Sunset Overdrive review: It's my party
In developer Insomniac's world of Sunset Overdrive, it's not a typical post-apocalypse day unless you're grinding along the open city's railings, power lines and rooftops, bouncing off a truck hood, smacking a mutant with your special guitar that sends out a shockwave of miniature tornadoes and firing a gun that shoots electrified vinyl records, all while making clever wisecracks that shatter the fourth wall.
You may be familiar with the phrase 'if X and Y had a baby, it would be Z.' Sunset Overdrive is no one's baby; it is the act of metaphorical lovemaking itself, and it incorporates ideas, style and gameplay lifted from the likes of Jet Grind Radio, Saints Row The Third, Infamous, Ratchet & Clank and some guy named Cliff who just plain likes to party. And it is glorious, offering something for everyone.
Sunset Overdrive opens with you as one of the few human survivors in Sunset City, a metropolis tainted by an unstable energy drink that turns consumers into mutants. It sounds like the setup for a horror film, but most characters treat the fall of civilization as a chance to party, and Insomniac has used it as a backdrop to justify an over-the-top world full of physics-defying and fourth wall-breaking insanity.
Within the first 5 minutes, the game introduced me - via comic book lettering and a big arrow pointing to my face - as someone who was 'totally screwed.' Within 10 minutes, I was grinding on a railing, going uphill. As my skills progressed, I would eventually be running along walls, dangling from telephone wires, bouncing off cars, dashing in mid-air and leaping to impossible heights. Sure there's a fast travel option, but why use it when virtually nothing cannot be traversed in some way and simply moving around feels so fluid and cool?
The goal of Sunset Overdrive is to escape the doomed city, an objective that becomes increasingly complicated as you meet bands of survivors. They'll help you build an escape vehicle, oh sure they will, but they'll expect you to help them out first. These brothers- and sisters-in-arms are varied and colorful, and include spoiled rich kids, LARPers, a hillbilly gun nut, a militarized version of the Girl Scouts and cheerleader ninjas who paint themselves in Day of the Dead facepaint.
The missions these lovable oddballs dole out are just absurd; one requires you to find a lost dog for a rich girl, only to discover that said dog is a robot, and a damn deadly one at that. By launching a stuffed kitty at an enemy's face, you'll cause robo-dog to tear that poor mutant and anything around it to shreds. 'Much murder,' your character quips, referencing the much-loved/much-loathed doge meme.
A fair amount of the game's humor derives from references like this, and it's all delivered with gusto from enthusiastic voice actors. Some of the jokes are hit-and-miss though, and stand out as a bit awkward. In one mission, you have to rescue a troop leader from the clutches of human bandits. Unfortunately, by the time you get to him, he's lost his arms and legs.
He doesn't seem bothered by this turn of events and his troop respects the hell out of him regardless, but characters nonetheless give him strange looks, and you have to carry his limp, limb-less body over your shoulder to return him back to base. Humor is subjective and the moment didn't ruin the overall experience, but for me, it came across as insensitive to amputees and the disabled.
The energy drink apocalypse was the end for most of Sunset City, but for you, it's a chance to start fresh and be who you want. Hulking brute who wears hand-stitched armor straight out of The Road Warrior; sure thing. Skinny schoolgirl with emo-style hair and big red headphones; go for it. If you ever get tired of your avatar, head to one of your bases and alter yourself at will, even if that means changing your body shape, gender and race. Customization is king in Sunset Overdrive, and player appearance is the first taste of this pervasive philosophy.
Weapons are likewise incredibly varied, both in appearance and function. There's a rapid-fire weapon that launches vinyl albums, a launcher that shoots teddy bears strapped with TNT, a gun with the head of a Chinese dragon that launches deadly fireworks, handheld helicopters with pistols dangling from strings, and more. Sunset Overdrive is an MC Escher painting of comic book violence, with physics taking a back seat to personality and fun.
/Weapons level up as you use them, gaining better stats and unlocking slots that allow you to use what the game calls 'Amps' to customize them even further. As you progress through the story, you'll also be able to use Amps to change your own abilities. Amps come in a bevvy of flavors and effects, from freezing foes or turning them into living bombs to enraging them so they'll fight for you or causing epic lightning storms to randomly strike enemies around you. Each one is exciting to see in action, and their impact on battle feels earned, since you have to play with style - grinding, bouncing, dashing, making mid-air kills - in order to activate them.
While you'll unlock a fair number of Amps just by playing the story, the majority are earned by collecting the required ingredients that are scattered across the city and turning them in at your base. Like the rest of the game, the grocery list for your superpowers is ludicrous and aims to get a chuckle out of you. It includes: toilet paper, stinky shoes (they have to be stinky, you see), FizzCo neon signs, inflatable mascot toys and security cameras. These make up the bulk of the game's collectibles, but rather than solely appealing to completionists, they have weight and meaning. You'll want to collect everything you can, and that's a great feeling.
Turning in your ingredients starts a sort of tower defense-style mini-game, where hordes of mutants charge your home and try to destroy your barricades. Here, you're given traps to utilize in combination with your usual repertoire of weapons and abilities, and strategic placement is key. It's a fun twist to Sunset Overdrive's already-impressive range of mission types, and activating the traps - which include tesla coils, freezing machines and spinning machetes - to witness them decimating crowds of enemies is gratifying.
Lastly, there are six slots for your character's 'Overdrives.' These don't produce the wild effects of Amps, and are instead straight-up percentage-based buffs. If you're the type of combatant who loves to grind and bounce, you'll want to equip Overdrives that give style bonuses to those actions. If you prefer to play Sunset Overdrive more like a ground-based third-person shooter, you'll probably prefer the Overdrives that grant you increased ammo capacity, damage and health. You earn Overdrives by playing the way you like, so it's a self-perpetuating cycle of doing things you want to do so that you can do those things better.
The bottom line is that regardless of whether we're talking about character appearance, weapons, special abilities or buffs, Sunset Overdrive piles the number of options you can choose from sky-high. No matter who you choose to be, what weapons you equip, what playstyle you choose, or how you deck out your secondary abilities, everything feels valid and worthwhile. There is no single best combo of weapons, Amps and Overcharges, only what feels best for you. This was already evident in the game's single-player mode, but became abundantly clear in multiplayer.
Should Sunset City ever feel a bit lonely, you can invite or join seven other human freaks and geeks and take part in Overdrive's co-op multiplayer, called 'Chaos Squad.' In Chaos Squad mode, you take on a series of missions that feel similar in structure to the game's single-player content, albeit on some truly nasty steroids.
Where a single-player mission might toss a few dozen enemies your way, Chaos Squad throws in massive, nigh-immeasurable hordes and bonus objectives. In one Chaos Squad session, my team and I had to defend a nuclear reactor, hack FizzCo computers, spawn and protect our own satellites, destroy barricades blocking a train's path, clear an area of OD, and finally, use traps and teamwork to protect our home base from a nighttime siege.
Each of these objectives was broken up by a short round of voting, where players are given two options for what the next mission will be. Different missions provide different buffs to your character and team, as well as an overall 'Chaos' level. A higher Chaos level means a more difficult final battle, but it also means more chances for rewards like bonus cash, vanity items and weapons, all of which transfer back to the single-player mode.
Like the single-player content, there's a ton of variety in terms of mission structure to keep you coming back for more, the voting and Chaos level systems keep things from getting repetitive, and the chance to win prizes that are actually useful in completing the story makes each Chaos Squad run feel worthwhile.
Even taking out all of the above however, it's just plain fun to see a game that already revels in, well, chaos take its core experience and multiply it by eight. To see fireworks, flames, acid, bullets and more all fly across the colorful cityscape, decimating enemies too numerous to count, all without so much as a hiccup in framerate, is the definition of spectacle.
Sunset Overdrive sets out to create a world where the apocalypse is fun instead of depressing, and that means putting control in the player's hands. Developer Insomniac has given players a sandbox to play in, toys to play with, a treasure chest full of costumes and jokes that lampoon and acknowledge how absurd the whole thing is.
Each of the game's systems feeds into another, making the experience feel complete and purposeful. More importantly, it gives players a plethora of choices in how they look, what weapon they use and how they play, and then makes every single possible combination feel vindicated. Nothing goes to waste in the awesome-pocalypse, and everyone's invited to Sunset City's after-party.
This review is based on the Xbox One version of Sunset Overdrive, provided by Insomniac Games. Joystiq's review scores are based on a scale of whether the game in question is worth your time -- a five-star being a definitive 'yes,' and a one-star being a definitive 'no.' Read here for more information on our ratings guidelines.