"I started this game collecting trash," my character quipped late in Sunset Overdrive, "and now I'm collecting trash again." She was defending a makeshift boat that was trying to escape the zombie-infested wasteland of Sunset City. It was a thrilling chase scene. So why were we collecting trash in the middle of it?
Well, see: the boat was really more of a barge, which makes perfect sense, seeing as Sunset Overdrive is a post apocalyptic adventure about the people who survived a cataclysmic event involving a giant evil corporation distributing tainted energy drinks that turned an entire city into bulbous, shrieking pus-filled monsters. Some of these survivors naturally wanted to escape, and do so by any means necessary. Hence the water-bound garbage disposal device that was meant to be our ticket out of there. Once we got moving, however, the infected denizens of Sunset City descended on us with incredible fury. Guns in hand, I leapt feverishly between the barge and the surrounding city streets—zipping along the corners of buildings and tightly-knit power lines as I did my best to shoot anything that moved. But the swarm of monsters was too dizzying to keep track of, all at once. Neon orange zombies glommed on me whenever my feet touched the ground. Sickly mutants fired ropy strings of greenish acid. Hulking giants and impish bat-like creatures soon followed, all taking aim at our pitiful little vessel—our last hope for escape.
The woman steering the ship cried out for help, saying that the boat couldn't hold much longer and I had to do something. And so, in addition to fending off endless waves of bad guys, I had to bounce around the outermost edges of Sunset City searching for bright green, glowing containers, pick them up, and race back to the barge to deposit them in the vessel's gullet. Whenever I did this, the boat's health bar would nudge up again slightly. This gave me a brief reprieve to return to my zombie-killing.
"I started this game collecting trash, and now I'm collecting trash again." This passing remark might be surprising, even amusing, if it wasn't the last in a long line of identical cracks. Sunset Overdrive has a remarkable ability to turn practically any moment into an opportunity to make a snide comment about its own video game-ness. Your character is simply known as "Player" (get it?), to give one example, and that moniker is brought up in passing dialogue with other characters very, very often. Whenever "Player" does something that would seem arbitrary or out of place in the real world, a disembodied voice might come in to remind you that you're not in the real world, because you're a character inside a video game, doing video game things. Get it? Even the disembodied voice is introduced by making a joke about how game developer surveys have shown that players understand directives best when they're delivered by disembodied voices. Get it?
Get it? Sunset Overdrive implores. Eh? Do you get it yet? Ok, you got that one...but do you get it now? How about now? Eh? EH? See, this time, it's the Player herself who's making the joke. Y'know...health, green boxes, trash, fetch quests? It's funny, right? Because, you know, the character is saying that it's a video game and everything? Look: she's even whining about what you're doing as you're making her do it! See, it's totally breaking the fourth wall!
Only problem is: it was already broken a long, long time ago. Sunset Overdrive first delivered this punchline back in June with an E3 trailer that proclaimed at one point: "It's a fucking video game!" If only they'd laid this over-eager humor to rest right then and there:
Instead, there I was on the trash barge: more than ten hours into Sunset Overdrive, and actually having a great deal of fun. Until the game felt the need to once again prod me with a reminder that hey, it's a video game, so I should totally be having fun.
That's Sunset Overdrive in a nutshell. At every conceivable turn, it tries to give the player a wink and a nudge—a friendly yet forceful acknowledgement that yes, this is a game, it's not meant to be taken seriously, and we should all appreciate that so we can ease into its zany bombast. But it delivers this same joke so often, and so zealously, that it becomes less of a knowing wink than a hyperactive, twitchy stare.
As this humor becomes ever more grating, it quickly reveals a lie at the heart of the game. Because no matter how hard Sunset Overdrive tries to dress itself up and chuckle about how lame it is that video games (hey! that's what this is!) demand their players indulge in mundane and often meaningless assignments to go to point B, pick up a box, then return to point A, it can't change the fact that the game is telling you to do just that. All these self-aware zingers are just a thin mask intended to conceal an essential failure of the imagination.
And yet, when I got over how annoying it was to hear my otherwise charming protagonist let loose another string of "fucks" before cracking wise about her place in my video game, I also realized that I was genuinely exhilarated. Those little green boxes added yet another element of challenge to an extended firefight that became increasingly frantic with every passing moment. I remember sprinting towards the last green cube as fast as I could, eyes darting to the ship's rapidly diminishing health, plunging headfirst into a sea of zombies and chopping at them ferociously to try and clear a path back to the barge. When I couldn't find one, I dove straight into the river and just swam for it. I dropped the trash into the health-deposit-box with mere seconds to spare. As I watched the mission fade into a cutscene, I noticed that my heart was pumping.
That's Sunset Overdrive in a nutshell, too: a series of increasingly frenzied battles set in a bleached-out dreamscape so ornately twisted that it forces you, quite literally, to always think on your feet. Its gameplay carves a deep, particular groove one must learn to fit into for any of it to be fun. But once you find that niche? It can be pretty great.
I'm tempted to hold up Sunset Overdrive as the latest in a pantheon of aesthetically and tonally braindead pieces of work that succeed because their gameplay is solid and their off-color humor is charming enough that it doesn't totally gross you out: the Saints Rows, the DmC: Devil May Crys, even the South Park: The Stick of Truths of the world. But even that feels generous: Sunset Overdrive is far more tonally inconsistent, and its gameplay is far less intuitive, than any of those other games.
If Sunset Overdrive has taught me one thing, however, it's that tonal inconsistency isn't always a flaw. The game is a mess of contradictions, mostly because it's so tactless in its presentation that it begins hurling shit at you the moment you start playing. It's the kind of game that has the brazen stupidity to present you, in that very first moment, with a shotgun that has two hefty metals balls dangling from the bottom of its barrel. It's called the "flaming compensator," and it ejects goopy ropes of bright orange liquid from the other end.
And yet, it almost makes up for that whole embarrassment by creating one of the best shotguns I've used in a third person shooter in a good long while.
It's the kind of game that has a quest arc that contains one passage where you befriend a member of the rock band The Melvins, and another where you must perform a handful of predictable fetch-quests to gain the trust of a group of Hispanic women who all wear skimpy schoolgirl outfits and Day of the Dead makeup. That comes shortly after you sneak into a Japanese history museum, wherein you encounter a troupe of boy scouts decked out in Samurai gear and end up fighting a giant mutant flaming dragon.
It's horrendously tasteless and backwards at times, but then it drops in a character to cheer you up with the surprisingly progressive message: "We're all walking clichés in somebody's eyes!" And what's more, it actually follows through on these sorts of statements by offering things like a wonderfully silly and very...open minded character creator that lets you change your physical appearance, skin color, even your gender, pretty much whenever you want to.
It throws a lot of shit at you, in other words, and not all of it is great. But however shaky Sunset Overdrive's foundation might appear at times, it's strong enough that a lot of this stuff manages to stick.
Let's go back to that very first moment, when you're handed the magically...well-endowed shotgun. Sunset Overdrive begins with you as a low level employee at FizzCo, the aforementioned giant evil corporation, on the evening that its sinister zombifying plan is set in motion. Cans of a new energy drink called "OverCharge Delirium XT" are distributed at an EDM concert being performed by what looks like a comically fictionalized version of Deadmau5, but one that also serves as a corporate mascot for FizzCo and one of the game's chief villains.
Energy drinks, EDM, and adolescent humor: these are the foundations of Sunset Overdrive's vision, and also a million frat parties across the country. But it doesn't stop there. Because these are the bad guys. Once the energy drinks get into the concert-goers, all hell breaks loose. Oozing bags of snot burst from people's skin, and they start trying to eat you. Everything takes on a sickly orange or bright yellow hue. Sunset Overdrive switches from EDM to an endlessly chugging guitar, one that always sounds vaguely familiar but not quite identifiable. Like a garage band you haven't heard since high school and are having trouble remembering the name of, probably because you'd rather keep it buried somewhere deep in the recesses of your post-adolescent consciousness. The term "shredding" comes to mind. That's appropriate, seeing as shortly after Sunset Overdrive's new soundtrack kicks in, it also tells you to start moving around like you're playing an old-school skateboarding game. And then it hands you the flaming compensator.
Skateboarding, garage rock, and a penis-shaped shotgun: that's the real tone of Sunset Overdrive. Everything in the game is delivered in a confrontational, intentionally grating way, as if its trying to stir up some sense of rebellion. But rebellion against what, exactly? Electronic music and soft drinks? I suppose those are the symbols of bland, corporate-influenced youth culture the game props up as an aesthetic strawman. But it could have come up with a far more clever way to go against the grain than by invoking a handful of cultural referents that are at least a decade past their prime, and do so inside a world that has a visual palette as vibrant and grossly shiny as a slice of pizza.
Sunset Overdrive's irritating aesthetic is particularly disappointing because it's made by Insomniac Games, a studio that's won heaps of well-deserved praise for creating one of the most wonderfully overwrought comic shooter-platformer hybrids out there with Ratchet & Clank. That series might seem tame in comparison to Insomniac's new game since it always wore its "family-friendly" badge proudly. But what the studio seems like it has failed to appreciate about its earlier work is that not blurting out "fuck" after every other word and making guns that look like truck nutz can actually be a useful exercise in creative restraint. What Ratchet & Clank lacked in profanity or edginess, it morethan compensated for with its amazing and always-growing arsenal of weapons that made shooting at bad guys a far more interesting experience than just pointing in the direction of an enemy and pulling the trigger. Now, instead, the compensation we get is the flaming kind.
Sunset Overdrive has plenty of comically oversized killing contraptions you can acquire and modify with upgrades and additions. But these aren't truly weapons in the grand Ratchet & Clank tradition. Many of the guns that seem outlandish, such as one called "The Dude" that shoots giant bowling balls (get it?) or a freeze-ray-type cannon, don't transcend their status as intentionally zany gimmicks. As the game carried on towards its conclusion, I found that I gravitated more and more towards its traditional fare—a revolver, an AK-47, a grenade launcher that shoots explosive teddy bears instead of plain old grenades. The "weirdest" of my regular lineup were a gun that dropped acid-spewing turrets and another that popped out gun-wielding balloons. Like the teddy bear grenade launcher, these are little more than joke versions of many a shooter's bread-and-butter arsenal. And as the flaming compensator shows, these jokes aren't always very good.
Sunset Overdrive's weapons are a lot of fun to use—don't get me wrong. But viewed in the context of Insomniac's past work they just feel depressingly...normal by comparison. Which, again, feels very odd given how hard this new game tries to convince you that it's out there. I think this points to the core difference between Insomniac's past work and its new game, however, and the one that leaves the latter coming up very short in comparison. Ratchet and Clank was a lighthearted, joyful romp through outer space as a furry little creature and his equally adorable robot companion. It didn't need to try to be weird. It already was weird. Its colorful assortment of guns was a natural extension of that. They were eccentric in their own way, but the charmingly youthful innocence of Ratchet & Clank's two main characters placed a protective lid over the whole experience that kept any one disruptive element, like a particularly zany weapon, from spilling over and making a mess of everything.
The deep underlying cynicism at the heart Sunset Overdrive makes any similarly protective measure impossible. Ironically, then, the end result is an inventory of weapons whose sheer adequacy once again reveals a lie at the heart of this game: it wants you to think its not afraid to really go there. To what end, though? A penis-shaped shotgun? Is that a "there" we really need to go to? Once you get over the revulsion of playing with a phallic shotgun, you realize it's still just a shotgun. A remarkably proficient one, sure. But after playing Sunset Overdrive for more than 20 hours, I'm left with the uneasy realization that its creative repertoire is surprisingly tame, even conservative, in a way Insomniac might not even realize.
Thankfully, Sunset Overdrive's weapons don't exist in isolation. This is still an open-world game, after all. And despite its unusual penchant for toxic, offensively bright neon hues, it's a pretty intriguing one. Ideally, you're supposed to spend very little time just hoofing it through the streets of Sunset City. Nearly every surface in the world provides an opportunity to indulge in some delightfully silly acrobatics: rails and edges to grind on, cars and shrubbery plumped up to let you bounce atop them like barely disguised balloons—if it's there, it's meant to be played with. Even the water in the game can be skimmed over as if it was one giant teeming mass of Jell-O. Cavorting around in this space felt like I was given some exclusive invitation to my very own private amusement park.
Like everything else in Sunset Overdrive, the game explains this peculiar form of running-and-gunning by hitting you over the head with constant reminders that you have to jump, dodge, grind, and bounce your way through the world. These come in the form of on-screen text notifications, audible shouts from other characters, and an never-ending barrage of "badges" you unlock just for doing things in the game. Unlike most of the other parts of the game, however, these reminders don't feel quite as overdone, because Sunset Overdrive's movement is genuinely unprecedented. Getting the hang of it is tricky, but also necessary. If you try to play the game as if it was a more standard third-person shooter like Uncharted or Gears of War, you'll be dead in a matter of seconds. Enemies come at you with insane numbers and zealous force, so standing still or not moving fast enough means that you'll be beset on all sides by zombie-like monsters trying to take big bites out of you in addition to any number of hostile projectiles that will zero in on your general whereabouts. You pretty much have to move about with the speed and agility of an amped-up mosquito just to survive.
It takes time and practice to adjust to the rhythm and pace of never really standing still. Once you do, Sunset Overdrive starts to make a lot more sense. At the beginning of the game, I kept feeling like I was tumbling unceremoniously off the tops of buildings and running face-first into walls. That, or hordes of infected. Within a few hours, however, I felt like I could glide from one end of Sunset City to the other without ever touching the ground. This is a feeling I always wished I had in more traditional superhero adventures like the Infamous and Batman: Arkham games—an undercurrent of appreciation for my Player's inhuman strength and agility. Moving through the Sunset City stirs up its own sense of viscerally satisfaction, one that I'm usually only allowed to relish when I'm killing things in other games. After I put my controller down to write this review, it occurred to me that I'd barely used the game's "fast travel" feature. It was far more enjoyable to move through the world with an overpowering sense of ease and grace.
I don't know if I actually was that graceful all the time. But the feeling itself is important here. It's a stride one must hit before they can actually start to relax and just have fun with the game. Sunset Overdrive's difficulty curve is smartly unforgiving in this regard, because its more elaborate set pieces and wacky boss-fights require a tolerance for dizzying chaos that I certainly didn't have at the outset of the game.
One of the best battles in the game takes place on a large roller-coaster at the center of a fake castle you're assaulting with a group of live-action role-playing enthusiasts, for instance. Breaking into the fort is a drag, because it's one of the moments in the game where it's hard to find enough railings to grind on in order to move around seamlessly while shooting at the small army trying to keep you out of the makeshift fortress.
Once you crack into the base and start zipping up and down the ever-looping rails of the roller-coaster, however, the level hits its sweet spot. I zoomed back and forth with awesome speed, jumping between different levels of the roller coaster every few seconds to avoid the hordes of infected chasing after me and trying to zero in on the guy who was meant to be my main target. I got lost in the joyful furor of making piles of infected explode with a loud, gooey splat every time I fired an explosive teddy bear into their swarm for a few minutes before I finally summoned up the will and concentration to chase after the flaming roller coaster car in earnest. I chipped away at the car with my revolver until my health would get to low, and then I'd either reverse direction or jump to another area and try to scrounge up some green cubes. Finally after I'd done enough damage, the game instructed me to collide with the car headfirst. After another few minutes of almost-nauseating racing around the highs and lows of this veritable cyclone, I connected with the roller-coaster car. The entire screen erupted into a dazzling explosion. All bright orange and charred black. Again, uncomfortably close to the color of pizza.
After finishing that particular episode, I remember getting up from my couch and going to sit somewhere else in my apartment just because I felt I needed a breather. I'd only booted up my Xbox One maybe 45 minutes beforehand. That's a sign of how exhilarating this game can be, on one level. But I also needed a break because I was hoping that I was done with another of its irritatingly self-aware subplots—this one worse than most because it was about a group of LARP-ers, which provided even more opportunities than usual for the game's cringe-inducing "Hey, it's a video game!" jokes.
It's not that any one line is insufferably terrible (though some certainly are). Rather, what's unbearable about Sunset Overdrive's sense of humor is that it just doesn't know when to fucking stop. There are some moments that are genuinely charming and funny. The way your character comes back from the dead with a handful of quirkily referential respawn animations is particularly adorable, for example. But then, once again, the game almost ruins the whole joke by inserting a passing line at the very end of the game about the fact that it's making a joke with its clever respawn animations.
After hearing jibes like this, I often found myself want to shout at the screen: "Ok, ok, I get it: you're a video game and you know it. Now just be a fucking video game!"
When Sunset Overdrive does ease off its zingers and allows you to relax and enjoy yourself undisturbed, it can actually be a really good game. A great one, even. But it makes you climb over a giant heaping pile of bullshit just to get to that point.