Sunset Overdrive is obsessed with actively entertaining the player.
The creative energy fueling Sunset Overdrive is an agent of change for a genre in creative decline. Its jubilant deluge of light and color, meaningful revisions to control and combat, and the sweeping diversity of skill-based missions push the open-world paradigm harder and faster than any of its peers. For once, freely accessible content isn't a passive and plodding support structure, but rather a demanding and attractive call for constant engagement.
Sunset Overdrive's assault on genre conformity begins with its approach to player control. Games with incredible and divergent movement options either can't structure content to take advantage of it (like Just Cause 2) or require spans of proficiency too demanding to feel widely accessible (Jet Set Radio, Cloudbuilt). Sunset Overdrive fits its pieces together by condensing its maneuvers to two buttons while still allowing for a considerable variety of actions. Jump is a requisite at this point, but another button is responsible for sticking your character to grind-able surfaces and running along a wall. These seem like fairly standard ideas, but they're employed with ubiquitous resolve through every idea Sunset Overdrive has to offer.
In Sunset Overdrive, movement is everything and they player is intended to always be in motion. Power lines, train tracks, guard-rails, and other applicable surfaces line city streets and open areas. They work in tandem with bounce-friendly surfaces designed to accelerate and facilitate quick movement. You can get a pretty good bounce off of car hoods, door and window awnings, glass roof panels, every area of a boat, and a half dozen other things Sunset Overdrive defines as bounce-worthy. It's a little bewildering at first; none of it actually makes sense, but with quick practice comes the recognition of bounce-applicable areas. Likewise, wall-running is employed as a means of horizontal navigation on larger buildings - and even requires a bit of additional skill thrown in to keep it going. Combined with the air-dash earned mid-game and general proficiency with basic mechanics, you can get wherever going both quickly and stylishly. Basic and otherwise normal ground movement is slow and stunted because, ideally, Sunset Overdrive is played without ever setting a foot on it.
Combat is the mechanism that forces the player into adapting Sunset Overdrive's preferred motion. It's not just that remaining stationary and unloading weapons results in a quick death; it also drastically affects potential and performance. Bouncing on cars, swinging on top of or below power lines, wall running, and weapon variety influence Sunset Overdrive's style meter. Maintaining an active style meter ignites amps, which are special modifications attached to weapons, and overdrives, which are passive abilities to buff your character or de-buffing enemies. Building the style meter through the fluidity and consistency of motion is paramount to performance in Sunset Overdrive's world, especially against higher odds.
Enemy engagement in Sunset Overdrive, either out goofing around or as part of a defined mission, might unfold something like this; I deploy a couple Acid Sprinklers as stationary area-of-effect weapons, melee anyone in the immediate vicinity, hop onto the hood of a car, and fire my Roman Candle gun in rapid succession against normal enemies. My Roman Candle gun, by the way, has am amp attached that occasionally spawns a grim reaper to fight with me. When a larger baddie shows up I jump over to some power lines and throw TNT Teddies - basically contact-activated dynamite – at him as I skate around. Sometimes I'll pull out my Compensator to light him on fire, which enhances the damage of my magnum-like Dirty Harry. In the end I usually pick off any stragglers with my Fizzbot Rifle, which also happens to have an amp that occasionally results in a full-blown nuclear explosion. Combat in Sunset Overdrive is crazy and chaotic, thanks to both contextually insane weapons and its demand for constant motion.
The strength of Sunset Overdrive's real estate, functionally named Sunset City, is responsible for the effectiveness of its combat. Every single area feels designed to respond to active player engagement. It's one of the few open world games that has the confidence to let its world speak for itself, shying away from funneling players into predefined structures or mission-compliant one-off areas. The sheer size of Sunset City doesn't allow for the environmental intimacy achieved in games like Jet Set Radio, but inevitable player competence developed through practicing its mechanics allows for a close imitation.
Sunset Overdrive's narrative might be more self-aware and outwardly crazy than either of the recent Saints Row games. The call to adventure? Everyone in Sunset City consumes a new energy drink and turns into monsters, known as OD. Those that don't turn into monster turn into raiding marauders called Scabs, and compounding all of that is Fizzco's robot enforcers engaging in battle with both sides. In the middle of all of this is the player character, (highly customizable, though I can't picture the protagonist in any shoes other than my petite mohawked African American lady), who has to befriend a collection of rogue standouts amidst the chaos unfolding in Sunset City.
This is an appreciable call to arms, but it’s almost deliberately meaningless in Sunset Overdrive's grand scope. The game celebrates breaking down the forth wall by calling out genre tropes, repeatedly making fun of its own design shortcomings, and simply not giving a shit about logic and consistency. I died a lot in Sunset Overdrive, and every time I would respawn it would be something different; I'd be pressed out of clay, walk out of a coffin like Dracula, be airlifted down, whatever - and it would only reset the mission if it were in the middle of combat. Hell, fast travel is accomplished by your character chugging a beer, passing out, and walking out of a portable toilet when he or she wakes up. I've never seen a game celebrate the weird inconsistencies that define their existence with such unabashed rampancy, and it's better for it. Why try to rationalize a flaming sword fitting inside your pocket when you can make fun of it instead?
For all of Sunset Overdrive's willingness to treat its plot like a videogame, it’s disappointing when it occasionally breaks down into tired references. A gun called the compensator that's shaped like a giant dick is straight out of Saints Row’s playbook. Along similar lines, a guy manufacturing fake drugs of exceptional quality, which culminates in the player character yelling, "science, bitch!" is about three years past due. A Snakes on a Plane call-back is insufferable, as are the times when it drops references to dated internet memes. To be fair there is a lot of spoken dialogue and ludicrous circumstances packed inside Sunset Overdrive, but whenever it boils down to the lowest common denominator it feels like a betrayal of its stated mission. Sunset Overdrive is at its best when it's doing its own thing, not reminding you of something else with easy one-liners.
Sunset Overdrive's narrative delinquency extends out to the context of its missions. Over the course of Sunset Overdrive I found myself collecting shopping carts of exploded pigeons to provide nourishment to a LARP squad's leader. I beat the crap out of a robot focus group that was stifling someone's creativity. I melted down academy awards to forge a sword in a nuclear reactor in a futile attempt to impress luchador cheerleaders. For a late-game sidequest I met the person who hands out in-game sidequest icons and went around collecting excess sidequest icons from NPC's who weren't using them. One of those NPC's put the icon above my head and I had to go beg for money from other NPC's as a parody of myself. Jesus. All of this coalesces, somehow, into a battle against nefarious energy drink manufacturer, Fizzco.
Many of Sunset Overdrive's missions break down into vicious bouts of extended gunplay, but they don't feel worse for wear. It's one thing to simply kill everyone on the field, but another when it’s under the guise of shooting turds jammed inside the filters at a water treatment plant. Along similar lines, one instance required me to defend a boat floating through a canal. I constantly had to leave the boat to go and get cans of garbage to fuel it with, which required environmental awareness - not to mention maintenance of my own mortality. Sunset Overdrive rarely repeats anything, ensuring the context behind encourages constant creativity.
One exception to this rule is Sunset Overdrive's brief dalliance into tower defense, aptly called Night Defense. Similar sequences in Assassin's Creed Revelations and the near entirety of Brutal Legend were met with harsh resistance, but Sunset Overdrive, smartly incorporating its fascination with player movement, makes it work. Weak blockades are minor obstacles to the point you need to protect, but you have the ability to lay all kind of weird traps to keep the enemy hoards at bay. Some operate on remote, like missile launchers and giant spinning blades, but others that freeze enemies or cover them in acid activate when the player jumps on them. The entire arena, of sorts, is outfitted with power lines to grind on, ensuring the player as almost instant access to wherever they need to be. Taken in completely, Sunset Overdrive's tower defense sequences function as a slightly more disciplined way for players to wreck hoards of bad guys.
An aspect of Sunset Overdrive that could go either way for players lies with its obscene amount of collectables. Certain bona-fide collectables, like spray-painting billboards or stumbling upon scenic lookout points, are labeled as such - but others act as currency to buy new weapon amps. Toilet paper wads are draped on telephone poles, stinky shoes are slung over power lines, security cameras need to be blasted away, neon Overdrive signs need to be collected, and Fizzco mascot balloons are floating all over the place. Each currency is designed to test different player skills; mascot balloons always challenge your ability to somehow get higher, whereas neon signs are collected almost exclusively through efficient wall running. I found collecting most of this stuff enjoyable, often going out of my way to pick up anything in sight, but in pure quantity it's the most amount of collectable crap I've encountered since Donkey Kong 64.
More traditional extraneous challenges fill out the rest of Sunset Overdrive. Many are movement focused, challenging the player to blast through a series of skill-based rings as quickly as possible or deploying bombs in set locations. Others task you with melee-bashing the crap out of televisions, efficiently exploding pigeons, or shooting bombs out of the sky on a glider. I aced all of the game's traditional tower defense sequences during the narrative, but there are also a couple more of those composing a few more challenges. There are over fifty in total, none of which are ever required for progression.
All of Sunset Overdrive's moving parts fit together with considerable grace. If you're in the middle of a sidequest and engage a challenge or a story quest, it'll save your progress in that sidequest. Checkpoints never set you back too far, a fact which my character once acknowledged by saying, "Thank god I don't have to do that shit over again." Wall running, jumping, and grinding on rails all flow together remarkably well when hopping around Sunset City, which is kind of remarkable given its vast size. Open world games are usually subject to a requisite amount of jank which we're all sort of used to at this point, but Sunset Overdrive plays like a game rigorously tested and perfected to deny these instances.
If there's any fault with its design, it lies with the weird economy necessary to obtain upgrades. Missions and random skirmish reward the player with both cash and cans of Overdrive. The cash is used to purchase cosmetic upgrades, while Overdrive bears different, mechanical responsibility; it's necessary to buy both new weapons and maps that reveal locations of the menagerie of collectables. After finishing Sunset Overdrive's main quest and every side quest, I was still way short of the amount of Overdrive cans necessary to finish buying the weapons and collectable maps. Main quests are repeatable, but only reward cash - and battles with random enemies on the street rewarded me with barely anything. Unless I wanted to grind for hours, there's no functional way to "get everything" if you're enjoying Sunset Overdrive as an offline experience.
I thought Chaos Squad, Sunset Overdrive’s ambitious moniker for its cooperative/competitive mode, might be a solution for its odd economy. It’s not, unfortunately, but it’s pretty good in its own right. It’s structured a bit like Burnout Paradise, collecting players in one of Sunset City’s districts and tasking them with racing to set points in the area. Once there players can vote between one of two challenges, each of which transitions to a brief competition. Wrecking Balls had everyone smashing wrecking balls on hoards of OD. Fizzco Ambush had us sneaking up on and annihilating a travelling troupe of robots, while Scavenger Scramble placed physical numbers all over rails and canopies, with victory going to whoever collected the highest cumulative number. I envisioned the latter as being the closest Sunset Overdrive really gets to a multiplayer Jet Set Radio, with players contained in a relatively tight area and grinding, jumping, and wall running all over the place competing for literal points.
After a couple challenges, Chaos Squad coalesces into a multiplayer version of Night Defense. By hitting certain extraneous goals during the previous mission, players will have unlocked all sorts of bonuses for the ensuing Night Defense section. These mostly come in the form of percentage changes to the opposition’s health or damage values, with a considerable variety affecting the enemy hoards. What follows is close approximation of a traditional hoard mode, albeit with all the movement-based bells and whistles Sunset Overdrive brings to the table. It’s one thing to have a ton of people blasting away at shared targets, and another when they’re grinding and sliding all over the place in the process. Of the six matches I played we always ended up getting smoked by Wingers, flying beasts that didn’t respond well to ground traps or most of our weapons. In any case Chaos Squad’s blend of competitive and cooperative play is good for its own weapon and clothing unlocks, provided you can hit a score high enough when it all wraps up.
Sunset Overdrive's most striking asset is the visual pallet used to put it all together. It combines Sega's famous late 90's penchant for blue skies with streaks of pastels typically reserved for ethereal Japanese RPG's and molds them into an escalating series of diverse architecture. The Old Factory District looks like it's built out of the infamous Sanzhi UFO houses, emphasizing rustic oranges and yellows. The Harbor District off to the east features an amusement park, tons of canals, and a preference for deep blues and purples. Downtown, which composes most of the final act, is built with challenging verticality in mind, containing those weird urban waterfalls alongside a bunch of skyscrapers. Minus the generic looking creatures that inhabit its confines, Sunset City is a beautiful place - and probably an accurate depiction of our inevitable future dominated by mutative energy drinks.
It’s also important to note what Sunset Overdrive tries to prioritize with its visual load-out. I played Bayonetta 2 in-between sessions with Sunset Overdrive, and the latter almost looks like it’s in slow motion after spending time with the former. Your eyes get acquainted quickly (or I suppose never at all if you’re not regularly subjecting yourself to 60fps games) but the difference is initially alarming. What Sunset Overdrive loses in frames, however, it makes up with in the sheer amount of activity happening on screen. Our Chaos Squad matches were categorically unbelievable, and I’ve never seen a game manage that many autonomous NPC’s and live human beings simultaneously. Sunset Overdrive neither crashed and nor seemed to slow down, cranking out a performance that easily disarms Dead Rising 3 in the numbers game. It also doesn’t hurt that Sunset City is easy on the eyes, making use of damn near every color in the spectrum.
In the end, Sunset Overdrive left me profoundly surprised at the strength of its systems. I've liked a lot of Insomniac’s past work, having playing everything from Disruptor to Fuse with plenty of Ratchet and Resistance in-between, but Sunset Overdrive is the first time I’ve felt like they're really out there doing their own thing. Everything else, save maybe Fuse, has been functionally fine and enjoyable, but I've always felt like Insomniac’s riffing on whatever seems hot at the moment. Creating an open world game in a post Grand Theft Auto V world is no easy task, but with Sunset Overdrive they've made something so willfully different than everything else out there, Watch Dogs and Infamous: Second Son among them. Remember when Gears of War changed the game with a fully functional cover system and was subsequently ripped off by every third-person shooter in existence? Sunset Overdrive's devotion to keeping the player in constant motion feels like a similar paradigm shifting moment. With any luck it'll be The Next Big Thing™.