I don't think anyone knew what to make of Sunset Overdrive when Microsoft lifted the curtain on the new property back at E3 2013.
It was a tough trailer to process, one that ultimately left more questions than answers. Where did those monsters come from? Why can everyone grind on everything? What's happened to this world? For me, these questions were met with apathy. It just seemed like more of the same kind of junk I'd seen and done so many times in a video game before.
At the time I figured if there was any silver lining, it was that the game was coming from veteran developer Insomniac Games, a studio mostly recognized for two mega franchises: the Ratchet and Clank and Resistance series.
Check out GameSpot's coverage of Sunset Overdrive
It was only until a month ago did my impression of Sunset Overdrive first start to metamorphosize from eye-roll to intrigue. I played a late build of the game for an hour and started to wrap my head around what the Sunset Overdrive universe was all about. And now having played through the campaign it's become clear: Sunset Overdrive's biggest issue is outside perception. Once I permeated that outer shell I realized it's a finely tuned adventure with a specific vision -- one that doesn't take itself seriously but is endlessly fun to experience.
At times Sunset Overdrive reveals hints of its maker's ancestry, but simultaneously stands out with a polished sense of humor, smartly executed atmosphere and razor-sharp presentation. This is a game made by people who love video games -- and that passion shines through every sound byte, line of dialogue and art direction decision.
Sunset Overdrive draws inspiration from a colorful set of source materials. It's a familiar aesthetic to anyone who's played Dead Rising, Jet Grind Radio, Infamous and Tony Hawk's Pro Skater or who has flipped through the pages of a Scott Pilgrim or Deadpool comic book. You're likely to sniff out your favorite moments from all these works in Overdrive -- and you'll instantly realize it's a game that is well aware of a fourth wall. In fact, Sunset Overdrive wraps that wall in dynamite and then lets you throw a flaming bowling ball through it.
The backstory sets the tone: an over-the-top, tremendously silly narrative. A company called Fizzco has released a new energy drink and it's turning people into hideous orange mutants that crave blood and, well, more of the drink.
This exposition is complemented by the game's stylized open world, Sunset City, which is a playground for parkour, grinding, wall-riding and trampolining. Maneuvering through the city provides an infinite number of lines to choose, and after a few hours of playing with your character's set of traversal tricks it's likely you'll cross great distances without once touching the ground. In Sunset Overdrive that's actually a good thing.
Aside from your character, the star of Sunset Overdrive is the unconventional roster of weapons you'll use to obliterate mutants, radical faction members and Fizzco robots. Your style meter works as an Amp unlocker meaning the more stylish your attack, the more Amps will activate during combat. It's a microsystem that's challenging to manage, mostly because you're busy concentrating on the enemies at hand.
Each weapon is uniquely crafted with some sort of frankensteinian ingenuity. There's a Roman Candle-firing machine gun, a TNT teddy bear bazooka, a bowling ball launcher called "The Dude," and many more.
But where the variety in weapon design is a welcome feature, there are so many layers of upgrading and leveling-up in other facets of the game that you may actually find yourself struggling to keep everything up to date. You need to micromanage such a smattering of abilities, badges and power-ups that it can feel like it's more work than it's worth. Some perfectionists may appreciate the attention to detail, but I wish the amount of juggling I had to do was about halved.
I loved the endless of amount of customization you can inflict on your character and it's great that you're never stuck with any specific detail. You can change your player's look as much as you want throughout the game, including body type, gender -- anything is swappable.
There's plenty to do in Sunset City. Of course, there's the hefty campaign, but there are also quests, challenges, collectibles and Chaos Squad, an online mode for up to eight players. There's also an in-game TV channel featuring a live-action Insomniac Games employee who announces unique weekly challenges and serves as a clever way for the developer to communicate with players.
Many open-world games fall into a rhythm where things begin to get repetitive and you'll start to find yourself in a grind for some of the game. Sunset Overdrive isn't completely immune to that type of redundancy, but there is a substantial amount of variety in not just the main campaign missions, but also the spectrum of options you have. Maybe you want to earn more Amps by collecting hidden items, or perhaps you'll want to complete the dozens of challenges spread across the map.
On a few occasions, I did encounter missions and boss battles that seemed unfairly balanced, maybe given their chronological placement in the campaign. But for as frustrating those moments were, it wasn't something that I couldn't progress through after a dozen or so attempts. Nothing ever felt insurmountable, which is a something I'm glad the developers didn't also borrow from Dead Rising.
Sunset Overdrive is brimming with personality and the soundtrack features some great garage rock and roll. Odds are you'll encounter a handful of characters that will have you snickering or smacking your forehead at. The entire experience oozes with jabs at videogame archetypes in general, from the player elbowing back the third-person camera to the constant pop-culture and geekdom references.
There's an ultra-satisfying self-awareness and dozens of tiny injections of wit -- the kind many games attempt but fall flat. It's this attention to detail that veteran gamers will eat up.
Even though Sunset Overdrive plays off of some heavy-handed juvenility, there's an overarching theme of maturity and refinement baked into the experience. The game-makers at Insomniac are so well-versed in their craft that Sunset Overdrive plays as an homage to multiple generations of games and the people who've played them.
If there's one thing to know about Sunset Overdrive, it's that it's a guilt-free sandbox game you can truly escape in. It feeds all of the right gaming receptors, doesn't try to preach and isn't afraid to drop a few F-bombs in the process.
Sunset is on a very short list of the best Xbox One exclusives, and if this sounds like the type of game worth buying a console for, you can get it bundled with a white Xbox One for $400 in the US and £349 in the UK, with Australian pricing yet to be announced (the US price converts to AU$450).
Sunset Overdrive is thoroughly fun and offers a guilt-free, action-packed campaign. Both its styling and personality are impressively realized -- it's smart, and comically self-aware.
Check out GameSpot's coverage of Sunset Overdrive