Sunset Overdrive review: agent orange

Sunset Overdrive is contagiously enthusiastic

Game Info
Platform Xbox One
Publisher Microsoft Studios
Developer Insomniac Games
Release Date Oct 28, 2014

Sunset Overdrive feels like a game that someone wanted to make.

Emphasis on "wanted," there. Many games feel like well-assembled concepts that someone thought would be a good, successful idea, and several of those end up as good, successful games. But it's rare that I play a game that feels like it was driven by heart and a desire to make something specific, that only a specific collection of people could accomplish.

After almost a decade of making Ratchet and Clank games and three installments of the first-person shooter series Resistance, developer Insomniac's last chance at making something new resulted in 2013's compromised, muddled Fuse, an action game in search of a soul. But by mixing superhero acrobatics, a skateboard-inspired sense of environmental navigation and a unifying sense of humor and style, Sunset Overdrive demonstrates a surprising amount of inspiration and, well, heart.

Sunset Overdrive's premise is gleefully stupid

We'll start with the premise, which is gleefully stupid: In a rush to get a new energy drink named Overcharge to market, mega-corporation Fizzco skimps on the appropriate testing. At an early launch party thrown in Sunset City, revelers get more than they bargained for from the drink in the form of monstrous, unstable mutations, and it's all your janitor self can do to escape from the scene alive.

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Meanwhile, Fizzco goes full damage control, walling off the city and trapping you and other survivors in place to be torn apart by the mutant Overcharge drinkers, or "OD," killed by opportunistic human survivors who want to steal your stuff, or wiped out by Fizzco's robotic cleanup solution. And somehow, Insomniac has made this catastrophe look like the most fun anyone has ever had.

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Sunset Overdrive is a punk-rock rendition of the apocalypse. Instead of a dark game set against a backdrop of horror, Insomniac has created something fiercely bright and alive and, more often than not, pretty funny. In a fall season full of self-serious interactive narratives, Sunset Overdrive is unabashedly a Game.

There's third-person shooting that will be immediately recognizable to fans of Insomniac's previous work in the Ratchet and Clank series. Almost every weapon is a joke, and using it is the punchline — from the explosive teddy bear gun to a weapon that deploys Fizzco mascot-shaped sprinklers full of acid.

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Looking at the game from a distance, the shooting might seem like the point, and if it were, it would be an exercise in competence, not excellence. The OD blast apart and disintegrate with comedic enthusiasm, and you can experiment with a fairly large complement of guns. But judged against other games that focus primarily on their bullet-to-bullet performance, Sunset Overdrive is only ever "fine." So it's a good thing that weapon combat is only a small part of something much larger, and everything starts to click once you leave the ground.

Learning what you can do and when to do it takes time

Sunset Overdrive emphasizes constant, aggressive movement — in fact, I was double jumping and riding rails on my heels before I ever picked up a gun. At first, the game threw so many different means of interacting with the environment so quickly that I felt overwhelmed. And at least at first, I found it sometimes annoying learning how to get the camera to show me what I needed to see.

Don't get me wrong — it's not that the doing is hard. Grinding on rails is as simple as tapping X when you're close, and Sunset Overdrive will conveniently pull you just a little bit toward objects you can ride when you hit the button. Even the camera becomes much less of an issue with practice. Insomniac has smartly made the basics easy. But knowing when to do what, and where you can do it, takes time.

But once I got the hang of Sunset Overdrive's traversal, it revealed a quickly escalating sense of freedom and mobility. In fact, Sunset Overdrive might owe its biggest debts to the extreme sports games of the early '00s: Nearly every surface feels like an elaborate invitation to navigate it as aggressively as possible in an ongoing string of tricks and death-defying stunts. As I learned more and more of what I was capable of, and in turn unlocked a couple of additional ways to move, like an air dash and a sort of super bounce, the world of Sunset City felt more like a really, really cool playground.

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Chaos Squad and bugs

Sunset Overdrive has more to offer than a fairly large single-player component. Chaos Squad is a cooperative multiplayer mode that lets you join up to seven other players in achieving objectives in Sunset City's open world. Unfortunately, we haven't had much time to properly test Chaos Squad in the lead-up to launch, though it's reasonably straightforward, and, even better, allows you to use your custom character and earn new weapons, cosmetic items and Amps for use in the main game. We'll evaluate Chaos Squad and update this review if it materially affects our opinion of the game.

Meanwhile, it bears mentioning that several editors encountered minor (read: non-game-breaking) but noticeable bugs during their time with Sunset Overdrive. A few quest objectives failed to populate, and scripting broke at certain points. We've been told there's a day-one patch for Sunset Overdrive ahead of its release, and will be monitoring the situation over the next week or so to ascertain if these problems persist after launch.

That playground is huge. Sunset City isn't the biggest space I've seen in an open-world game, but it definitely feels like the most navigationally sophisticated. There are so many different kinds of buildings and heights and environmental hooks that even after 20 hours I was barely scratching the surface. And I was scratching pretty hard — despite Sunset Overdrive's genre-required fast travel system, I used it literally once, and only because I was on deadline. As I received mission objectives and new side quests and optional tasks, I was always excited for another chance to see how far across the city I could make it without touching the ground.

Even the shooting becomes part of this. You can — and should — shoot while on the move, which adds to your combo meter in addition to your various tricks and stunts. This in turn activates your Amps — special upgrades you can buy and earn through missions that add new modifiers to your movement and attacks. As you perform more and more moves and kills in sequence, ideally without touching the ground, your combo meter will fill and reach progressively higher levels.

The earliest Amps give an electrical punch to your dodge move at level one, a fireball to your melee attack at level two, and an explosion that erupts from bounced-on objects at level three. Later, hitting level three on my combo meter could make lightning strike random enemies from overhead or cause lava to erupt from the ground. This all adds an overarching, immediate sense of reward to basic play that made it hugely satisfying to do well, which is icing on top of how great it all feels already.

There's also an experience system tied into your actions — using weapons levels them up, making them more powerful and allowing you to equip them with weapon Amps, while the traversal techniques you use unlock badges that you can redeem for perks and bonuses applicable to the things you do the most.

These experience systems allow you to tailor your character to you and the way you play. But the superficial elements of character customization are just as vital. In a world hell-bent on making the best out of the energy-drink mutant apocalypse, Sunset Overdrive smartly emphasizes a great, flexible character creation system. There's a significant variety of ethnicities on display, and a surprisingly forward-thinking non-gendered clothing system as well. There's not men's clothing or women's clothing, there's just stuff to wear, and even the body types available aren't labeled male or female. You'll probably be able to make a character you like and identify with regardless of how you self-classify.

You'll probably be able to make a character you like and identify with regardless of how you self-classify
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Insomniac's confidence in your ability to make a you you'll like is present throughout the game — you're the star of the show all the time. There are no pre-rendered cutscenes, and the avatar you've made (which you can change at almost any time) is in full view, cracking wise and interacting with a surprisingly broad cast of characters. Sunset Overdrive also shatters the fourth wall, basking in its status of a video game, making fun of itself and contextualizing video game mechanics and conventions within the joke.

My favorite example: Every time you die, you'll respawn in the world courtesy of an involved gag and pop culture reference. I don't want to spoil them, but I enjoyed every one — they always took the mild sting out of death, along with some incredibly charitable checkpoints.

And that's the thing that holds Sunset Overdrive together beyond the look and the humor that the game does so well. Insomniac doesn't avoid bucking hardcore penalty in favor of ... fun. Sunset Overdrive has a difficulty curve early on, but only in its seeming interest in giving you all the tools you need to have fun in the amazing space Insomniac has created. It's not about fighting, it's about moving — and even the boss fights present are primarily traversal puzzles asking you to use all your abilities to get the job done in the most over-the-top way possible. And that mindset and move set take tired aspects of other games, like tower defense or escort missions, and make them feel different and fun once again.

Wrap Up:

Sunset Overdrive is contagiously enthusiastic

As a collection of mechanics and ideas, Sunset Overdrive is an impressive evolution of things Insomniac has been doing for a long time. Every part of Sunset Overdrive hooks into every other part somehow, and often in multiple ways, and it makes the whole shooting, grinding, wall-running package better for it. But the best thing about Sunset Overdrive is how it's unabashedly enthusiastic about what it is, in just about every way. That enthusiasm, and the freedom behind it, is contagious.

Sunset Overdrive was reviewed using a pre-release "retail" download code provided by Microsoft. You can find additional information about Polygon's ethics policy here.

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9.0 Xbox One