Insomniac’s zany, colourful blaster is a sugary, cathartic hit best enjoyed in small doses, says Tom Hoggins.
Sunset Overdrive is, in many ways, the ultimate video game melting pot. Developer Insomniac has thrown together its recipe from a larder packed with familiar ingredients. Ratchet & Clank’s wacky arsenal, the slick skating and traversal of Jet Set Radio and Crackdown, Dead Rising’s dressing-up, the collectible chasing marathons and spider-web of upgrades of, well, everything. Seasoned with a self-aware mixture of variable fourth-wall smashing comedy and endless pop culture references, the result is a fizzy, muddled sugar-rush best enjoyed in moderation.
Which is appropriate. You begin the game as a rubbish collector for FizzCo, a soft drink megacorp preparing to release its latest noxious creation, Overcharge Delirium XT, on a rabidly demanding public. Problem is, a quirk of the recipe means that anyone that drinks it mutates into a bulbous orange monstrosity. A launch party in Sunset City becomes the epicentre of an outbreak which FizzCo’s PR department are quick to contain, trapping the city —mutants and non-drinking survivors all— within a giant forcefield.
As far as consumerist satire goes, it isn’t the most subtle, with your downtrodden worker becoming a kind of rebellious blue-collar superhero trying to escape the city and lift the lid on FizzCo's naughtiness.
For reasons never explained, you can bounce from car bonnets and air vents, run along walls indefinitely and skate along the city’s railings, power-lines and train-tracks. This traversal is the game’s greatest boon, skittering across water, vaulting onto awnings, whipping around roller-coaster tracks. You’ll spend very little time on the ground during Sunset Overdrive, with Insomniac making movement the lynchpin of its energetic combat.
Keep still for too long and you’ll get splatted. So instead you whizz across railings armed with a booming phallic shotgun or a machine-gun that fires 12” vinyl records. There’s a scrappiness to it, but Insomniac get many of the details right. Your grind slows as you squeeze the left trigger to aim, or speed up when you need to get out of dodge; collectibles flutter satisfyingly towards you as you pass over them and there’s a generous auto-aim that is appropriate for turning swathes of monsters into goo.
The goal is for constant, uninterrupted momentum, encouraged further by ‘amps’ that power up as your combo meter increases. Evasive rolls become path-clearing attacks, bounces can set off explosions or you can simply have lightning striking the ground at random. Weapons can also be charged with elemental powers, while their makeshift manner (flying bowling balls, harpoons, explosive teddy bears) allows for a different feel to your common-or-garden assault rifle. It makes for a cheerful chaos. Unrefined but boisterous, charged with a bubblegum punk score and a lurid comic-book aesthetic that has the infected going ‘POP’ in letters formed of bright orange blood.
If only the game’s missions had similar pep. Sunset Overdrive’s strong basis is squandered on a parade of fetch-quests and wave-based survival tasks. Your custom-made avatar dutifully performs the role of the video game hero performing busywork for the fellow Sunset City survivors. More often than not this involves travelling to an area, shooting everything until it is dead, smashing up FizzCo equipment or (repeatedly) surviving waves of incoming mutants. The latter is particularly trying as the game progresses, gooey madness descending into messy tedium.
Sunset Overdrive’s fizzy combat is fun but, despite a mixture of enemies —monstrous, human or robotic— it lacks variety that its imaginative arsenal only partly mitigates.
When the game does throw in a set-piece, it shines. Skating up a dragon’s spine as it winds through the city, bounding boss fights against a giant FizzCo mascot or chasing a train as it careens across the city. These are the moments that Sunset Overdrive’s systems snap together as a satisfying whole. It is a pity that the highlights come too few and far between, interspersed with entertaining but repetitive fluff.
What’s galling is that Sunset Overdrive constantly references the fact that it is dishing out trite objectives. The game’s recurring punchline is that everyone involved knows they’re in a video game, with good-natured jibes at tutorials, disembodied voices, magical inventories and general video game flimflammery. There are a few instances that raise a chuckle; respawning via Bill & Ted’s phone booth or battling a Focus Group formed of FizzCo’s robots. But Sunset Overdrive’s humour misses more than it hits. “I feel a fetch quest coming on” grumbles our hero. And sure enough you’re sent off to collect trinkets. This should be a cue for this kind of task to be thrown out, but the game persists, all the while drawing your attention to the lack of imagination on show during the missions. It is misguided at best, irritating at worst.
As is the swearing and occasionally misjudged comedy, aiming for irreverent and hitting inane. I’m hardly squeamish about a few cuss words, but Sunset Overdrive’s gratuitous effing and jeffing smacks of playground bravado (though to the game’s credit, you can turn on a vulgarity filter to bleep it out). For a game that sets itself up as anti-establishment, it tries ever so hard to fit in with the cool kids. Then there are the more egregious attempts at humour, including the joke that hinges on the fact an ex-military man has lost his arms and legs … and nothing else.
Sunset Overdrive’s hyperactive puerility undoubtedly contributes to some of its charm, but it too often misses the mark. Coupled with the repetitive mission structure, it can become too sickly during prolonged periods of play.
As such this is a game best played in short bursts, an enjoyable hour or two spent bounding through the city battling monsters with that excellent combat before blunt-force references to GameFAQs and Reddit start giving you a headache.
But there is a temptive quality to Sunset Overdrive that keeps you coming back. You get the feeling Insomniac know that their game will have a sporadic pull, so have set it up for short doses over a longer period of time. The boisterous Chaos Squad multiplayer can be seamlessly accessed via phone booths dotted around the city and, in a nice touch, you can continue mucking around in singleplayer until you find a match. Once in a game, the mode tends to favour the wave-based survival of the campaign. These missions make more sense in a group, as you work together to fight off mutants but compete for the highest score by keeping your combo meter ticking over. There are also ‘Sunset TV’ billboards scattered around the city that will offer periodic challenges.
It doesn’t lack for content, then, but those looking for something filling and nutritious may feel short-changed by the game’s adolescence and humdrum tasks. But sometimes you simply need a sugary, cathartic snack. Taken under these circumstances, at least, Sunset Overdrive’s giddy blasting often hits the spot.