Sunset Overdrive Review: Blitzkrieg Romp

It's the rebellious teenager of the Insomniac library. It doesn't always work the way you want it to, and sometimes it's trying entirely too hard, but Sunset Overdrive is ultimately a good kid when you meet it on its own terms. Our review.

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Sunset Overdrive takes a previously unoccupied spot in the Insomniac library. While Ratchet & Clank has always been kid-friendly fun and Resistance fulfilled the studio's apparent need for adult-oriented dour seriousness, this latest approach falls squarely in the middle. It's the rebellious teenager of the bunch. It doesn't always work the way you want it to, and sometimes it's trying entirely too hard to carve out its own identity, but it's still ultimately a good kid when you meet it on its own terms.

Saturation Settings

The story begins with you, the Player, sighing at the prospect of his go-nowhere job as a garbage collector, while the soft drink company Fizzco holds a launch party for its next big energy drink, OverCharge. The neon-orange goop makes Four Loko look like iced tea, though, when it almost immediately turns the crowd into rabid monsters. The city is quickly walled off, as Fizzco puts its considerable resources into covering up the problem, and trapping survivors inside. Corporations! 

The pop-punk sensibility helps give context to a world that is soaked with color. It's encouraging to see developers using the full palette, now that realism has grown so common that it fails to impress. Instead, Sunset City is saturated with the spectrum, which supports its brash spirit. Even having "sunset" in its name illustrates the idea that we're going to be overwhelmed with warm orange and red hues. The look is loud and audacious, and fits the tone perfectly.

It's equally dolloped generously in the writing, which is extremely self-aware. Occasionally the in-jokes and in-your-face "tude" would go a little too far, and feel just slightly obnoxious. Sometimes I could practically feel the writers winking at me. Still, I found myself laughing more than groaning, particularly at the wide variety of pop-culture-inspired respawn animations. Even with the understood contradiction that this is a large company putting on the trappings of counter-culture, it made for an enjoyably manic ride. 

Ride Till We Die

The word "ride" is especially apt, because Sunset Overdrive is very centered on traversal. Your Player will grind on rails, swing on poles, and bounce across canopies and powerful air ducts to make his or her way around the city. The feeling owes a large part to Ratchet's own rail-grinding segments, but it's much more developed in this open world. Once a waypoint is set, how you get there is entirely up to you. Improvising a perfect line feels more like a great run in a Tony Hawk game than an action platformer.

Improvising a perfect line feels more like a great run in a Tony Hawk game than an action platformer.

As a hazard of how video game progression, the ability unlocking actually works against the quality of the traversal. The first few hours don't really showcase how fun it can be, because without some tools and lessons you can't naturally flow from one point to another seemlessly. The first half of the game involves a lot of great traversal moments, but they're frequently interrupted as you hit the ground and need to find your next point. Once you get more maneuvers, especially an air-dash, the world really opens up and the traversal fulfills its potential.

It plays a large part in the combat as well. If you're on the ground, even pivoting as you might in any third-person shooter, you're a sitting duck. The creatures are just too numerous and powerful, so the only effective way to beat them is to keep using the traversal tools in the thick of combat. Plus, keeping your traversal run going earns you bonuses to make your combat tools more powerful.

This can take some getting used to. Since grinding isn't automatic, you'll need to keep pressing the button prompts and switching directions manually, all while trying to focus your fire on the swarming mutants. It's honestly more than a little overwhelming at first. Even with an extremely generous, perhaps too generous, auto-aim, I found myself wishing for some more automation in the rail-grinding so I could focus on my task. I got more-or-less accustomed to it by the end, and I loved the combination of the two elements when it worked well. Nothing is quite so satisfying as grinding into a bounce-pad and then bursting a gaggle of mutants on your way down. But the learning curve was somewhat awkward nonetheless.

As an Insomniac game, of course, the combat is complemented by a robust and creative weapon system. No one makes an inventive arsenal quite like this studio, and some are more inspired than others. Proximity mines and wide-burst sawed off shotguns aren't exactly unheard of. Even the less traditional weapons fall into normal arch-types. The TNTeddy for example, which spits out bombs hidden in teddy bears, is essentially a grenade launcher, and the Acid Sprinkler is a stationary trap. They're imbued with a little extra liveliness that makes them fun, though. My favorite was the Roman Candle, an auto-rifle that makes firework effects upon impact.

Plus, since weapons upgrade through use, I got the benefit of seeing my preferred weapons keep pace with stronger enemies. Meanwhile, it encouraged me to swap weapons more frequently than I would otherwise, to help gain more experience for some of my less used (but potentially useful) weapons.

Custom Ink

All of this is even further augmented by a fairly deep customization system. Traversing the world and downing enemies earns you Overdrive badges, with various passive effects that can be upgraded. You can also gain Amps, which can be used to enhance your weapons or give your hero extra abilities.

You get Amps by taking part in tower defense challenges, which have you set up traps and then use your full array of weapons to fend off waves of monsters while the Amps cook. These can be pretty overwhelming at first, but once I had a handle on the interlocking systems it was a nice change of pace that yielded decent rewards. 

Character customization is more limited. Though it has a wide variety of outfits and accessories to wear and purchase using in-game cash, it only offers four body types: petite female, average female, average male, and hulking brute male. It does offer several faces, but these are pre-set and only let you tweak elements like eye or hair color. I presume this is mostly a product of the new generation, as this certainly isn't the first game to strip down customization elements from the norm of the prior consoles. It seems to let the developers exercise more control and assure all the faces look great, but it's limited compared to what we might expect from last-gen games.

Getting the Band Together

The multiplayer mode, Chaos Squad, takes full advantage of the game's breakneck pace. Most of the individual pieces are standard faire--defend this point, or take down some mutants. The twist comes in how they all link together. Rather than simply start parts automatically, finishing one objective starts a race to the next mission start point. The first player to arrive, by best utilizing the traversal tools, gets a bonus.

Each mission has its own extra bonuses for completing certain objectives, and all of it counts toward a cumulative score. Some objectives are cooperative, and others are competitive, making a nice mix of unpredictability. It all leads to a large group tower defense style match, after which all the scores are tabulated and rewards are doled out. It's not a remarkably different experience than a lot of open-world multiplayer modes, but Insomniac found a way to give it more connective tissue.

Conclusion

Sunset Overdrive is a very different kind of game for Insomniac, but it trades well on all the experiences that brought the studio here. Fans will recognize its knack for inventive weaponry and nicely-designed traversal, but the two haven't been joined in this way before. Those elements make this rebellious teen something special that even its sometimes overwrought attitude can't dampen.


This review is based on a Xbox One download code provided by the publisher. Sunset Overdrive will be available in retail stores and on the Xbox Store on October 28, for $59.99. The game is rated M.

Editor-In-Chief
Review for
sunset overdrive
8
Pros
  • Excellent world-building with rich, colorful environments
  • Robust weapon system
  • Traversal works smooth as silk in late-game
  • Traversal-combat combo feels satisfying
Cons
  • Some humor tries too hard to be punk
  • Traversal-combat has a awkward learning curve
  • Limited character customization
From The Chatty
  • reply
    October 27, 2014 12:01 AM

    Steve Watts posted a new article, Sunset Overdrive Review: Blitzkrieg Romp

    • reply
      October 27, 2014 12:26 AM

      Thanks, sounds like it's reviewing well elsewhere too :

      IGN 9/10
      Eurogamer 8/10
      Polygon 9/10
      Joystiq 5/5

      Can anyone talk about it that has it now the NDA has finished.

      • reply
        October 27, 2014 12:55 AM

        this + lords of the fallen, it will be a good (expensive) week.

        • reply
          October 27, 2014 1:41 AM

          I haven't even paid attention to that game at all, shame no reviews yet.

          Really think Sunset Overdrive did a good job with being confident with their game and letting people stream it (under NDA). But also having reviews out before release date.

    • reply
      October 27, 2014 11:07 AM

      Nice, really looking forward to Sunset Overdrive tomorrow and Lords of the fallen.

      Tuesday will own.