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Sunset Overdrive: A Review
Sunset Overdrive was released on 28th September in North America, and 31st September for Europe for Xbox One exclusively.
Growing up on British comics like the Beano and Dandy, chugging down Coca-Cola like there's no tomorrow and living for video games, it's no wonder that I fell deeply in love with Insomniac Games' Xbox One-exclusive intellectual property. A game that combines the openness of Xbox 360 exclusive Crackdown, with the movement mechanics of Sega's Jet Set Radio and the wackiness of Playstation's Ratchet and Clank is a combination that no semi-maniacal gamer should miss out on. Not only is it a title that does a good job in satirising gamer culture and takes a shot at social commentary (though not as subtly as Grand Theft Auto 5), its humour helps cement solid gameplay mechanics like a fizzy drink that's been spilt between the two and has been left to dry. Bad analogy I know, but I'm trying to keep within the carbonated soda theme here.
Sunset Overdrive looks to be all rainbows and sunshine at first, a less adult Tony Hawk's Underground one might think, but it's not afraid to take more adult and serious approaches to its story and gameplay. The best way I can think of it is a cartoon show for adults; the aesthetic would please a child, but there's enough swearing to make a sailor blush. Without spoiling the story - which you cannot begin to understand how hard that is -, the game takes place in Sunset City where a new fizzy drink is being released to the public. What seems like a harmless boost to your stamina quickly turns its consumers into mindless, savage zombies that thirst for Overcharge Delirium XT and human flesh. I have no doubt in my mind that Insomniac wanted to make an even more modern commentary of our consumer practices than George A. Romero's Dawn of the Dead, and while it's not particularly artsy about it, it made me reconsider drinking that can of cola sitting innocently on my table. Your character starts as a part time assistant for the launch of FizzCo's new beverage, but upon seeing the start of the Awesomepocalypse, they don't take much time to adapt to the changes of the now rundown Sunset City.
IG want you to be whoever you want to be, and while this phrase is common in video games that have customisation, I find they really mean it here. Character creation is not only extensive to begin with, but also has numerous unlockables to help you express yourself better and perfect your avatar. Testing the bounds of Overdrive's creativity was no easy task, as I could make all kinds of combinations varying from bearded women to overly muscular male ballet dancers. Before release I had ideas of creating a burly, ginger-haired transvestite but I had to settle for a slim, bearded male in a makeshift schoolgirl's outfit - my dreams of fatness in this game won't be realised without DLC, I think. What's better is that any and all combinations of clothing, head-joys and weapons look stunning, and it's always great to see effective matching items that aren't of a particular 'set' or just a crazy mish-mash of clothing - either way you'll catch your team's eye in cooperative.
Sunset also offers other ways of customising your character through weapons and upgrades, and having experienced Insomniac's handiwork with Ratchet & Clank and Resistance, it was no surprise that the weapons and their modifications make me squeak like a nine year old girl getting a pony for her birthday. My initial worries were confirmed, that the TNT Teddy really was just a grenade launcher; that the Roman Candle was a rapid firing firework launcher; that the Dirty Harry was just the most powerful handgun in the world. What makes these more interesting than their visual appearances is the weapon Amp system. Amps are upgrades for different situations, and when applying them to weapons they can enhance them to do different things. These buffs will almost always have a percentage of triggering their effect, but when it happens - even amongst the midst of explosions and glitter - you'll be proud to have used that amp. Freeze rounds, stun rounds, knockback, chances of dropping a health kit and chances of returning ammo are just a few things that make the weapons more than glorified machine guns and grenades, and there's never a time where you'll feel as though you need to choose a particular build for the best results as it really depends on your preference. Nice to see that in a shooter.
While there are a handful of factions that understand the importance of cooperation, there are those who just want to get in your way. Sunset City is wrought with the mutant 'OD', the Overcharge-addled zombies that serve to hinder your progress in leaving the island. While originally I hadn't enjoyed the lack of mutants revealed, there were a few more that made SSOD more tolerable. The monotony of the standard mutants is broken up by Poppers, which can explode should they get close to you (followed by the word 'pop!' in massive orange juice); Blowers which can use leafblowers to fire a toxic gunk at the player from afar; Hurkers, whose purpose is to throw heavy punches and soak tonnes of damage as well as a rare strain of mutant that can fire icy projectiles at the unwary survivor. While mowing them down is fun at first, no amount of mutant types can prevent them from boiling down to requiring the same strategies to avoid and destroy. Blowers and the icy mutants work in exactly the same way, except the latter's projectiles stick to surfaces and can still do damage after being deployed; Hurkers are still the Tank archetype of any zombie game you've played, and the mutants do little that separate them from any generic walking dead you've come across in movies or video games. Despite Insomniac's efforts, the OD aren't all that interesting and become little more than a nuisance. With this said, is it any wonder that the human and FizzCo enemies fall flat too? They really only consist of gunners, melee-attackers and rocket launchers, the only difference between those two factions being that the second I mention has more health. From the makers of creative enemies in Ratchet and Clank, I'm not wrong to expect more.
In spite of my criticisms of Sunset Overdrive's enemies and its combat which weighed on me eight hours in, it's fun factor is carried by a considerable amount of time thanks to its traversal mechanics. Sunset has you grinding on rails and powerlines; running along walls and around other vertical surfaces; swinging from lamp-posts as well as bouncing off cars and mattresses to make your way around. Being on the ground is no fun whatsoever thanks to a lack of speed and easily getting swamped by enemies. Playing 'the floor is lava' for the entire duration of the game can get exhausting, but when you're fresh into the game you'll love it. The learning curve takes something of a climb too - having to learn how to control oneself in the air is the first step, as well as the different directional controls when grinding; then knowing how to build up style with traversal, before planning routes to get Ultimate Style and destroying enemies simply by moving is well worth the investment. Add to that the crafting components found around the world to make Amps that require traversal skills, and you can have yourself an amazing time just travelling on foot. It almost makes you wonder why fast travel is an option.
While the core of the gameplay is above average, its quests fall flat and won't be forgiven by even the most overcharged delirious player. Fetch quests are bad enough as is, but when most of the game is spent getting items or searching for someone of importance, I had to keep my playtime to one mission per session or I'd burn myself out. It's not all bad though, considering the dialogue will help you ignore the mundane requirements for quests plus some of the means of finding said items will keep you sane. There also seems to be a distinct lack of boss fights, as the only one I can recall to a letter was the battle with the gigantic Fizzie - FizzCo's mascot -, which truly showcased the chaos and graphical capabilities of this game. Alas, it appears halfway through the game and is one of the few memorable moments I had with questing. More of these fights, as well as more escort quests (yes, SSOD does them well) would have been dandy.
Sunset Overdrive's quest model feels like it's there just to tell all the jokes, and this game deserves that right. Insomniac's writers have done a great job taking the mickey out of gamers without insulting them, as well as tropes such as invisible walls, NPCs getting to questhubs immediately after a cutscene and poking fun at other video game genres. There's a fair few jokes that don't work, mostly when it comes to character chemistry, and some of the pop culture references just didn't need to be there at all. The game does its humour well, but it has to remember it's a game first and foremost, and it has to have both that and decent mission design.
For those who need their multiplayer fix, one can turn to photo booths around the world to partake in Chaos Squad, the game's Horde survival mode. As fun as it could've been, I'd played enough in single player to be unable to fully appreciate it in the cooperative aspects, as Night Defence was the only mode I could find players for. Night Defence has players hold an amp creation device, and the longer it survives, the better rewards you can get - money, overcharge and upgrades for your weapons or character. My only real problem that wasn't due to burnout was that the difficulty doesn't scale with players, so going in with few friends means you'll have to give it your all. What fun I did have was mostly down to seeing other player characters' creations and boy were there some good ones.
Visually Sunset Overdrive is one of the best games I have ever laid eyes on; not thanks to its resolution and framerate (900p and 30-40FPS), but its art style proving once again that this generation of consoles requires an appealing art style rather than one that looks aged the moment it releases. This game isn't afraid to load cannons with paint cans and fire them across the city, as it's perpetually day with bright lights and deep colours (with the exception of Night Defence, which looks just as good)! As a fan of Super Mario Sunshine, my enthusiasm for exploring Sunset City peaked, and with extensive, fluent animation work it was enjoyed all the more.
The game's soundtrack was also stunning.... when it played. There were times when I had to kickstart it, where it wouldn't play until I'd built up my style and traversal combos, but during missions there's a truckload of tracks that had me headbanging as I was blasting away the OD! If only there were a soundtrack CD, and I reckon I could've had my own IRL awesomepocalypse.
Final Verdict: A little less than anticipated
Despite everything that Sunset Overdrive does right on paper; the traversal mechanics, the weapons, the amps, style, the humour, the artwork and sound design, it just doesn't feel as awe-inspiring as it should. The quest model could do with some major improvements as most missions were forgettable, and really only existed because the story was so lengthy. Playing just the campaign felt like I'd got my £40's worth easily, but I became fatigued chasing after other miscellaneous missions and side-objectives in one of the best open worlds I've ever played. SSOD is a great game yearning to happen, but this one doesn't do anything to make me want to play it past its campaign, and because of that it's a three star game on the Johnbonne-recommendation-o-meter.
What fun you have with this game will equal - if not top - your best next-gen experiences this year, and I hope that a sequel does Insomniac's IP the justice it truly deserves. The idea is four, if not five stars, but I'm done paying for ideas and concepts alone. If you own or plan on buying an Xbox One, getting your orange bubo-ridden claws on this game is priority one, but it's not nearly enough to encourage the purchase of the console for it. A great idea that was executed well, but it needed to be perfect for it to remain on my game shelf.
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