Sunset Overdrive review – never quite as inventive as it is loud
Sunset Overdrive, for all its nerdy meme in-jokes, Heath Robinson-esque weaponry and explosive bluster, is a game about class. More precisely, it's about the blue-collar fantasy of rising up and stamping on the corporate foot under which you were once downtrodden. It's just that this particular corporate foot commands an army of mutants killers.
In Sunset Overdrive, you play as a rubbish collector for an international drinks corporation, FizzCo, serving the city's unthankful citizens as they guzzle down the company's newest product, an irradiated energy slop called OverCharge Delirium. Unfortunately, a slight oversight with some of the ingredients means that anyone who drinks the stuff transforms into a wart-ravaged monster. Sunset City is immediately quarantined - not by the police, but by FizzCo itself, which hopes to contain the PR disaster - and your aim (as a non-drinker) is to escape by any means possible.
The anti-corporate theme is emphasised by a punk rock soundtrack (there are none of Grand Theft Auto's radio stations to offer a variety of soundtracks - it's all punk, all the time) and there are rewards for smashing CCTV cameras, vandalising billboards, hacking into smartphones and other shorthand acts for rage against the contemporary machine.
Your character moves like a working-class superhero, able to grind elegantly, skater-like along the overhead cables and rails that bisect the city (with a phallic, barking shotgun in hand). He can sprint indefinitely along walls, bounce from the bonnets of cars high into the air and even rip frothily along the surface of water, as if being tugged along by an invisible speedboat.
And it doesn't have to be a he. Although the game is advertised with a male protagonist, players can opt for a woman instead, and all the collectible clothing in the game is gender-neutral.
Shooting through the city
Traversing the city is a thorough delight (and the game's strongest asset), allowing a skilled player to enter a state of immediate flow, moving over and across buildings, rivers and bridges in an uninterrupted string of movement. This is just as well: aside from a couple of missions during which you fly a glider, or ride a runaway train, you're on foot. In this regard, the game improves with time: you steadily unlock new abilities to aid traversals and your journeying becomes ever quicker and less troubled by the laws of physics.
The anti-establishment sentiment does not extend to the game's systems themselves, however, which are melange of ideas (some interesting, others regretfully cliched) pulled from other games that fit into the so-called 'open world' genre. There's the endless collect 'em up busywork borrowed from the Assassin's Creed series (these items, which include toilet rolls and balloon mascots are used to power-up your armoury). There are Dead Rising's comic costumes and madcap weapons, built from seemingly incompatible objects (a grenade launcher that fires explosive teddy bears, a handgun that spits 12' vinyl records). There are Crackdown's athletic side-missions in which you race through parts of the city against the clock (and against other players' high scores). It's a patchwork of well-worn concepts.
Everything you own can be improved through use: weapons level up, and both your character and the guns they wield can be equipped with modifying 'amps', which are activated when you perform the requisite number of stylish tricks while moving about. The cat's cradle of interlocking systems is robust, but familiar. Where Sunset Overdrive's narrative and bright, explosive visual style work so hard to create a sense of irreverence and anarchy (the orange mutant blood spells out 'blam' and 'pop' when their bodies explode under fire), the underlying game is more conservative.
The story and dialogue try awfully hard to achieve a tone of bold irreverence - both lack the assured punch of open world rival Borderlands. The attempts to satirise video game tropes are weak and, again, better delivered in games such as Far Cry: Blood Dragon. Other survivors of the sugary drink apocalypse dole out missions but these characters are built on tired, unmemorable cliches (there are the idiotic rich American private-school kids, the live-action role-playing nerds and so on). The missions themselves are more creative, at their best when they ask you to climb a skyscraper, or ride on the back of a giant Chinese dragon and at their worst when you have to (repeatedly) defend a base from waves of attackers.
Fighting the system
The combat is chunky, and the weapons change its feel in meaningful ways (each one works with differing efficiency on each of the four main types of enemy). The appeal of grinding along a train track rail while blasting passing mutants endures and there's a host of forthcoming extras to maintain interest, including Sunset TV, a weekly video viewed in-game used to broadcast news and issue new challenges and goals. There's also an eight-player co-op mode seamlessly accessible from phone booths around the map, that allows groups to indulge in a variety of siege-like face-offs with hordes of enemies.
Despite these creative flourishes, Sunset Overdrive never quite surpasses the chaotic physics of Just Cause, the coherent style of Blood Dragon or the assured sense of place of GTAV - nor does it manage to draw its story and systems toward a coherent, impactful point. In the end its hero escapes the purgatory of a boring job and successfully wreaks revenge on the judgmental consumers he once served. But the game itself does little to undermine the increasingly over-familiar, open-world establishment, instead quietly celebrating the status quo.
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