Sunset Overdrive’s debut at the 2013 E3 was a shining light in an otherwise dark period for the Xbox One. The system debuted amid controversy, but Insomniac’s adventure was always something I felt could be a game-changer. Their history with the Ratchet and Clank games, among others, doesn’t just play a large part in this game’s mechanics, but it gave me faith in the end product. The highly-stylized look also reminded me a bit of Jet Grind Radio’s extreme colors, and the use of a unique soundtrack and extensive grinding and trick system in the final product only accentuate that.
The basic idea is that Sunset City is under attack by a swarm of mutants and rogue humans due to Overcharge, the evil Fizzco’s energy drink that seemingly skipped several quality assurance tests. Your character (who goes nameless throughout the adventure) quickly uses his parkour skills to evade the mutants known as the OD, and joins up with the leader of a rebel group Walter to blast them to bits. Together, you’ll set out to uncover the mystery behind the beverage and gain a lot of backstory behind your allies both now and in the future.
Sunset Overdrive’s pre-release hype was aided by a solid TV ad campaign, and hurt beforehand by trade show impressions. The gameplay is entirely dependent upon flow and that’s something you just can’t get a grasp on during a quick play session. The parkour elements involve avoiding the ground as much as possible since you’re slower there than anywhere, and it’s better to grind on rails, above or below higher rails, and then bounce along umbrellas and off of water to get around and either selectively engage in combat or avoid it when your health is low.
In theory, the game is a shallow shooter – that’s what you might think based on the ads, but nothing could be further from the truth. Shooting is one element of combat, but melee also plays a large part in things. Like Ratchet and Clank before it, you’ve got a wide variety of upgradeable weapons to choose from that will allow you to win the day and topple your many foes. A weapon wheel allows you to pick between them easily, and they’re upgradeable with permanent and temporary perks earned via a gamepay mode that may surprise people.
Much like Brutal Legend went from an action platformer to an RTS, Sunset Overdrive goes from a third-person shooter to a tower defense game. This may worry some, but like Ratchet and Clank: Full Front Assault, it blends the idea of tower defense into an action-heavy setup. The end result is something that may prove to be too tough at times if you’re new to the genre, but if you have any experience in it at all, you’ll be able to beat them – even if they’re really close calls. Luckily, your enemies usually have to completely take over a few towers full of Overcharge, and you should be able to use pre-set traps and your parkour to keep at least one of them safe at all times.
Another major gameplay element that may surprise people is Sunset Overdrive’s reliance on fetch quests. These are usually absolute game-killers to me, to the point that the Epic Mickey games were totally killed by them and they’ve largely bogged down 3D platformers since the N64 days. Luckily, they’re done just about perfectly here by not wearing out their welcome. You can collect a ton of little objects ala Rare’s games to get things, while missions involve needing to collect 3-5 things that are all fairly close together, and you can kill tons of enemies in your wake if you so desire – or make use of your evolving skills to avoid combat if you so desire.
Offline, there’s a lot of variety with the mission types. Those same options are made available online as well. If you’re an expert at night defense, then you’ll love having a large party to play it with. There, the normally-taxing mode becomes an all-out riot and fits the Chaos Squad moniker attached to the online play. Completing a round gets you a wheel spin that can give you a ton of cash, or just a small amount, to buy more stuff for your character. If you’d don’t want to spend a lot of time online, then you can hop in and out of little missions where you have a score attack, and may need to grab more points than others or deliver more supplies. The online setup is very easy to use and even with a packed house in night defense, we never experienced any slowdown.
No matter which genre you’re taking part in, whether it be 3D shooting, tower defense, or fetch-questing, you’ll be able to do just about everything you want when you want to. The control scheme is logical and the menus are stylish, but still easy to navigate. On-screen tutorials guide you through everything once, and a simple press of the former Back button takes you to a map for fast traveling and waypoint-pinning when you want to find a particular kind of mission or item. Jumping, shooting, and melee combat are usually easy, but sometimes the camera can be a little squirrely – especially when you’re trying to spin around things like roller coasters or spiral rails to attack a boss. It’s frustrating when you die due to these issues, but frequent mid-fight checkpoints prevent things from being too aggravating, and you regain all of your health after death anyway.
Insomniac’s penchant for snappy writing comes through in Sunset Overdrive, although since it’s got an M rating, it goes a bit further than Ratchet and Clank did language-wise. Not much more than something like Uncharted though, and there’s only one scene of violence that couldn’t really be done in a hard T-rated game. The company’s history from their first game to this one is presented in a glorious bit during the intro where you see titles that are affectionate parodies of their whole library, which is a bit surprising, but also got a chuckle out of me since it made this game feel that much more important – like everything prior was setting this game up.
Visually, Sunset Overdrive is stunning, but it has some visual quirks. The usually-bright look to everything stands in stark contrast to the bleak situation you’re in and results in you having a bit more hope and also being dazzled by the impressive colors. They pop off the screen during the day, while the night-time tower defense sections impress in a different way due to all of the ambient light that allows you to see what’s going on. Character designs are solid, but don’t look much better than what you would expect from a last-gen game as well, with a very plastic-y look to skin, although the current-gen hardware is clearly put to good use by having tons of mayhem on-screen and no slowdown.
Character animation is smooth, but there’s a bit of clipping at times with the outfits your character can wear, and the slightly-limited creation tools can take a while to fully load textures, resulting in some smeared textures for a second or two. The world of Sunset City feels somewhat realistic even with its cartoony style thanks to separate boroughs and sections that stand out from the rest. Each one houses a different faction you’ll gain allies in, and it also makes the city seem bigger than it is due to how many types of people inhabit it.
Hot on the heels of Forza Horizon 2’s soundtrack being one of the best in a long while, Sunset Overdrive delivers the goods with a mix of original and licensed tracks. Variety is the spice of life here, with a mix of hard rock, punk rock, and even some dubstep thrown in for good measure. The voice acting is fantastic and the whole off-beat take on a dark concept reminds me a lot of Zombieland, only with a different pandemic to worry about. Everyone in the cast can crack jokes and despite the cast getting into the dozens with a lot of side characters, most of the cast feels fairly well-defined with a few having hilarious character-building moments that catch you by surprise. The shooting and splatting sound effects are excellent and everything from those to the various kinds of grinds sounds just as you’d imagine it.
Sunset Overdrive’s blend of shooting, grinding, parkour, fetch quests, and tower defense makes for a complicated soup, but it still delivers a satisfying meal at the end of the day. The wide variety of gameplay elements are all well-crafted, and outside of some camera issues, it controls about as well as could be expected. It’s a treat for both eyes and ears with bright graphics and smooth animation, while the diverse soundtrack gets your blood pumping for both combat and a bit of dancing. Anyone who loved Insomniac’s prior work with the Ratchet and Clank series will love this, as will fans of Jet Set Radio and fast-paced gaming in general. The campaign is a bit on the lean side at around 12 hours, but it’s well-paced and doesn’t drag on beyond a couple of small sections.
Reviewed By: Jeremy Peeples
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
This review is based on a digital copy of Sunset Overdrive for the Xbox One provided by Microsoft Studios.