If you had to boil Sunset Overdrive down to a sentence it’d probably sound something like “Sunset Overdrive is probably what would happen if Jet Set Radio had a one night stand with Crackdown and then the offspring fell into a vat of Mountain Dew and Doritos.” It’s both as wonderful and as cringe worthy as that sounds.
Video games by their very nature are (or bloody well should be) escapist nonsense. Wish fulfillment of the highest order, even if you didn’t know you wanted those particular wishes fulfilling, with the sole intention of wrenching you out of your miserable, humdrum existence into a world of fantasy. Even games supposedly grounded in reality are a means of partaking in an activity or sport or whatever that you normally couldn’t or wouldn’t have the means to do, and so often a lot of games try so very hard to play down their video gamey-ness, to try and convince you you’re not sat in your settee with a lump of plastic in your hands, slack-jawed and ignoring your other half’s screaming to get off your arse and mow the lawn. Or something. So it’s always wonderful when a game comes along, screaming blue murder in bright, day-glo primary colours, most likely on fire, and reveling in it’s inherent ridiculousness. Even if it sometimes tries too hard and misses the mark.
You take control of a fully customisable, yet nameless, avatar who has a long line in needlessly sarcastic retorts and scathing, over-reaching, video game trope mocking one liners. After escaping from the release party for super-corporation Fizzco’s new energy drink after it goes belly up (by turning most of the population of Sunset City into mutants the game calls OD) you’re dumped into a massive sandbox play area. It’s then up to you to complete the missions set by the people not turned into OD and try and escape the sun-drenched hellhole you’re trapped in before you get your face eaten off.
There’s a slightly contradictory nature to Sunset Overdrive. For example it’s structure is incredibly formulaic, with a repetitive mission structure which it tries to play down by making constant gags about how rubbish and predictable the quests are. It’s constantly riffing on the stereotypes you find in video games and pop culture, but doesn’t really push them far enough to lampoon them effectively. Also, the gags more often than not fall flat and come across as trying way too hard to be ‘whacky’ or cool. It’s a shame because there’s definitely some funny stuff in there, it just seems to miss more than hit.
That’s not to say the game is charmless though, because it isn’t. The structure and gags can be patted on the head for trying, but the style and gameplay itself is like a big sack of neon coloured Labrador puppies, all exuberance and irrepressible energy bounding along at 100 mph while weeing on the carpet.
If nothing else, the game traversal should be roundly applauded. Running around Sunset City is a general no-no, because running is boring. There’s no sprint button for a start. Instead you grind on telephone wires, bound off cars, wall run, air dash, pole swing and slide on water to get around the environment. At first this is a little clunky because your brain is trying to think in terms of simply running and climbing, but once you realise that a tap of the X button attaches you to much of the scenery and you’ve got a handle of where the camera needs to be pointed you start chaining leaps and grinds like nobody’s business. This is essential as this builds up your Style meter, which in turn powers your Amps and Overdrives to make you an OD slaughtering maniac.
Hero Amps enhance your character with special abilities. Weapon Amps power up your weapons and add effects, like freezing enemies or shocking them with lightning, and Overdrives add effects and powers like reduce damage from certain enemies, increase damage to enemies or reduce the moves needed to boost your Style meter. The various Amps only trigger when you’ve sufficiently filled the Style meter by performing traversal moves in a chain without hitting the ground. The more varied the moves, the more it fills and the higher your move combo which in turn fills the meter even faster.
It’s difficult to overstate how much fun and how satisfying it is to use pretty much any piece of scenery to bound off and grind on. You could grind on one wire to get about, but that doesn’t keep your combo up and so you start instinctively bounding of a car into a wall-run which you leap and air dash into a grind, then undergrind, then pole swing… it’s wonderful. It also sounds more complicated than it is, but because it’s a button to grind and wallrun, a button to jump and a button to dash it’s simple but not overly so.
Of course, all this combo-ing would be pointless if the combat and weapons were dull, and while the shooting is a little one note, the means of dispatching the various OD, Scabs (the human antagonist faction) and Fizzco robots is varied and shows off Insomniacs pedigree of inventing ridiculous weapons. You’ll have to switch between different weapons to eliminate the different enemy types, and playing with the different types of Amps you can plug into them makes for some ridiculous effects. The only problem with them is you might find 4 or 5 weapons you really like and are really effecting and not bother with the rest, although trying them all out is entertaining.
There’s a lot to like about Sunset Overdrive. It’s a ridiculously overblown and primary coloured slab of entertainment that refuses to take itself seriously and revels in being a video game, which seems to be a rare thing these days. It’s a game filled with character, collectables, pop culture references and amusing respawn animations. The down side to this is it tends to be a little boorish in its humour and intent to be whacky, off the wall and irreverent and that alone seems to have put some people off. That’s fair enough but it’s also a shame, because in many ways Sunset Overdrive is a game SEGA could have easily made had it not been obsessed with driving Sonic into the ground. Still, it’s a good 20 or so hours of blue-sky fun with enough distractions to keep you playing for a good while, even if the replayability is, sadly, almost zero.