Insomniac Games has been responsible for creating great exclusive software for the PlayStation brand over the years. With franchises like Spyro the Dragon, Ratchet & Clank and Resistance earning both critical praise and impressive sales numbers, it’s easy to see why Sony has held the developer so close to the chest. That’s why it was particularly shocking to learn during E3 2013 that Insomniac was busy working on Sunset Overdrive, a game exclusive to the Xbox One. After the multiplatform disappointment that was Fuse, we’ll admit that we were a bit concerned that Sunset Overdrive wouldn’t deliver an apocalypse as awesome as it was advertising. But now that we’ve dressed in punk rock attire and survived hordes of energy drink addicts, we can joyously exclaim that Insomniac’s first Xbox-only effort might be its best.
If you’ve been exposed to trailers or gameplay videos – any footage, really – you’ll know that Sunset City isn’t your average setting for a video game. It’s a vibrant and strikingly colorful open world that bears a slight resemblance to Jet Grind Radio. It’s also a city with a problem – a big one. After the beverage manufacturer Fizzco launches their latest energy drink exclusively in Sunset City, anyone that has consumed the substance turns into mutants called OD and all hell breaks loose. Your – you play as a custom character – motivations are to seek out other survivors and do what you can to escape the rapidly decaying town. It's a story less about major plot points and more about interacting with ridiculous characters. The anything-goes sense of humor and rebellious attitude probably won't be to the liking of everyone, but the game is so enthusiastic about what it does that it's hard not to be entertained by it.
Getting around town is all about grinding, bouncing, wall-running, and other flashy acrobatics that keep you mobile. These core mechanics make traversal an incredible thrill, so much so that it’s common to lose track of the agenda at hand because you’re too busy treating the city as your own personal jungle gym. Whether it be by riding on power lines, springing off cars or dashing along the sides of buildings, it’s best to string moves together to stay in motion and off the ground. Residing on the pavement slows you down considerably and leaves you vulnerable to OD that will swarm before you can even taunt them with a “come at me, bro.” It’s a unique design choice that forces flashy and exhilarating open-world navigation to make for something constantly involving and arguably more satisfying than Tony Hawk or Jet Grind Radio ever were.
Marrying gunplay with the aforementioned mechanics further serves to stimulate and ensure there’s beautiful chaos all throughout Sunset City. While it might take some players a couple hours to get a confident grip on the skate-‘em-up gameplay, thanks to snappy and precise controls, it shouldn’t be much longer before you’re shooting down enemies – even during transitional maneuvers – like a pro. The expansive arsenal of off-the-wall weapons (which is something Insomniac is known for) accommodates all styles of players, and they’re also responsible for a surprising degree of strategy in the combat. This is because each weapon has varying levels of effectiveness against the numerous kinds of baddies in the game. And, not only are there in-your-face offensive guns, there are also deploy-and-forget contraptions for defensive needs. How you choose to approach each fight is, well, up to you.
Adding another layer of personalization and panache to a great foundation are Amps. These secondary abilities can be attached to weapons or equipped to the player to add an extra boosts to offensive tactics. For example, while one will cause melee attacks to be accompanied by fireballs, another provides the chance that bullets will occasionally electrocute their targets. There are bunches of these to acquire, all with diverse powers. To use them, though, you’ll need to fill your Style Meter by stringing together combos and doing flashy things, so be sure to showboat your skills every chance you get.
So what's the reason for utilizing all the cool moves and killer weapons at your disposal? There are numerous types of activities, actually, and they come in the form of story missions, optional quests, and challenges. Story missions typically revolve around helping the different factions of survivors throughout Sunset City, so they, in return, will help you. Quests function in the exact same way and can often be just as substantial as the story missions. Majority of the objectives rotate between fetch quests, protection, and extermination missions, and while that may sound repetitive, it’s really not. Insomniac does a fantastic job shaking up the circumstances and incorporating unique variations on the expected formula to keep things fresh and interesting. Fly a glider with homing missiles to shoot down a Fizzco blimp, help pull a boat through a waterway while simultaneously protecting and repairing it, and even initiate catapult strikes with a single button press while engaged in standard combat – there are plenty of memorable moments to be had.
Challenges come in many flavors and can be found in heavy numbers throughout the city (there are 54 total). There are Traversal, Points and Weapon Challenges, as well as a couple other variations, and these short activities are highly addictive and beg for replays. Each one allows you to not only score medals and earn rewards, but there are leaderboards attached so you can make an effort to outdo your friends. Traversal Challenges were easily our favorite considering they ask you to put your parkour skills to the test. With controls and mechanics as tightly tuned and satisfying as they are in Sunset Overdrive, anything that rewards you for zipping around like Tony Hawk with superpowers is alright in our books.
If you're the type drawn to social situations, you'll be happy to know that Chaos Squad, the 8-player online multiplayer mode, is actually a lot of explosive fun. Here, players will venture from one objective to the next, working together to wipe out waves of enemies, deliver packages, or enact the stylish kills specified on screen. After a number of rounds you'll then be placed into a Night Defense Mission, which is all about protecting vats of Overcharge from the imposing flood of OD determined to guzzle it down. This mode isn't anything we expect to be holding the attention of players for the long term, but it's way more enjoyable than you might expect, and it serves as a solid means of reeling in loot and other goodies.
When first being let loose within the city, we were a little concerned that the world was going to be too empty to be interesting outside of the exciting traversal mechanics and visual allure. The problem was that there didn’t seem to be many missions or a prominent enough enemy presence to make it all that engaging beyond the surface. But worry not — after you're gently eased into things, all kinds of missions and activities will open up and the streets and rooftops gain more and more hostile inhabitants. It’s not long before the surroundings come to life in a big way, and there’s plenty to do to keep busy.
One of the most impressive things is that every one of the missions and events takes place within the open world. You’ll never be transplanted into linear corridors that only exist for the sake of the mission at hand (like you would in the Arkham series), nor will the rest of the city cease to function while you’ve activated a particular mission. In many situations you can have a mission initiated but still scrounge around town for collectibles, deviate to buy ammo at a shop, or even finish up another active quest. There’s a lot of freedom here, and it works really well. It doesn’t hurt that, because everything takes place within this one giant space, there are virtually no loading times; basically, once the city has been loaded upon booting the game, it never has to load again. Even the cutscenes, which are in-engine, trigger almost instantly.
During the first half of the game we didn’t run into any technical issues, which was surprising given the scope and amount of action that occurs within the open world. In the second half, however, there were minor hiccups – music not starting, random slowdown, and other oddities – but none significant enough to interrupt gameplay. From what we could tell, these minor issues could easily be smoothed out with a patch. But by and large, Sunset Overdrive is a highly polished and technically impressive video game that takes advantage of the power under the hood of the Xbox One.
Being crystal clear, Sunset Overdrive had us smiling from ear-to-ear throughout the entirety of the 20 odd hours we spent with it. In that time we completed all story missions, side quests, tracked down all collectibles, and finished about half of the challenges. From the extensive character customization options to the wacky factions (samurai Boy Scouts, larpers, entitled rich kids), there's so much personality and flamboyance around every turn that it's tough to avoid being sucked into the spectacle of it all. And why would you want to resist it? Sure, the F-bombs and in-your-face attitude can be a little much, but being in the presence of a game that's having such a good time being itself is contagious.
Insomniac Games has stated many times that Sunset Overdrive is the game they’ve wanted to make for years. It’s supposedly a representation of the staff’s collective personalities and their diverse creative influences all jam-packed into one game. Usually when you hear statements like those – especially when it comes from the company’s CEO – it’s interpreted as a salesman working his salesman magic. In the case of Sunset Overdrive, however, it feels entirely true. This is a game that is what it wants to be. It’s I-don’t-give-a-damn punk rock. It’s a celebration of creative game design. And, most importantly, it’s insanely fun. They (the industry) don’t make ‘em like this anymore. They should, but they don’t.
Want to know how to make a truly great game? Provide players with a liberating and energetic method of traversal, create an eye-popping urban environment that serves as a massive playground, and do everything you can to promote uninhibited fun within that space. That’s the essence of Sunset Overdrive, and it’s why we think this is arguably the best new IP so far this console generation.
If you own an Xbox One, this is a must-have game.