d be hard pressed to truly hate its somewhat basic mission structure.
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On top of that, there’s a wealth of content to keep you going long after the story is finished. On top of the collectibles, there are dozens of side missions and challenges, while story missions can be replayed for bigger rewards. If you want better amps, you’ll take part in defense missions at various bases, where you’ll lay traps and knock back waves of OD as you cook the upgrades you desire. These take place at night, and watching OD burst and your various guns explode and bang in the darkness is a lot of fun — though they can become particularly punishing in the later stages of the game.
Once you’ve exhausted the game’s world, which will take a while, there’s even a multiplayer option thrown into the mix. It’s perhaps the least-polished part of Sunset, but it’s not without its merits. Multiplayer drops eight players into various missions around Sunset City, ranging from storming a Scab base at the amusement park to defending a bridge from Fizzco robots. They’re all much of a muchness, and will involve getting from point A to point B, killing everything, and then moving on to point C and killing everything there. You’ll complete a variety of these missions during the day, before the game switches to night. Here, you and your fellow players will be tasked with defending against waves of OD, much like when cooking amps in the single player campaign, with the ability to set traps and work together to fight back the hordes. It really is good fun, but it suffers from a lack of balance and the sheer amount of things happening at once. Eight people all lobbing explosives and shooting things and zapping stuff can sometimes create a confusingly chaotic battlefield — more than once I was so consumed with explosions and other effects that I wasn’t entirely sure where the enemies were or how many I had killed. Furthermore, players take their arsenal from the single-player world into multiplayer, so if you jump in at the start of the campaign you’ll be woefully underpowered compared with your team-mates. Don’t expect to rack up kills unless you’ve upgraded your weapons and abilities outside of multiplayer. That being said, multiplayer doesn’t detract from the single-player experience, so its inclusion isn’t unwelcome. It’s a fun distraction, but it can’t match the polish of the main game.
Taking into account every game that has launched on Xbox One and PS4 since their release last year, I can’t remember ever spending as much time laughing so much or enjoying myself as much as I did Sunset Overdrive — it’s the most enjoyable “new gen” game I’ve played. It borrows components of other games — the silly, horde-based murder of Dead Rising, the wonderful armory of Ratchet and Clank, the bravado and swagger of Saints Row and the grinding and traversal of Infamous and Jet Set — and blends them into one self-aware, gloriously over-the-top experience. One member of the player’s team, Floyd, refers to the apocalyptic events in Sunset City as the Awesomepocalypse. I’d be hard-pressed to disagree.