We built this city on rock & roll – Sex, Guns and Rock & Roll!
Sunset Overdrive has been turning heads ever since the game’s frantic, high-energy CG trailer released alongside the Xbox One’s debut last year. Promising visceral action and a truly unbelievable amount of freedom in the way you navigate the game’s open world, Insomniac Games’ cartoony sandbox title looked to be the perfect digital power trip to fill the Infamous-shaped void in Microsoft’s newest console’s library. While the premise looks great on paper, does this edgy punk rock hyper ballad do enough to set it apart from the pack?
From the outset, Insomniac Games’ spectacularly vibrant and violent trek through the sprawling metropolis of Sunset City seems like a wild amalgamation of disparate parts; with fast and fluid grinding traversal lifted from such classics as Jet Grind Radio and Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater fused with explosive, over-the-top gunplay that would feel right at home alongside Insomniac’s own Ratchet and Clank series. Sunset manages to concoct a veritable witch’s brew of cohesive mechanics to turn the seemingly over-saturated sandbox genre on its head with explosive aplomb, delivering an experience akin to a MTV-produced Mountain Dew commercial directed by Michael Bay after binging on Surge and a pile of Columbia’s finest. If that sounds like a bit much, it is. But Sunset Overdrive revels in its bombastic absurdity. From the game’s arsenal, which is comprised of a fiercely phallic shotgun proudly adorned with a pair of balls and an explosive teddy bear flinging RPG to its explosive punk rock aesthetics, Sunset Overdrive demands your attention, along with a healthy sense of humor, and rewards it by offering one of the most purely enjoyable experiences of this year in what could be the Xbox One’s first true killer app.
The crux of Sunset Overdrive’s experience is found in the main character’s almost supernatural ability to grind and bounce from nearly any surface, essentially turning the game’s massive city into the ultimate destructive playground. The game’s nameless protagonist will battle hordes of OD, former citizens of the city who’ve been inadvertently turned into mutants by the mega corporation Fizzco’s latest energy drink, while grinding down rails, swinging from power lines, and running along walls without ever touching the ground. Hell, you can even run on water and swing from poles like a punk rock Tarzan while butchering hordes of gun-toting Scabs, freak show mutants, and heavily-armed cyborg killing machines. If Infamous: Second Son and Crackdown had you feeling like some sort of urban demigod, Sunset Overdrive will turn that messianic dial to 11 the moment you take on no less than 99 murderous Fizzco robots with a nuclear-forged sword that hurls bursts of fire and lightning.
And that’s one of the game’s tamer moments.
However, before you come to grips with becoming an absolute bad ass, you’ll probably need to commit a bit of time to getting used to the game’s controls. While simply grinding on surfaces and running along walls is easy enough, you’ll have to master traversing the world while swapping weapons, taking precision shots, and avoiding barrages of attacks to make your way through the game. This is largely due to the fact that you’re essentially dead meat when standing still due to the game’s almost punitively slow on-foot speed, which encourages you to utilize your traversal skills to stay in motion. Admittedly, I must’ve played the game’s tutorial level three or four times before successfully making it to my apartment, as performing all of these actions at once had me contorting my fingers as if I were throwing up ancient Egyptian gang signs. Thankfully, it doesn’t take long before navigating the rooftops and rail systems of Sunset City becomes second nature, and after a half hour or so you’ll be able to tackle the biggest baddies while grinding, diving, and bouncing all over the game’s chaotic and colorful cityscape.
In addition to the game’s surreal level of freedom of movement, Sunset Overdrive also offers a staggering amount of customization options. From outfitting your character with goat-headed codpieces, bushy afros, and a wide ensemble of creative killing attire, you’ll have endless fun utilizing the versatile character creation and customization tools to mold your perfect avatar. However, while outfitting your character’s look is a blast, you’ll also have the ability to tailor your destructive repertoire to your liking through amps. These stat-enhancing bonuses can be crafted from parts scattered all around the city. And Sunset City is absolutely littered with these handy collectibles that allow you to augment your abilities and weapons with death-dealing bonuses, as well as boost your max health and resistance to damage from certain types of attacks.
When progressing through Sunset Overdrive’s main story you’ll tread familiar ground as you pick up quests from various factions, including the Fargarthians, a gang of LARPers who believe they’re living in the twelfth century, and a faction of (mostly) honorable samurai boy scouts. These missions begin largely as routine fetch quests, but eventually evolve into epic undertakings like pursuing a speeding train while battling droves of charging mutants, diving headlong into a nuclear reactor to forge a mighty blade for a gang of Puerto Rican cheerleader assassins, and storming the ramparts of a massive theme park castle. My favorite mission culminated with me racing down the tracks of a winding roller coaster, battling gangs of OD while chasing the leader of an opposing gang as he barrels down the tracks in a flame-throwing roller coaster car. After demolishing all but the lead car on the tracks, I had to adorn my hero’s noggin with a huge triceratops mask and charge the oncoming car head-on. The resulting impact ended in a cacophony of adrenaline, explosions, and maniacal laughter. Moments like this are where Sunset Overdrive shines the brightest. Unfortunately, the game could have used a few more of them as the credits come far too soon, with the main story only lasting about 12 hours.
Thankfully, there’s still plenty to do to keep you busy after the story wraps up. After the credits roll you can jump back into the world to take on a wide variety of side quests, which range from taking out gun installations to rescuing civilians and finding hidden items scattered throughout the city. Night Defense missions are a particular treat, which have you setting up traps to defend against an incoming OD assault on a base. You’ll have to utilize a wide variety of defenses, like flame spewing pyro-traps and spinning saw blades to beat back the onslaught while fighting to defend vats of Overcharge for a set amount of time. These missions can prove to be some of the most challenging in the game, with dozens upon dozens of monsters filling the screen. Amazingly, the frame rate remains rock solid even during the most fevered skirmishes.
In addition to the game’s single player campaign, Sunset Overdrive also features an incredibly addicting cooperative multiplayer component. Dubbed “Chaos Squad”, up to 8 players race to complete objectives scattered across the city. These objectives run the gamut from competing to see who can kill the most OD in a variety of ways, stopping convoys of Fizzco robots from crossing a bridge, and towering boss battles. Each of these Chaos Squad sessions ends with a protracted Night Defense mission, and seeing eight players go out guns blazing against a raging army of OD is a sight to behold, with glorious blood, guts, and particle effects filling the screen at all times.
The mode is great fun, though I have to recommend going in with a full party, as playing with less than the maximum 8 players can prove to be quite difficult. It’s easy to see Chaos Squad having some serious legs, especially if more missions are introduced in future DLC to keep the multiplayer shenanigans fresh.
When all is said and done, Sunset Overdrive is a resounding success. Insomniac Games has raised the bar for the open-world genre with its masterful execution, both in terms of giving the player an immense freedom of control while creating a sprawling and vibrant comic book world you’ll want to explore every inch of. With a madcap arsenal of fun and creative weaponry and a great sense of humor and snarky ’90s style, Sunset Overdrive delivers one of the most purely fun experiences in recent memory. While the main campaign may be brief, it certainly left me wanting more. If you only buy one Xbox One-exclusive this holiday season, Sunset Overdrive should be it.
Final Verdict: 4.5/5
Available on: Xbox One (reviewed) ; Publisher: Microsoft Studios; Developer: Insomniac Games; Players: 1-8 (online); Released: Oct. 28, 2014; Genre: Sandbox Action/Adventure; MSRP: $59.99