- Developer – Insomniac Games
- Publisher – Microsoft Studios
- Platform – Xbox One
- Price - £39.99
- Release date – 31 October
Sunset Overdrive Review
If you're going to enjoy Sunset Overdrive, there's a fundamental contradiction that you have to just ignore. This is a game about punks, rebelliousness, bucking authority and blazing a trail, but of course, it's made by Insomniac and published by Microsoft – it's a mainstream game and as corporate as they come.
It's like Linkin Park. Standalone it's shouty and iconoclastic, but it's still being put out by Warner Bros., and raking in lots of money for the systems it ostensibly rages against.
And so, it's hard to take all the pop culture references and smashing of the fourth wall seriously, as anything higher than gamer service. Sunset Overdrive's attitudinal exterior doesn't feel like a genuine representation of the developers' or publishers' politics, but like it's affected, like it's being trotted out to please and appeal to consumers.
There are all these references to how absurd and illogical videogames are, and how they're based on tired, narrative tropes, but this is from the company that made Spyro, Resistance, Fuse. I don't mean to cast aspersions, but I can assume the directors on Sunset Overdrive have made a good living out of conventional games, so to start making fun and pointing fingers feels not exactly honest.
Smug, aloof, arrogant
They know this type of Wayne's World meta-humour appeals to gamers. Just like the princesses on forums picking apart the size of hitboxes in Call of Duty, as if they know better, these jokes are smug, aloof, arrogant. I get the sense they've been written, not because the people at Insomniac have genuine cause to criticise the normalities of videogames, but because they think it'll help the game sell.
By that measure, Sunset Overdrive's radical pretence is intrinsically contradictory. It lampoons the things about games that make money, in order to make more money.
But as as I say, try to ignore it, because more than most games out right now, Sunset Overdrive likes you and if you can overlook its hypocrisies, it's easy to like it back.
You're an unnamed young protagonist, trapped in a city that's been destroyed and overrun by mutants, created from people who've drunk a new brand of energy drink. There are also other, hostile survivors, called Scabs, and robots sent to the city by Fizzco, the makers of the energy drink, to kill everyone and keep the outbreak under wraps.
It's a simple set-up, perfectly fitting of Sunset Overdrive's breezy, pick-up-and-go style of play. Everything here is geared towards ease of use, flow. Using the A and X buttons, you can run along walls, grind on rails, slide across water and flip over signs. The enemies are plentiful. Guns never have to reload. If you die, you respawn pretty much instantly, without losing any progress.
It's a fast-paced, unbroken, fun with a capital F kind of experience, pretty much unburdened by learning curves or difficulty. Though it includes guns, Sunset Overdrive, spiritually, is closest to something like the Tony Hawk's series or Skate, where even screwing up is part of the pleasure. You zip and fly around, ticking off objectives and racking up points, all backgrounded by punk-rock music and bright, flashing colours.
Natural and fluid
That's not to say it's unintelligent, or unsophisticated. Sunset Overdrive's environments, particularly, are the product of painstaking attention to design. Every traversable item is linked neatly to another. The areas you can travel to, and the things you can grind and run on, are all telegraphed – you implicitly know where you need to go and how to get there.
Achieving that kind of seamless, free-running gameplay is something that games have consistently failed to do. InFamous, another apocalyptic, superhero game didn't manage it, nor did Mirror's Edge. The only thing that came close was Spiderman 2, back in 2004. Sunset Overdrive is better than that. It understands how to make navigation feel natural and fluid.
And there are some marvellous set-ups. Using cutscenes and written jokes to call out games for unoriginality feels kind of lazy, but some of the missions and boss fights in Sunset Overdrive are legitimately fresh, and elevate the game above a lot of its contemporaries.
A personal favourite is a battle against Fizzie, a giant, malevolent Fizzco mascot which hovers around the city, taunting the player. To bring him down you have to climb and grind to the top of a skyscraper, then skate around the upper floors, blasting his robotic eyes until he tumbles out the sky. If you can get into that zen state – jump, flip, grind, shoot, flip, jump, shoot, dodge – then moments like these absolutely sing. Another section, where you're chasing a big, mutated, energy drink dragon down a highway, is similarly impressive.
Slow and messy
Gunplay is clunky, though. Travelling around Sunset Overdrive, it's all about flow and fluidity, but when the enemies arrive they're usually in massive packs and you end up firing indiscriminately, spamming your weapons until they've all died. It's not stylish or breezy – it's slow and messy. Especially bad are these tower defence style missions you have to do at the end of every chapter, where you're protecting some factory while it cooks up a new upgrade for you. It's just wave after wave after wave of creatures, and you're penned into this finite mission area so you end up grinding back and forth the same rail, lazily firing into the crowd until everything is dead.
The upgrades are useless as well. Sunset Overdrive is at its best when it's simple – just you, your gun and a wide open space to run around in. All the upgrades, things that make your bullets freeze or enemies explode when you melee them, just crowd it and cramp your style. The game insists you use them, though, reminding you with pop-ups and mission icons every time you have the resources saved up to buy a new customisation. The depth of the weapon and skill upgrades is meant to contribute to a sense of self-expression and freedom, but it just weighs Sunset Overdrive down.
It'd be a better game if it was simpler. Those core travelling mechanics are an unbridled joy and the visuals, all clean lines and pleasing colours, make Sunset Overdrive both pretty and instantly understandable – they circumvent the need for guide arrows and tutorials. It's a pity these things are bogged down by busy combat, superfluous customisation options and overt, adolescent, false-feeling satire.
Gameplay: 7/10 – Great to run around and traverse, with some really smart mission set-ups. A shame the combat is so messy.
Graphics: 9/10 – Not just pretty, purposefully designed to make instant sense. You don't need markers. The physicality of the game just communicates what you have to do.
Sound: 7/10 – Well-acted but it'd be much improved by a proper, licensed soundtrack. The punk-rock guitar loops tend to repeat themselves.
Writing: 6/10 – Some funny moments, but Insomniac is putting the iconoclasm on. The developer is happy to point fingers at other big games but lacks self-awareness and never sets any fire to its own house.
Replay value: 9/10 – Massive, varied, theoretically unending. You can play and customise Sunset Overdrive ad infinitum.
Overall: 7/10 – An enjoyable, intelligent and occasionally funny game. The rebelliousness is affected and Sunset Overdrive is as much a product of the titles it lampoons, but still, if you just go with it it can be a hell of a laugh.