Developer: Insomniac Games Publisher:  Developer: Insomniac Games Publisher: 

Sunset Overdrive Review: Style Over Substance

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Developer: Insomniac Games

Publisher: Microsoft Studios

Platform: Xbox One

Release Date: October 28th

Microsoft and Xbox has been making a big push this holiday season on the strength of their exclusive deals. Exclusive console bundles and numerous Xbox-exclusive games are at the forefront of their promotional end to the first full year of the Xbox One, and Sunset Overdrive aims to be Microsoft Studios’ cherry on the top. Insomniac Games switching over from developing for Sony to Microsoft seems to be a sure-fire swing of momentum, with the comedic action-adventure stylings fans have come to know and love hoping to bring more users into the Xbox family. Unfortunately, when it comes to Sunset Overdrive, its familiarity (along with a lack of depth) is its downfall.

Sunset Overdrive takes place in 2027 in the town of Sunset City. Fizzco, an energy drink company, offers its hometown an exclusive first chance to try out their new product; Overcharge Delerium XT. Unfortunately, in an attempt to rush the product to market in order to beat out competitors, they have overlooked a nasty side-effect in the process; everyone who drinks it almost immediately turns into a mutant creature. You need to stop Fizzco and escape from the city before they cover up their injustices for good.

You will encounter several factions of survivors in your adventures in Sunset Overdrive, many of which will offer you money and Overcharge cans as bartering chips in order to accomplish their goals. Money will net you more and more clothing and tattoo options in order to spice up an already-vibrant character customization base. Overcharge cans will allow you to purchase new weapons, as well as maps to find collectibles. Those collectibles help power your “Amps,” which give you and your weapons special abilities (more on that later).

Who “you” are, with regards to the appearance of your player character, is up to you. Sunset Overdrive features an extensive character customization system that lets creativity run wild. You can dress up however you like; silly, straight edge, almost naked or fully decked in protective gear. You can even be a lady with a beard, if you so wanted to! Making your character is the perfect way to settle players into the mood that the game wants to drive home; this is a video game, and games should be as free and silly as possible.

It’s a sensibility that is welcomed, at first. Going through the colorful world of Sunset Overdrive mixes the feel and visual outlook of a comic book world with the sarcastic commentary of a disillusioned video game writer. You as “Player” are quick to make jokes at the expense of, and along with, the cast of characters you run into. It’s the “Awesomepocalypse;” no longer are you expected to work your dead-end job or take guff from anybody. It’s dreadful among the mutated monsters, anarchistic punks and the Fizzco robots out to get you; might as well have a laugh about it!

Alas, too much of a good thing can be a game’s undoing, and fast. The writing of Sunset Overdrive way too much on either sarcastic quips, meta commentary or outright references to quotes from other games, films and TV shows to fill up its dialogue. If I had to venture a guess, about 15-20% of the Player’s dialogue lines include instances of the above, and becomes quite grating over the game’s campaign and character-driven side missions. When that moment of realization suddenly hits you after a while, the meta commentary almost serves to be a defensive stance by the developers.

I recall a mission where you need the help of an NPC in order to for you to escape Sunset City, yet they don’t trust you at all. The player insists not to worry, as they have a history of helping other NPC’s out, earning their trust and coming out as friends. It’s far enough into the game where the “I get that I’m a character in a game” sense goes from cute to annoying. It’s like the writing team knew that they were being repetitive in their storytelling, yet felt like if they commented on it, they could get away with it. I’m all for keeping games light and funny; I listen to standup comedy on my iPod about as often as I do for music. However, when used as a crutch to make up for a distinctly-lacking story and weak characterization, it becomes quite glaring.

… The meta commentary almost serves to be a defensive stance by the developers.

Speaking of the story, the mission variety is quite lacking in Sunset Overdrive. Throughout the 9 hours it took me to complete the main story missions, most problems were solved by doing fetch quests or killing a large amount of the same kind of enemy in one area. Thankfully, Insomniac did not fall into the trap of escort quests, outside of a genre-twist that provided something new amid waves of similar problems to solve. I think the reason why the mission scheme flowed this way was due to the overarching goal of the Player; to escape with their friends at all costs. Having to earn the services of each quest-giver along the story made it feel like you were reluctant in your heroism, until suddenly you checked enough boxes for them to become your friends. It is an odd juxtaposition that prevented deep character development throughout the cast, with the exception of a select few NPC’s.

The heart of Sunset Overdrive’s presentation is in its gameplay elements. It’s all about traversal; staying in motion keeps you alive, and the game fun. Pulling off traversal moves like grinding, undergrinding, wall jumps, bounces, as well as killing enemies while chaining a combination will earn you “Style,” with each move adding a multiplier in your combo counter. There are 4 levels of Style, with each level allowing access to powerups called “Amps.” These are customizable, winable and even purchaseable as you progress, adding extra moves, effects and bonuses to your abilities and weapons. For example, adding an electricity-related Hero-level Amp could result in chain lightning attacks spawning from your rail grinding, shocking foes. Maxing out your Style at Level 4 increases the strength of your attacks for a short time, making you almost unstoppably powerful.

You also have a number of Overdrives available at all times, providing passive bonuses of your choice that are earned with using abilities repeatedly. Killing monsters with automatic weapons will earn you badges, which allow you to trade in to upgrade badge-specific stats. The same goes for traversal moves and killing specific types on enemies; you upgrade your abilities based on how you play.

Keeping up your Style is the most important part of the combat in Sunset Overdrive, as it will help you take down a variety of enemies that lie in the three main factions: Overdrive Drinkers, Scabs (human raiders) and Fizzco Robots. If you aren’t moving or killing, you drop your combo and slowly start to drain style. Keeping up your combo means maintaining more of your skills and bonuses, meaning it should require a keen focus and at least a bit of a challenge to maintain while trying to take down foes.

That’s why it’s truly unfortunate that this Style mechanic is completely exploitable.

If you cannot see the video, essentially what my character is doing is spamming jumping, wall running, air-dashing, grinding and dive bomb commands in a confined area, all while taking zero hits of damage. I made one cut in the middle for the sake of time, but in the end I pull off a 325-move combo mostly by spamming X and A repeatedly and the occasional B for divebomb bouncing. I hit maximum Style level four times in the span of three minutes of recorded footage, the first while attempting to recover from a mistimed divebomb sending me to ground level. It should not be this easy to become as powerful as you can be.