Despite its insufferable try-hard sensibilities, Sunset Overdrive is nonetheless a fine game that is a pleasure to play, even if it isn’t a pleasure to engage with on any other level.
As my suffering readership is no doubt well-aware, I love a video game that prompts an interesting discussion. And say whatever you like about Sunset Overdrive, the new open-world sandbox adventure from Insomniac Games, but it certainly does that. So let’s discuss the thing that’s been on my mind constantly since the first five minutes of it: How can a game so fun to play, a game with such simple, elegant mechanics, a game based around a single near-genius concept… how can that game make me want to murder every single member of its development team?
Well, let’s find out.
Sunset Overdrive’s greatest achievement is recognizing the limitless potential of The Floor is Lava. Don’t know what that is? Shame on you. It’s a playground game in which schoolchildren pretend the floor is full of deadly molten rock, and the point of it is to bundle onto the nearest piece of furniture, push all the dorks off, and impress whichever girl you fancy at the time by making sure she’s always safe. It’s also one of those silly childhood games that most people pretend they’re too mature for around the age of 11, yet continue to silently imagine playing in a variety of elaborate locations for pretty much the rest of their lives.
If you’re one of those people – and, let’s face it, you probably are – then congratulations, because Sunset Overdrive has not only stretched The Floor is Lava across an entire city, but also gone the extra mile and supplemented it with mutants and guns. It’s the digital wet dream of every pre-pubescent boy on the planet.
There are three ways of getting around Sunset Overdrive’s modestly-sized sandbox: running, which is boring and stupid and will likely get you killed; bouncing, which involves being propelled several stories into the air by a variety of unlikely objects; and grinding, which is fairly self-explanatory. You’ll want to stick with those latter two, as they not only keep you out of harm’s way but stringing them together while simultaneously eviscerating the mutated hordes below you accrues Style points – the combo system which the game’s combat and traversal elements are all pretty much built around.
The basic movement mechanics snap neatly together as though they’re magnetized; a bounce launches you into a wall run which segues into a grind with only a couple of button presses and a minimal amount of fuss. It’s straightforward and intuitive enough to be immediately compelling, yet as the story progresses and introduces more traversal options, mastering really complex sequences becomes decidedly difficult. I’ve always felt that the key to a great open-world game is the simple act of moving through it being engaging in itself, and Sunset Overdrive achieves that quite spectacularly. Sunset City – the game’s setting – isn’t the biggest or most interesting environment you’ve ever seen, but it’s so navigationally sophisticated and visually well-designed that it really doesn’t matter.
The art team is particularly worthy of praise. Most objects in the world are imbued with a weird trampoline-like quality, from cars and vending machines to AC units and potted plants; landing atop any of these things fires you high into the air, allowing you to cover huge distances and, in theory, continue your Style combo at the rooftop level. Whether or not something is bounce-able isn’t exactly bound by any recognizable real-world logic, but the visual direction ensures it’s always clear – refreshingly, without the need for any shorthand or amateurish object highlighting. Elsewhere, grinding makes slightly more sense in terms of which surfaces will accommodate you – rails, ledges, pipes, and telephone wires, primarily – but it’s still bonkers: you can change direction without any loss of momentum, and swap between over-grinding and under grinding with a single button-press (and a lovely, momentum-conscious animation).
You’ll want to meet this stuff halfway, of course, as the various levels of your Style multiplier in turn activate the various tiers of your Amps – special upgrades you can buy or unlock through missions that add modifiers to your weapons and movement. These start off with simple stuff like electrifying your dodge roll or adding a fireball to your melee attack, but later in the game hitting Level 3 on my combo meter dispensed real Old Testament justice: magma spewing from the ground and lightning arcing through the sky. There’s something particularly likable about a game that rewards you for playing well by giving you bigger, better to toys to play with.
These aren’t complex design choices, but they’re smart because they imbue the most basic aspects of play with an overarching sense of challenge and reward. There’s an obligatory fast-travel system, but it’s telling that I never once used it; and even though the bulk of the mission structure is a simple matter of moving between one waypoint and another, it’s tough to criticize that when the very act of doing so in a single long, unbroken combo is so phenomenally satisfying. And, as a result, whenever Sunset Overdrive does break away from its regular formula, it’s almost always in service of something which feels truly welcome and distinct. The boss fights are big, interesting set-piece moments that make as much use of the traversal mechanics as they do the shooting. Even genre tropes and well-worn scenarios are presented in a way you haven’t quite seen before – I can’t remember the last time I had so much fun on an escort mission, especially, and even the tower defense mini-game you’re periodically forced to participate in is fun enough that I wasn’t dreading its next appearance (even if I wasn’t necessarily looking forward to it).
In purely mechanical terms, Sunset Overdrive is a tremendously fun video game. It’s the kind of world you can lose hours in, just messing around with the systems and prodding at the seams. The problem, the thing that makes me want to grab every employee at Insomniac by the ears and kick them in the bollocks until their eyeballs switch places is its own smug sense of superiority. And it’s such a deal-breaking issue for me that whenever I think back to Sunset Overdrive now that I’ve finished it, all I can think about is how glad I am that I no longer have to be subjected to its utter, utter nonsense.
This is a game that is overtly trying to be comedic, and not only did it fail to make me laugh, but it was also so painfully unfunny that I was genuinely offended by it. It’s bottom-of-the-barrel stuff, which is irritating on its own, but even more so when it’s filtered through what a team of mid-thirties developers evidently thinks youth culture is like. It’s going for a weird, punk-anarchist sort of vibe, but a variation of it as envisioned by a middle-aged man who unironically wears a baseball cap. And I imagine he probably turned it backward in triumph every time he came up with yet another joke about faded cultural touchstones the core demographic of Sunset Overdrive will almost certainly never have heard of.
Not to mention it’s hard to take a game seriously as some kind of anti-establishment power-to-the-people message when it’s only available on Xbox One. I can’t profess to know the ins and outs of video game industry politics, but I’m fairly sure some money was put in some pockets for those exclusivity rights. And that’s just one item on the very long list of things Sunset Overdrive gets wrong in terms of tone, story, humor, character development, and basically everything else outside of the actual gameplay.
For instance, this is one of those open-worlders in which the player-character is just a blank cipher for you to play dress-up with – essentially forward momentum with arms and legs. There are a surprisingly large amount of different ethnicities to choose between, and a pleasingly progressive gender-neutral approach to clothing and body types which just lets you make a vaguely-human shape and pile as many samurai helmets and pajama bottoms on it as you like. I imagine no matter how you choose to self-identify you can create a character you like the look of. What you certainly can’t do is create a character you actually like, because unfortunately there’s no option to modify personality, and the main character is a smug, snarking, self-satisfied pillock regardless of whether or not they’re wearing a pirate hat.
I’m personally of the opinion that there has never really been anything funny about constantly breaking the fourth wall, but there certainly isn’t in the post-Stanley Parable world of 2015. Sunset Overdrive thinks it’s hilarious though, as evidenced by the fact that roughly one in three jokes revolve around it. That, along with the aforementioned outdated pop-culture nods and obligatory self-referential sarcasm, and you have the Holy Triumvirate of terrible comedy. Characters even do this odd pause after their lines, as though they’re waiting for the laugh track to die down.
Oh, the characters. I almost forgot about those. You’ll be meeting a lot of them, as in typical sandbox form you’re going to be nipping back and forth across the city in service of various factions, all of whom want you to leap through increasingly arbitrary hoops before giving you whatever simple item or service you require of them. What’s strange is that they all seem to be riffs on the typical extravagant side-show types, just for some reason promoted to the principal cast. LARPers, for example, who see the post-apocalypse as an extension of their own make-believe fantasy game. I think the point is to give the underrepresented nerd category of video game characters their own share of the world-saving glory, but there isn’t a single character in the story that isn’t a similarly elaborate archetype. It’s infuriating.
Not that the story really needs to be anything more than what it is: in this case, a generically evil corporation has released a new energy drink without proper testing, and it’s turned everyone into laudably colorful mutants. That’s it, really, but as a functional hook on which to hang all the mayhem, it certainly does the job. There’s just no reason for it to try and be funny as well as ridiculous, especially when it already has ridiculousness down to a fine art. Everything else piled on top just feels like overkill, and as much as I dislike using the term “trying too hard” as a criticism, there’s really no better one for Sunset Overdrive. It just feels so desperate.
The irony, of course, is that it didn’t need any of that **** to be a great game. It is a great game, albeit one thoroughly diluted by its misguided attempts at being more than that. I obviously recommend it – I can’t rightly not, especially when it’s so pleasurable to just sit down and play, regardless of whether or not you need to hit the mute button in order to do so without committing murder. And hey, most people don’t give a **** about anything other than the actual playing itself, so more power to those folks. They’ll have a jolly old time with this one. Me, though? It’ll take more than a Portal portal to break me, Insomniac.
Yeah, we’re still making Portal references by the way. Take that however you like.
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Jonathon is the Co-Founder of Ready Steady Cut and has been Senior Editor and Chief Critic of the outlet since 2017.