Sunset Overdrive Review – On Rails
Sunset Overdrive is Insomniac Games’ latest title, the first from the studio to release on Xbox One. After years spent making Ratchet & Clank games for PlayStation, the development of this game has been an opportunity for the seasoned studio to try something new. In a way, it’s a dream creation, one that has tested the creativity of Insomniac.
Watching pre-release footage, you may be under the impression that it’s a cocktail of several games including Jet Set Radio, inFamous, and even a dash of Crackdown and Saints Row. The truth is that, despite being a new IP, it has succeeded at crafting its own identity. Its personality is one that particularly stands out in 2014, a year well-stocked with games that seem to have forgotten that games are supposed to be entertaining. Sunset Overdrive never struggles with showing that it wants to be playful and fun, making it an exceptional choice for anyone looking for a reason to smile.
My Name is Colorful, Nice to Meet You
Sunset Overdrive is set in Sunset City, a fictitious place where vivid imagery is plentiful. Not only do characters look great, especially in the game’s outstanding cutscenes, but each of the relatively large map’s four districts are distinct in theme. It’s a delight to pass through each area using flashy acrobatics.
In the beginning of the campaign, the protagonist—which you are able to define, so you don’t have to be the lanky guy in the trailers—goes from having a poor, miserable existence, to becoming a hope-bringing hero for a city left in despair by a greedy corporation. That corporation is called FizzCo, and it has manufactured a new energy drink called OverCharge Delirium XT, transforming those who drink it into horrifying mutants.
The main campaign is varied in the tasks it asks you to perform, although there are some sections that make you feel like you’re stuck doing menial tasks without an interesting story arch to support it. Nonetheless, there are several epic moments, some of which involve boss encounters. These boss encounters are huge showpieces that play well into the game’s exhilarating gameplay.
As the plot’s temperament may allude to, Sunset City is a place looking to give you a good laugh. It’s rich with witty satire—akin to South Park and Spaceballs—that’s successful as long as you’re in the mood for its wacky style. This is not a game that takes itself seriously, and as a matter of fact it’s one of the most self-aware games you’ll ever play; you’ll commonly hear dialog that expresses thoughts and feelings you may have while playing the game, referencing the real-world in a way that is tasteful.
Speaking of voice delivery, the voice acting you’ll hear when interacting with NPCs is great. The female lead, voiced by Stephanie Lemelin, stands out as one of the best performances you’ll hear from a voice actress. However, the dialog is doused heavily in profanity. It’s careless about throwing out f-bombs, so you may want to consider enabling the profanity filter in the settings. Hearing a bleep sensor is way more funny, anyway.
The audio and music are a bit hit and miss. While the sound of grinding on rails and firing explosion causing weapons makes Sunset City a great place to spend time, the dynamic music hasn’t been delivered in as great of a package as it could have been. Music will stop when out of combat, making for an eerie experience after listening to percussion-heavy rock and punk during boss sequences. What’s here is completely comprised of these two genres, so hopefully you’re a fan.
Agility is Everything
Traversal is an integral part of Sunset Overdrive. The most common way you’ll get around and avoid enemy attacks is by grinding on rails all over Sunset City. As you may have noticed from game footage, this mechanic is reminiscent of Jet Set Radio. Your character will snap onto the rail at the press of X as long as you’re within close proximity, and you can then hit RB to gain a boost of speed.
Getting around isn’t just done by grinding, though. You can bounce on a variety of objects around the game world, run on walls, swing off horizontal beams, and more. What you can’t do is scale walls like in many action games (i.e. Assassin’s Creed), and the end result is a a unique dynamic to navigation where you can carry high-paced momentum during combat and when going from place to place without anything to stop you. That is, if you’re good enough at dodging attacks and obstacles.
The traversal mechanics don’t exist just for getting from point A to point B, though; staying on the move is critical to avoiding damage during the game’s many firefights. When running around on the ground, enemies will be able to line up long-ranged attacks and melee hits with ease. However, when you’re grinding around at high speed and bouncing off objects, the enemies have a hard time fixing their sights on you. As such, the difference between having a hard time and avoiding punishment comes down to your ability and effort to utilize the traversal mechanics. There is definitely a skill curve present, and you’re in for a good time if you’re motivated to learn.
Related: Sunset Overdrive’s 8 Traversal Moves
To reward you for sequences of great traversal, the game has a Style Meter that builds up as you chain together cool moves. By leveling up in Style, you’ll enable your AMPs (more on these later) making you a force to be reckoned with. You’ll have lightning summoned around you, fireballs thrown when you melee, and even have sharp shards of glass erupt from your point of contact when you Ground Pound. Since it’s based on Style, it harkens back to sports action titles like Jet Set Radio and Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, conjuring some nostalgia in the process.
What’s especially important about Sunset Overdrive‘s traversal mechanics is how they translate into the combat experience. In may other games in the genre, such as inFamous, success comes down to well aimed attacks in third-person, careful positioning, and quick retreat to regenerate health. In Sunset Overdrive, you will never need to go hide behind a wall to replenish your health. Instead, you can become a master of the character’s moves to avoid ever taking damage. It requires awareness and quick movement since every enemy in the game, and there are many of them, has a way of knocking you off a rail. Hurkers will throw objects at you, while OD will climb up and get in your way.
It’s rewarding in a way similar to character action games like Bayonetta, where while it might take an hour or two to get used to, your ability to become familiar with the controls makes you infinitely more effective, making the game more fun and rewarding to play.
These Are No Ordinary Weapons
Insomniac Games’ core competency has always been its weapon designs, and that has benefited Sunset Overdrive greatly. Each of the game’s over two dozen weapons not only bring excitement into the game world, but are a joy to look at in action. For example, one of the first weapons you’ll unlock is the TNTeddy. It functions like a grenade launcher, except that it fires explosive teddy bears. Additionally, the weapon is crafted from a variety of household objects, including a vacuum pump and fire extinguisher. This theme applies to the entire weapon roster.
Using the weapons on the go is a lot easier than it sounds thanks to a lock-on mechanic. In the case of most of the weapons you’ll have a red circle pop up on an enemy when your reticle is near them. All you need to do is tap the trigger to fire at the target, allowing for spectacular, “Xbox record that” worthy shots while on the go. It’s important to keep in mind that projectile based weapons like the TnTeddy have a travel time, so there’s some skill involved when you factor fast-paced movement into the equation.
Weapons are earned in a couple different ways. A few will be given to you for free as part of your campaign progression, but most of them must be earned by collecting Overcharge currency around the game world to buy the weapons. They are fun to collect, and can even be leveled up by using them frequently in combat. Leveling up a weapon enhances it in a few ways, from increasing max ammo—a huge benefit—, to improving damage.
Your character can also melee enemies using weapons like a baseball bat. It’s effective, but not a good idea to employ for killing more than a couple enemies. As mentioned before, you’re highly susceptible to damage when your feet are on the ground.
Options, Options, Options…
There are a variety of ways to customize not only your character in Sunset Overdrive, but your loadout as well. In regards to your character, you can choose from male or female with two body types each. In addition, there are dozens of hair options, hair colors, and more. If you find that your initial character design isn’t as great as you thought it was—I didn’t like the slim male’s animations, for example—, you can very easily switch gender by talking to an NPC that you meet early in the adventure.
Made better, there are hundreds of clothing options to unlock and earn during your journey. Some are cool, others are funny. You’ll be rewarded often for your achievements during your stay in Sunset City, and you might just find yourself spending a lot of time at the customization menu tinkering with your looks.
Options not only come in the form of the superficial, but also with customization in your equipment. AMPs are the game’s form of weapon and character customization, and they range from moderately noticeable to truly impactful. They can be weapon modifiers, such as one that has a small chance of triggering a nuclear explosion on kills, as well as AMPs for your character that activate as you pull off huge combos. There are a ton of these to unlock, and they range in properties. Some are cold-oriented and tend to slow down enemies in an area of effect, while others amplify your attacks with lightning damage and stun enemies in your path.
There are also Overdrives, which are a bit convoluted. They allow you to enhance your character through passive upgrades in small ways, such as being able to earn Style Points a bit faster. They aren’t very fun to define, and aren’t nearly as impactful as AMPs.
To unlock AMPs, you’ll need to purchase them using one of the many currencies scattered around the game world. There are hundreds to find, so you may just find yourself diverting your path often to go collect a smelly shoe or a FizzCo balloon so you can purchase the next AMP you’re interested in.
The Big Picture
Sunset Overdrive‘s campaign is a healthy 12 or so hours in length. Outside of that, you have Challenges and Side Missions. Challenges are focused activities that ask you to attempt to complete an objective as quickly as possible. Earning a Gold medal will always reward you with a new clothing item, in addition to the system being Leaderboard based.
Side Missions are similar to the main campaign missions, but are smaller in size and typically focus on smaller narratives, sometimes with characters that you don’t work for in the Campaign. There are quite a few of them, and in total they add about four additional hours of content.
What makes the biggest difference is Sunset Overdrive‘s Chaos Squad mode, which is the game’s only form of multiplayer—there is no online free roam. You can play in private or public lobbies with up to 8 players total. You’ll race to objectives, try to complete them as a group while contributing as much as possible, and then eventually do a Night Defense mission with traps and swarms of enemies bombarding your base. They’re hectic, and chances are if anything you’ll be drawn to rely on playing them privately with friends after a few matches; eight players feels like too much, actually.
Insomniac Games also integrated Sunset TV into the game, a feature where four dynamic televisions are placed in the game world that stream video feed to communicate with players, and also deliver polls for players to vote on what community challenges come next. If Insomniac executes on this well, it could be the sort of thing that brings people back on a weekly basis to stay involved in Sunset Overdrive for more than just the initial game experience.
Sunset Overdrive is a title that knows it’s a video game, and as a result focuses all its energy on delivering joy and quality laughs. It’s discovered a solution to the often repetitive combat in other open-world action games by constructing a fast-paced traversal system backed by cohesive controls, challenging enemies, and a fantastic library of weapons. It would have benefited from a better soundtracks, though.
Its campaign is fair in length, filled with both epic moments and sometimes routine missions. The play value is bolstered by rewarding side missions, leaderboard challenges, a huge quantity of collectibles, and a well-structured online component that can be overwhelmingly chaotic.
It is uncommon that a new IP with such a unique delivery is this polished and enjoyable. Sunset Overdrive might be the new Insomniac game in town, but it’s earned its keep.
Jonathan Leack is the Gaming Editor for CraveOnline. You can follow him on Twitter @jleack.
Copy provided by publisher. Sunset Overdrive is exclusive to Xbox One.