Sometimes it seems like we’ve lost sight of the fact that video games are supposed to be fun. That they don’t have to teach us anything, don’t have to say something about the human condition, don’t have to be art. Which is why the acrobatic, open-world, third-person shooter Sunset Overdrive — which Insomniac have made for the Xbox One — is such a breath of fresh air.
Or, rather, it would’ve been if the equally unabashed and unapologetic fun Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel! hadn’t come out two weeks before. But you get my point.
After a tainted energy drink turns the good people of Sunset City into mindless mutants, it’s up to you to clean up this one horse town. Which, of course, means shooting a lot of things…just not in the way you might expect.
Or maybe you would. From the get-go, Sunset Overdrive feels like one of Insomniac’s Ratchet & Clank games, albeit one that’s less puzzling and is decidedly more punk rock than pre-teen. Especially when you realize that Sunset City can’t possibly be on planet Earth. Not only will jumping on a building’s air conditioner send you flying, but you can also bounce off umbrellas, awnings, dumpsters, and the roofs of cars like they were trampolines. And that’s all before you learn to wall run like you’re the male heir to the kingdom of Persia.
Sunset Overdrive also recalls Ratchet & Clank — and the Resistance series, and every other game Insomniac have made over the past twelve years — by arming you with all manner of sadistically crazy weapons. You shoot vinyl records at high velocity with the High Fidelity gun, toss out exploding stuffed animals with the TNTeddy, and deploy adorable acid sprinklers with the, uh, creatively named Acid Sprinkler (though you also get to make punks feel lucky with the relatively conventional Dirty Harry pistol).
But while those games were more linear and driven by their stories, the open world of Sunset Overdrive — which is full of random battles, collectibles, and numerous side quests and skill challenges — makes it feel more like a playground, not unlike the Crackdown games. Though unlike Crackdown and other games with an open structure, those chance encounters, collectibles, and secondary objectives aren’t all just busy work, they actually improve your abilities, which you’ll need to do for when things get tough later on.
Then there’s the overall visual style and tone of Sunset Overdrive, which is so over-the-top and silly at times that it makes this look and feel like Saints Row IV or Dead Rising 3 (though it’s not as ribald as the former or as blah as the latter). It also has a great, referential sense of humor that, because it’s so video game focuses, is not just Simpsons-esque, it’s Simpsons Game-esque.
Where Sunset Overdrive manages to differentiate itself from those and other games is by keeping you in constant motion. While you can stand and fight, you won’t last long, as the mutants will quickly overwhelm you; as in Dead Rising, their numbers are unlimited. Your best bet is to keep moving and to stay above the fray by bouncing around and surfing wires à la one of the early inFAMOUS games. You can even hang off wires like you did in BioShock Infinite. But all the grinding and bouncing doesn’t just keep you out of harms way, it keeps you lookin’ good as well. And when you look good, your style meter goes up, which automatically unlocks modifiers that make your weapons even more effective. This, in conjunction with the fact that you can’t carry a lot of any one ammo type — which means you have to constantly change weapons — does a good job of mixing things up within every gun battle.
Sunset Overdrive also mixes things up when it comes to how you get into those gun battles. Besides having you run errands for your friends, you also have missions where you have to defend the ol’ homestead like you’re playing “Horde” mode in Gears Of War, complete with the ability to set up traps. Being acrobatic also, at times, makes for some engaging platforming missions as well.
Of course, all of this would be for naught if Sunset Overdrive didn’t have solid mechanics. Not only does it have taut, responsive controls, but the targeting — which is often a challenge in a third-person shooters — is thankfully augmented by a slight auto targeting system, not unlike the one in the Halo games. It also does a good job of letting you know what to do next, something a lot of open-world games don’t bother doing.
As much fun as Sunset Overdrive may be, though, its not without its problems. For starters, your character doesn’t know how to switch from one gun to another very quickly when the first one runs out of ammo. I also wish, when you’re on the ground, that you’d run a lot faster than the slow trot you do now.
Then there’s the lone and just terrible online mode “ChaosSquad.” In it, you and seven other people competing to see who can complete specific challenges the best, followed by a frantic “Horde”-like battle. But while those final fights are engaging, most of the challenge parts are dull. In one, no joke, we had to see who could break the most boxes. Even worse, with this game’s inventive weapons and movement mechanics, Sunset Overdrive just screams out for such more conventional online modes as “Deathmatch,” “Team Deathmatch,” and “Capture The Flag.”
Sunset Overdrive also has a problem that’s so common these days that I now just cut and paste this paragraph into almost every game review I do (seriously, go check): some of the type is too small. Unless you sit really, really close to your TV — y’know, like your mama told you not to — you’ll have a hard time reading your mission objectives, the captions, and some other text.
Ultimately, though, the biggest problem with Sunset Overdrive (though it’s also one you can easily avoid) is that it gets to be a bit samey after a while. While this has tons to do, if you play for more than two hours or so, you might find yourself getting a little bored because all of the missions — be they part of the story, a side quest, or a skill challenge — are just variations on the same theme, just in different proportions.
But the thing is, you won’t notice it as much if you play in small doses, say for like an hour or two as opposed to four or five. Because if you do, you’ll find that Sunset Overdrive is engaging, ridiculous, and just plain fun. Sure, it’s not deep or philosophical, and won’t change the way you view the world and your place in it, but as the unholy spawn of Ratchet & Clank, inFAMOUS, Crackdown, Dead Rising, BioShock Infinite, The Simpsons Game, and Saints Row IV, it’s a damn fun game. And don’t you forget it.