When Sunset Overdrive asks you to go across town, you don't start running on foot or carjack some poor chump. You vault onto the top of a storefront awning, bounce two stories up into the sky, dash through the air, then stick the landing on some telephone wires and grind across them like your sneakers are rocket-propelled skates. In this open world, it's all about the journey.
It's almost too fun--because once you've reached your destination, you just want to keep going. Instead, your momentum slows to a crawl, because now it's time to jump around in a circle and shoot dim-witted enemies until everything's dead. Even with your outlandish arsenal, Sunset Overdrive's combat just can't keep pace with its loud sense of style, blissful mobility, gorgeous visuals, and playful punk rock attitude. But hey--four out of five ain't bad!
Insomniac Games' foray into the realm of Xbox One exclusives is a zero-to-hero story, putting you in control of a typical dude or dudette who's smack-dab in the middle of a mutant apocalypse. OverCharge, a neon-orange energy drink made the domineering mega-corporation Fizzco, is transforming the denizens of Sunset City into hideous monsters. Because this is a video game, you and your unflappable sense of happy-go-lucky optimism are the only force that can save the day.
"This is a video game" gets thrown around a lot, actually; the people of Sunset City tend to break the fourth wall more often than Deadpool during a home renovation. This brand of referential humor is a mixed bag, and it sometimes feels like the writing's trying way too hard to be hip and/or edgy. Breaking Bad jokes, NeoGAF name-dropping, and a character inexplicably named 4Kim rank just below the use of memes on the "lame things to encounter while playing a video game" scale. It also skews toward an older audience: nearly everyone curses like an overzealous sailor, and the first weapon you earn, the Flaming Compensator, is a shotgun shaped like a dick and balls. Hmm.
But all that sophomoric inanity is made up for by your nameless, custom-made protagonist, who treats the end of the world like one big party. The hero's voice acting, be they male or female, is phenomenal, really making you believe that someone could be having tons of fun amidst all this chaos. I adore my character--she's a wacky anarchist with a heart of gold, gleefully blasting mutants, bandits, and Fizzco's killer robots in style.
And when I say style, I'm talking aesthetics (with a fabulous outfit assembled from a massive number of clothing options) and technique (bouncing off cars like they're made of rubber, wall-running, then slamming down onto an enemy's head with her baseball bat and sending giant shards of glass every which way). Of everyone in the game, you are by far the most interesting. Some of the factions you encounter during the apocalypse are cool concepts (particularly the skull-face-painted Las Catrinas cheerleaders), but the majority of the supporting cast feels half-baked, if occasionally funny.
Your hero's sense of boisterous enthusiasm permeates the whole game, particularly in the gorgeous graphics. Sunset City is straight-up beautiful, full of bold, vibrant colors and attention-grabbing street art on nearly every building. At any given time, you can probably spot all the colors of the rainbow in your surroundings, woven into the environment in a way that feels totally organic. Everything's been crafted with a nice touch: pus-filled mutants burst into splashy onomatopoeias when killed, atomic explosions leave behind a plume of "BOOM"-shaped smoke, and a plethora of goofy little respawn animations take the edge off your deaths.
Chaos Squad, assemble
Strewn throughout Sunset City are a bunch of photo booths, which let you jump into the Chaos Squad 8-player co-op mode. Here, you'll tackle a series of bite-sized challenges that culminate in a Night Defense mission, with the difficulty depending on which challenges your group chooses. Sadly, the multiplayer doesn't really offer anything you can't experience by yourself in single-player. The most fun part about Chaos Squad isn't the series of missions--it's racing to see who can reach them first, with eight players all frantically leaping and grinding towards a singular point like a pack of Spider-People without the webbing.
The only thing better than looking at Sunset City is exploring it. All the aforementioned movement abilities--bouncing, grinding, swinging, vaulting, wall-running, air-dashing, surfing on water with your bare feet--are incredibly well-tuned, conveying a smooth, exhilarating sense of speed and dexterity without feeling too overwhelming (since your acrobatics are all relegated to a handful of context-smart buttons). If you're a fan of the Tony Hawk or Jet Set Radio games, zipping around your environment will come naturally. But even if you're more accustomed to standard modes of open-world transportation, you'll pick up on the mechanics pretty quickly. The controls and level layouts are very forgiving if you make a mistake, and additional mobility powers are doled out at just the right pace so as not to overwhelm you.
Once you get the hang of Sunset Overdrive's traversal, it's absurdly fun just moving through the world. You have the option to fast-travel around Sunset City's four gigantic areas, but I usually opt to take the long way while trying to find the perfect line. I've cavorted around the city for hours at a time, seeking out the myriad collectibles, side quests, and challenge missions simply for the sheer fun of it. You can basically traverse the entire city without ever setting foot on a flat surface, and the excitement of nailing a particularly long combo of locomotive tricks is its own reward.
Then gunplay gets stacked on top of all that, and the wheels come dangerously close to falling off. To incentivize players to keep moving while they kill instead of just standing there, you'll die almost instantly if you stay still during a shootout. Adjusting your aim whilst grinding a rail above your target's head is doable, but feels frustrating at first and fussy at best. Scoring kills while maintaining your mobility is also encouraged by the Style meter, which unlocks increasingly powerful buffs called Amps as you build it up. While adding elemental effects to yourself and your arsenal using Amps is pretty cool, you'll run out of available upgrades just as things are starting to really get good (like a chance to shoot miniature nukes or summon a leather-clad Grim Reaper to slice up your enemies).
You might know Insomniac's penchant for awesome weaponry from the Ratchet & Clank series, and Sunset Overdrive continues that tradition of over-the-top inventiveness, with guns like the TNTeddy launcher, a fireworks machine gun, acid sprinklers, and a bowling ball launcher. But because all the shooting tries to meld with hectic movement, explosive weapons are superior in almost every situation, making your arsenal feel unbalanced and underutilized. There are 20 weapons in total, but I only felt the need to use four or five particularly strong sidearms and all but ignored the rest.
But the biggest misstep is the template for base defense missions that are interspersed throughout the main campaign. These introduce yet another complication: traps, which must be placed around the area you're trying to protect. Like the guns, many of the trap designs are quite cool in theory but feel unimpressive in practice, and you only get to utilize them during specific missions. The whole system feels superfluous, and counteracts Sunset Overdrive's primary strength. Instead of zooming around a massive, colorful city, why don't you just sit in this one small area, fending off waves of braindead monsters for a few minutes?
Other than those stinkers, the majority of the missions are pretty fun; the tasks you're given are endearingly bizarre, and even fetch quests are a blast when traversal is this enjoyable. Optional, point-tallying challenges--like lengthy trick lines and property-smashing sprees--are also great fun, especially when jockeying for leaderboard positions with your buddies. It'll take about 12 to 15 hours to save Sunset City, with many more for completionists looking to snag every last collectible and level up all their weapons (though I doubt combat will have much appeal once you no longer need it to progress).
Sunset Overdrive is an exciting, self-confident thrill ride with strengths that easily make up for its weaknesses. Insomniac has proven that it can craft some of the most thrilling open-world acrobatics in gaming, and the upbeat, punk rock attitude dulls the pain of the so-so gunplay and dopey real-world references. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to get back to grinding on street lights and wall-running around skyscrapers.