I expected to hate this game. Since it was first revealed, Sunset Overdrive always looked a little more Poochy than Itchy & Scratchy, the sort of game with a persistently in-your-face attitude that was sure to drag. The focus on hyper-stylised videogameisms, exploding enemies and silly weapons and constant reminders that games can ignore physics and death, all seemed a little overdone. I picked up my controller expecting something dull and rote that wasn’t as clever as it thought it was.
But Sunset Overdrive, as it turns out, is maybe the Xbox One’s best exclusive so far. It is a stunningly designed, incredibly fun, joyously kinetic game. The games it most readily calls to mind are Jet Set Radio Future and Vanquish, masterpieces underappreciated in their time. And yeah, there are a few misplaced Poochyisms throughout the game’s campaign, but when you’re in control the game dedicates itself to you having a good time. It’s utter mania, but it’s mania done right.
Sunset Overdrive’s dedication to good design didn’t full click until a mission late in the game. The first third of the mission isn’t particularly enjoyable, and over-punishes the player for taking a false step or dying. It occurred to me that I hadn’t encountered anything like this in the previous ten hours, and that the game had never frustrated me with harsh mission design before. I beat the section and continued on with the rest of the mission, which saw me grinding up the cooling tower of a power plant and fighting robots with a giant sword that shot fire and lighting all over the place.
Sunset Overdrive is utterly dedicated to your enjoyment. While this could be broadly said to be the goal of most videogames, this one is less concerned with whether you absolutely master it, or whether you want to collect every little trinket, or whether you get anything out of its paper-thin story and largely lame humour. On a basic level, controlling the protagonist – the unnamed result of your character creator machinations – is almost always enjoyable. You start the game with more of your traversal arsenal than the game makes you aware of, with several moves being available well before the game actually tells you about them or explicitly asks you to use them. This frees the game up from the usual slow-trickle approach of games like this, allowing you to discover moves in your own time before later explaining the exact situations in which they’re useful. By the end of the game you’ll have mastered the act of zipping around the city, moves flowing into each other like a perfect Tony Hawk combo.
Sunset Overdrive is a combat focused game in which you’re rewarded for having fun. There’s no button for taking cover, and within the first hour or so of play you’ll unlock the ability to weaponise your dodge move, because that’s the sort of game that is. You can kill enemies running around on the ground firing your guns, but you’ll quickly be swarmed if you do so – you’re better off grinding across any rails you can find, bouncing up high into the air (your innate sense of what can and can’t be bounced on will form surprisingly fast), and just generally being stylish. This will fill your overdrive meter and grant you even better powers…so in essence the most effective way of playing is to go a bit crazy.
This takes what could have been a fairly tedious game and turns it into something extraordinarily enjoyable. Your enemies in Sunset Overdrive aren’t super exciting, but fighting them often is. The opening salvo of bad guys (the OD) are your basic zombie types, fast movers but non-strategic. They attack in huge groups and setting them on fire with your Flaming Compensator shotgun (which, yes, has a pair of balls, because Sunset Overdrive is a bit crass) is more cathartic than it should be.
As the game goes on new enemies are continually introduced, but it’s always new forms of OD that are the most fun to fight. They leap around, they vomit out other enemies, they’re visually interesting, and they’re generally better than the human and robotic enemies that appear in increasing numbers throughout the rest of the game. This is that rare game where dealing with crowds is actually enjoyable, requiring a bit of strategy and forward thinking. While the game can get extremely hectic it’s very rare that it feels unmanageable: enemy area-of-effect attacks are painted onto the environment well before they actually hit, your more explosive weapons can wipe out entire groups in one hit, and there’s often very little penalty for death, your avatar usually respawning back into the action immediately.
This makes for a game that isn’t super challenging, but which remains demanding and compelling anyway. You want to play well to maintain the game’s sense of flow, and because the level design makes it possible to string incredible feats together. This is a hell of an achievement in an open world, and most of the side activities strewn throughout the world are great fun too. Every now and then a side quest asks you to go scavenger hunting, and searching environments for tiny targets to destroy is rarely enjoyable, but most of the activities on offer push the game’s strengths to the forefront.
Sunset Overdrive is very self-assured, and for the most part it knows its own strengths. The writing is rarely as witty as the game seems to think it is, but that ends up being far less of a problem than it initially seemed like it might be. The game isn’t funny on that level, but it finds other ways to plaster a permanent smile onto your face. A year beyond the initial launch of the PS4 and Xbox One, Sunset Overdrive is also the first game that really feels to me like it just wouldn’t have worked on previous systems. Partly it’s the visual fidelity, with the game’s performance remaining rock-solid and only pausing to load inside missions despite the huge number of animated elements that can appear on screen at any given time.
Sunset Overdrive may not be the deepest experience, but it’s a game that shows evidence of immaculate craft. Insomniac Games have always been good at excess, but Sunset Overdrive manages to take a series of absurd ideas and concepts and render them coherent, giving you a playground that constantly rewards your actions. It’s the logical culmination of what the developer started with the Ratchet & Clank series, twisting the drearier aspects of the third person shooter into something bright, cheery and exciting. It’s a game that values the time it asks you to put into it (which will likely be substantial – the campaign isn’t super long but there are lots of reasons to keep exploring and playing the horde-style multiplayer events). Don’t make the same mistake the general public made with Vanquish and Jet Set Radio Future before it – give Sunset Overdrive a look now, before it becomes the centerpiece of numerous retrospectives down the line.
James “Jickle” O’Connor is a freelance games critic, journalist and occasional editor, based in South Australia. His favourite game of all time is The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, and he is absurdly, comically rubbish at most fighting games (except for Killer Instinct on the SNES, which was, incidentally, the first game he ever owned). He has huge soft spots for point and click adventure games, third-person shooters, and Deus Ex.
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