Sunset Overdrive is a goofy explosion of vivid colors and anything-goes attitude, though it's not without shape. The outline resembles Jet Set Radio, with weapons on loan from Ratchet and Clank, and a dash of Fable's fuck-you to dying. We all know it's a video game, but listen - Sunset Overdrive is conspicuously a video game.
In some ways it's a beacon of independence for Insomniac Games, which has historically aligned itself with PlayStation on major franchises like Ratchet & Clank, Spyro the Dragon and Resistance. Some players probably think the developers at Insomniac make up a huge studio owned by Sony – or that they are Sony – but here we are, talking about an exclusive game for Xbox One from a 20-year-old independent studio.
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Sunset Overdrive (May 2014)
The studio's experience has lead to a premise firmly in favor of the player, who gets to be the most energetic living person in Sunset City. If it's possible for urban sprawl to have a post-party hangover, this is what it looks like: deserted cars in the streets, garish buildings blanketed in pop-culture confetti and roaming bands of fleshy, boil-encrusted weirdos. They are the shambling victims of Sunset Overdrive's apocalypse, triggered by the launch and ill-advised consumption of a terrible energy drink called Overcharge Delirium XT. You should probably shoot them.
Sunset Overdrive lets us play in this fallout, cobbling together weapons out of vinyl records, teddy bears, fireworks, machine guns and toy helicopters. This open playground has been brought to you by corporations, and we can enjoy it without restriction now that they're gone.
Insomniac's third-person shooter is meant to be chaotic and free of punitive acts, but that doesn't mean it's totally, totally dumb. Overseen by Marcus Smith and Drew Murray, the heads behind Resistance 3 (Insomniac's best game to date, in my opinion), Sunset Overdrive burns with three cool philosophies alongside its flare for insanity.
1) You shape the protagonist
When I played Sunset Overdrive at Insomniac's Burbank offices, I controlled a bouncy, thin punk with a denim jacket, red sneakers and matching frosted tips. But he's not the Sunset Overdrive guy, and it doesn't even have to be the Sunset Overdrive guy.
Insomniac walked me through a gigantic list of wardrobe options – jeans, jackets, skirts, sweaters, hats – that can be acquired in pursuit of personalized vanity. You can be small or large, a man or a woman of any shade, sharply dressed or dressed to impress (upon others that you are insane).
The ability to customize the protagonist is often approached with varying degrees in open-world games, but not many are willing to sacrifice their seriousness. Had Sunset Overdrive stuck to a fixed hero, it would already be diverging from its playground without rules. The world's gone, so who cares if you look like a bipedal leopard with a half-eaten hipster sticking out of it?
2) Traversal is fun, and a skill
A game like Sunset Overdrive lives and dies on the strength of its movement and momentum. If the peak of your traversal is driving a car through intersections, I usually check out - give me free-running, flying, swinging, smoking, something.
In Sunset Overdrive, nearly every surface gives you a boost of some sort. Flat surfaces, be they canopies or car roofs, give you a sky-high bounce with well-timed button press. You can grind on railings, Jet Set Radio-style, on top of power lines, or swing beneath them while your other hand fires a weapon into the snarling crowd below. Unlike, say, Assassin's Creed, much of this has to be done manually. You have to jump with effective timing and read the environment as a series of vectors – bounce on that car, hit that power line, flip over that billboard there and then whip out a baseball bat for a shocking ground-pound finale.
I encountered moments where my connections failed for no reason discernible to me – usually when I tried to run up a flat surface – but I expect Insomniac to polish that flow more. It has to, because failing a run due to a technical defeat is a tremendous downer.
3) You laugh in the face of death
Dying in Sunset Overdrive, however, inspires more than it foils. This isn't to say the game lacks challenge, but that it sees your death as a funny stumble more than a fall. When I died battling one of the larger energy drink mutants, the super-gross Herker, I came back quickly without loading and without frustration.
Your sudden resurrection is unexplained and nonsensical, so Insomniac gives you a grand entrance every time. You might crash-land in a rocket, rise out of the earth in a golden sarcophagus, tumble out of an inter-dimensional portal, or be discarded out of a speeding van by Sunset City's mutants. It's a funny, wonderfully unnecessary touch that helps maintain the game's momentum.
Of course, with those three philosophies come a couple of questions: If there are no strict rules in Sunset Overdrive, how can we have fun breaking them?
Sunset Overdrive counters some of your freedom by having a demanding combo meter. There is a source of tension after all, and it comes with the desire to wipe out more enemies in more spectacular ways. As you mix up your traversal methods and swap from machine guns to roman candle-launchers to a gun that shoots out deadly vinyl records (must be some polka in there), you'll build up a meter that unlocks "amps." These amps, which you can equip as you please, turn on once you've created enough chaos and confer additional tweaks to your abilities. Now, a bounce might send out small explosions, or your shots might get a small chance of triggering a nuclear explosion.
Finally, Insomniac is striving to do more with mission objectives. The central story missions will be hinged on bespoke scenarios and combat encounters, complete with custom gameplay mechanics that might never be repeated. As a small taste of this, I completed a mission in which I bounced on flat, circular pads to send out damaging shockwaves against a swarm of creatures. Arranged around a transmission tower, the pads lifted me higher and higher, until I started grinding on inter-connected spirals at the very top. And that's when the boss showed up in the form of "Fizzie," a building-sized blimp and mascot with cute vampire fangs and a cap mounted with energy drinks.
Yup, it's a video game, alright.
We'll have more on Sunset Overdrive, which is coming is coming to Xbox One this fall, next week.