[REVIEWED] Sunset Overdrive – Not your average apocalypse

Sunset Overdrive is an utterly insane, over-the-top action romp through an apocalypse brought on by people drinking too much soda pop – yes, soda pop – where you jump, slide and zipline your way through colourful levels taking on ever-crazier mutant enemies.

Confused? Quite. This is a game that’s hard to explain. Best to think of it as Crackdown meets Tony Hawk meets Grand Theft Auto with some really quirky guns.

It’s a unique concept, to be sure, and an Xbox One exclusive Microsoft has long been punting, but does it live up to its potential? I’m not so sure…

Start from the top

The premise for the game is rather simple: in an alternate universe, softdrink company FizzCo developed a rather tasty drink called OverCharge Delirium XT. But it was too tasty: people drank so much of it that they mutated into disgusting homicidal monsters.

Their mutations gifted them with a range of offensive skills to along with their new pustules, out-of-control muscle growths and weeping open sores. Some punch you, others jump on you, while the bigger ones hurl poison clouds your way. And all want you dead.

Playing as the un-mutated hero, you have to kill as many mutants as possible with the help of other non-infected survivors, while trying to figure how to stop the mutations for good. And for that you will need guns. Big guns.

Where Dead Rising 3 – another open-world infected-thing game – let you kill zombies with outrageous weapons, Overdrive does something similar. Unlike Dead Rising 3 the weapons here come pre-assembled, but they’re just as crazy. Like a launcher that shoots teddy bears strapped with dynamite, or a deadly vinyl LP gun and poison-spraying sprinklers.

As you reload your teddy bear gun, it becomes very clear that Sunset Overdrive shouldn’t be taken too seriously. Heck, the main character even knows that he’s in a video game, as he often makes fourth-wall-breaking wisecracks. Unfortunately there is such a thing as a little too much self-awareness. Like a post-Ally McBeal post-modern comedy, it stops being funny after a while.

Pop goes the soda monster!

Starting the game, you will be asked to create a character. Here you can really let your imagination loose as the game totally lets you do anything you want. Want to put a full beard on a pretty lady? No problem. Want your burly muscle man to wear a cheerleader skirt? Sure thing (as long as you’ve unlocked it, of course).

Happily, you’re not committed to your initial appearance choices for the entire game – you can always go back and tweak how you look whenever you want to.

While it’s not the game’s biggest unique selling point, it’s fun to waste a bit of time getting your character looking just as right – or as wrong – as you like.

Swing on a what now?

Something that was one of the biggest selling points of the game, at least according to Microsoft’s marketing department, was the entirely non-traditional way the designers decreed that you must get around the open world. Straight-forward running is apparently too boring to consider, so you have to grind, dash, swing and bounce your way around the map towards one of the four main hideouts, the various missions, or a skills challenge location.

Look ma, no hands.

It’s fun at first, but once you realise that there is no sprint button for when you just want to travel by foot, the jumping and grinding becomes a bit of a chore. Don’t get me wrong, it is incredibly satisfying to string 100+ grind combos together (and it does get you from point A to point B a lot faster than running would), but it feels forced.

I would have preferred the grinding to be secondary, in a ‘you can use it, but it’s not a necessity’ kind of way, instead of being punted as the only way to make your way around. But with that said, almost everything in the world can be used as something to jump, swing, grind and slide on, and should you time a jump onto a piece of scenery like a car or tree or fountain just right, you get boosted high into the air, which further opens up your travel options.

The only real exception is trucks – because face it, those are just too big to realistically provide any sort of elasticity to propel you 20 to 30 meters into the air. Which is itself rather silly for a game that doesn’t really do “realistically”.

While the swing-grind-jump-bounce manoeuvre is the primary mode of transportation, you can fast travel back to your base or other areas you’ve already visited. I found myself doing that a lot. Granted, you don’t get all the special stuff and kills you would have along the way, but it’s a little bit faster and ultimately, that’s what mattered most to me.

And with any game that requires a set of incredibly fast fingers to juggle the grinding speed, direction, when to jump and what else to grab on while possibly changing direction yet again, it’s possible to get things a bit wrong which, nine times out of ten, results in your carefully-crafted character faceplanting. Well, not really, as there is no fall damage, but you get the idea.

(What’s ‘grinding’? – unhip ed)

Oh so pretty

Being on a current-generation console, it hardly seems necessary to say that the graphics are really cool. Yes, the game hasn’t tried to make everything as realistic as possible, but that’s part of its charm.

I can see my house from here.

The colours are incredibly bright and cheerful, which is in stark contrast to the rather dark events unfolding in the town, but the level of detail is just high enough to bring the entire setting and its characters to life and lends the game a kind of acid-trip ambience in the process.

I mean, just have a look at the screenshots in this review and tell me that it’s not pretty.

It’s always better with friends

The multiplayer in the game is accessed by going to the various Chaos Squad stations peppered throughout the game’s world, and all that you have to do is step into one and activate it. This will take you to a lobby where you can meet up with fellow players who are just as eager as you to destroy some OD – the average monster who overdosed on soda.

Do I have something stuck in my teeth?

Testing multiplayer ahead of the Halloween release date has been slightly fruitless, but I did manage to find one group already online. The maximum party size is around eight, and you will be tasked with completing certain objectives in different modes, all of which involve killing as many infected as possible in some way or form. The modes include one where you have to destroy as many crates as possible at a certain location, defending one of the main bases and killing a certain number of a specific kind of monster.

During our session I realised that it was incredibly chaotic and frantic, finding myself not quite sure what to do, exactly. But that’s the point – multiplayer’s not called ‘Chaos Squad’ for nothing. Anyways, the more friends you get to play with the better, but there needs to be some close collaboration between you, otherwise it all spins out of control and it becomes easy to lose track of what needs to happen.

Multiplayer is always a welcome addition, but this one feels a bit tacked on, an afterthought rather than a core focus. Instead of traversing the single-player missions by yourself, I would have loved to do it together with a friend, like in Dead Rising 3. But then again, the other people I played multiplayer with loved it, so opinions clearly vary.

Is this really it?

I’m starting to wonder that maybe I’m the only person who didn’t find Sunset Overdrive has great as everybody else has been making it out to be. Sure the action is fast-paced and unrelenting, but is that all there is to the game?

Come back! I just want to play!

To keep things ticking along, Overdrive features four factions that drive the game’s story: the highly-intelligent (although somewhat socially awkward) geeks, the Live Action Role Players (LARPers), the Day of the Dead girls and Samurai scouts. Each faction has a distinct personality that adds a bit of flavour to the game, as well as a set of missions for you to complete, culminating in the game’s final showdown.

But I have a sneaking suspicion developer Insomniac Games saw the need to add the four factions to keep players focused on the story, because if it wasn’t for them, I really would have lost interest long before I reached the end. Sure, leaping and sliding around an open world and blowing mutants to slimy smithereens with crazy weapons is fun for a bit, but ultimately it needs a bit more sensible context to be meaningful and therefore satisfying, which I felt Insomniac didn’t quite provide. Or maybe I’m just too old for this sort of thing.

The extensive upgrading system also took some wind out of my sails, as I found it to be more cumbersome than useful. Essentially, performing a certain number of actions, like killing 500 OD or grinding for 100m earns you Overcharge, the game’s version of experience points which can be used to purchases badges. These badges provide in-game boosts like more health or better damage and can be mixed and matched in a way that complements your play style, but ultimately I found the challenges required to unlock them to be incredibly tough for the most part and, more importantly, not much fun to complete.

The weapon upgrade system is a little different: the more you use a weapon and the more kills you get with it, the higher its level goes. Weapon upgrades include more ammo carrying capacity or a higher rate of damage, and it’s a little more organic than the Overcharge system. Basically, should you favour a certain weapon over others, its power will increase naturally as you play.

Then there are the challenges, which can be completed to unlock more customisation options, like leg tattoos, jackets and hats, but these too are quite tough.

Eventually I came to believe that the effort required to upgrade my character far outweighed the reward, and I ended up ignoring the system and simply used the Overcharge I earned playing normally to unlock what I could.

All in all

While Sunset Overdrive isn’t a bad game it’s by no means a reason to rush out and get an Xbox One if you don’t already have one. The graphics are pretty good, the humour has its moments and the self-awareness can be quite cute, but drilling down to the bare bones of what you’ll actually be doing for the fifteen or so hours it takes to complete, the game does become a bit monotonous. It’s worth a playthrough, for sure, just not one you’ve paid full price for.


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