Sunset Overdrive is one of the most breakneck, hyper-saturated, unflappably original games in quite some time. After the dull bro-shooter doldrums of Fuse, it's great to see Insomniac getting back into its wheelhouse with a game focused on bouncing around bright, colorful environments and shooting a bunch of ridiculous weapons. Some of its gameplay concepts could stand to be a little more fleshed out, but Sunset is a high-flying good time with some clever writing and design, and a lot of gleeful attitude.
The game is shot through with a punk rock aesthetic and sensibility that will either feel really fun or kind of dated (or both), depending on how old you are. I fell into the former category, which probably means I'm old. I mean, the game's cast features one of the members of The Melvins. How much of the game-playing youth even knows who The Melvins are at this point? Anyway, everything about the writing and visual design of Sunset Overdrive has a snarky, irreverent tone to it, as your nameless player character continually thumbs his or her nose at Fizzco, an ethically bankrupt mega-corporate beverage maker that's unleashed a new energy drink which turns all of Sunset City's residents into slobbering mutants. (It's worth noting that you don't have to play a punk type yourself--the robust character maker lets you revise your gender, face, body type, and a huge range of silly clothing options at any time.)
The way Sunset Overdrive presents itself is absolutely top-notch. From the first minute, it combines dynamic camera work with a creative use of motion graphics and a clever self-awareness to create a lot of moments worth chuckling at. There's a worrying number of eye-rollingly flat one-liners early on that makes it feel like the game is trying too hard to be edgy, but Sunset seems to get more comfortable with its sense of humor as you get deeper in. Hearing NPCs mocking the ridiculous design tropes of open-world games, and seeing your character grab a HUD element to use as a weapon or threaten someone by popping up the radial weapon menu is always a delight. The comedy is at its best when the game is poking fun at itself, and luckily you get more of that in the latter half of the game. There are plenty of opportunities for absurdity among the various factions you meet, which include a scout troop that follows the bushido code and a group of LARPers that take their role-playing very seriously.
Playing the game is about always being in motion. Nearly every object in the environment serves as a bounce pad for no particular reason, and once you're airborne, you need to find a power line, railing, or other rail-like surface to grind on as soon as possible, for two reasons. First, bouncing, grinding, and shooting enemies while doing both will build up a "style" meter that activates a bunch of special abilities you can customize and equip. The second you stop using the traversal mechanics, that style meter depletes rapidly, so you want to keep moving just to keep your abilities powered up.
Perhaps more importantly, the game is balanced in a way that really encourages you not to be on the ground longer than you have to be. The energy drink mutants, human scavengers, and Fizzco security robots that populate the city all do enough damage to take you from full health to death fast, and their aim is good enough that you'll sponge up a ton of damage when you're on foot. The penalty for death is usually incredibly forgiving and you get a cheeky respawn animation every time, so dying isn't all that frustrating, but in general the game is more fun the faster you're moving. Early on, it feels like you don't quite have enough mobility to make it from one bounce pad or railing to the next without hitting the ground and interrupting your momentum, but the game rectifies this quickly enough by doling out more traversal abilities like an air dash that help you close the distance.
As an Insomniac game, Sunset features a ton of weapons and upgrades to play around with, though despite an arsenal of something like 20 guns, some are more fun to shoot than others. You can equip various mods on those weapons to give them a bunch of goofy extra effects, but I still found myself sticking to only four or five weapons for the entirety of the game. The same goes for the robust character upgrade system, which includes both the amps you activate with your style meter and a second set of dozens of passive abilities to choose from. I stuck to the amps provided by the story, and found a set of passives I liked, and used those for the entirety of the game. You can rack up currency and also hunt down hundreds of collectible ingredients to upgrade those amps if you like, but everything in the game is so expensive that I didn't feel like investing the time to track down enough cash and collectibles to upgrade or swap out mods that were already working well.
I found those half-baked systems to be a relatively minor issue since the game was plenty fun to play even without fully engaging with them. And as open-world games go, this one certainly doesn't lack for content. There are quite a few main story missions, and thankfully they frequently go beyond the baseline "go here, kill 10 enemies, then go over there and do it again" style of design you often see in this sort of game. There are a lot of story and side missions with neat twists on the core mechanics. The game also features some of the best boss fights in recent memory. Rather than a bunch of lumbering bullet sponges, the bosses primarily focus on making you use the traversal mechanics in some interesting ways. There are also dozens of third-tier challenge missions that are ranked by leaderboard, and you can replay main missions for par times. Between all that stuff and the zillion collectibles, there's a ton to do in here.
If eight-player co-op is your thing, Sunset also has that, in the form of Chaos Squad, a round-based online mode that lets you search for matches while you're running around in the single-player game. Chaos Squad has everyone racing around the map to each activity--some derived from story mechanics and some unique for this mode--and then giving everyone a cumulative score based on how well you do. At the end of a match, your point totals feed into some slot-machine-like random drops that give you extra money or weapon buffs to take with you back into the main game. Chaos Squad is a decent diversion if you get bored of the regular open world, and it's nice that it offers some benefits that persist outside the multiplayer, but it's not something I found myself coming back to repeatedly. The story mode is the main draw here.
This is an great debut for Insomniac on a new console, and it's great to see the developer of Ratchet & Clank getting back to a lot of colorful nonsense after focusing on Fuse and Resistance for so long. There's some room for growth in a few spots if this turns into a franchise, as it probably will, but this first effort is already a good solid reason to own an Xbox One, and one of the stronger open-world games released this year.