Shoot one of Sunset Overdrive’s enemies – the aggressive, bulbous OD’d – enough times and it’ll explode into a sticky mess of tartrazine-bright goop. These mutants used to be humans, but have transformed after swigging too many contaminated energy drinks. The same could be said for Sunset Overdrive itself, which buzzes with the kind of caffeinated, glucose-spike high of someone who’s just finished a quadruple espresso with a double RedBull chaser.
It’s a flash of dazzling colour in a genre that could use it. Not for nothing did developer Insomniac’s E3 presentation opt to begin with a tongue-in-cheek mickey-take of cover shooters, as its punky, cocky protagonist surfs in on a metal door, blasting enemies left and right while sprinting up and along walls, as a soldier, low on ammo, cowers behind a stack of crates. Insomniac happily admits it’s poking fun at itself here, and it’s immediately clear that Sunset Overdrive has much more in common with Ratchet and Clank than Resistance.
Indeed, its deliriously gaudy style is so bright you might need to give your eyes a little time to adjust – and the same is true of the way it handles. Its attempts to meld parkour-style movement with rail grinding and shooting brings to mind the Tony Hawk games as much as its mutant population and wacky weapon set recalls Dead Rising, and initially it feels unfamiliar. We’re used to free-running being as simple as squeezing a trigger button and pointing an analogue stick in the right direction, with the odd jab of the jump button. But Sunset Overdrive will force you to unlearn what you already know.
Not that the controls are particularly complex. You’ll press A to launch yourself skyward from parasols, awnings and bushes, grind power cables, edges and railings by pressing X, and run along walls by pressing X again. At first, you’ll need to figure out what objects you can interact with and how, and it isn’t immediately clear, but you’ll soon learn to ‘read’ the world and how you can use the environment to get around. The game moves at such a frantic pace that it can be initially hard to parse, but once it clicks you’ll be vaulting, leaping and grinding like a pro skater. Again, the Tony Hawk comparison seems particularly pertinent – it’s all about finding the ideal ‘line’ and working out how to stay off the ground, only landing when you absolutely have to.
“Once you’re in the zone, it’s genuinely exciting to zip around, blasting enemies while grinding and triggering environmental traps with a stomp.”
Time your kicks and leaps right and you’ll experience the giddy thrill of fast, fluid locomotion: once you get in the zone, it’s genuinely exciting to zip around, blasting enemies while grinding and triggering environmental traps with a stomp. A theme park area is the perfect playground, with dozens of tricks to try out: land from a high jump on a test-your-strength machine, and you’ll ring the bell, as bolts of bright blue lightning arc towards any OD’d in the vicinity.Or you can bounce on a Pandora’s Box, which spits out grumpy garden gnomes who’ll fight on your behalf with their tiny pickaxes, while another trap sees hot jets of flame
burst forth from the ground. Land on the rocket seats of a merry-go-round, meanwhile, and you’ll turn them into deadly projectiles, as they break free of their moorings and zoom towards terra firma with an explosive touchdown.
Enemies come in several varieties, from the regular OD’d to mini-bosses - including the hulking Herker, a former construction worker who’s swelled grotesquely into an oversized beast with a JCB lodged in what used to be his left arm. He’s tough and surprisingly agile for a big fella, and in combination with the standard mutants and human enemies who’ll pepper you with fire, you’ll need to be careful to keep your distance where possible.
That’s not the only encouragement to stay off the floor, either. The longer you stay off the ground, the more enemies you defeat, and the more environmental tricks you uncover, the more your style meter in the top right of the screen will fill up. This in turn ties into the Amps mechanic: special abilities that can only be activated when the gauge has passed certain markers. These range from melee attacks that produce cyclones to dodge rolls that are capable of electrifying OD’d and human foes alike. Should you get hit too often, or fail to string together a series of leaps and grinds, then it’ll deplete, leaving you with just your basic skills. Again, it’s all about mastery: the slicker your moves, the easier the game becomes.
Not that you’re ever short of ways to get yourself out of trouble. Insomniac’s love of outlandish and inventively-named weaponry has rarely been more evident outside the Ratchet and Clank games, and already a few are looking like potential classics. The AK-F**kyouup is your basic assault rifle, while the Flaming Compensator is a shotgun that fires out wide bursts of fiery buckshot. The One-Handed Dragon shoots firecrackers that lights up OD’d, while High Fidelity allows you to slice off heads and limbs, firing out vinyl records at speed. And you can always combine two for spectacular results: with the Freeze Bomb launcher you can put enemies on ice, before shattering them with an explosive cuddly toy, courtesy of the TNTeddy.
“Even after the sun goes down, the world pulses with colour, with neon signs and glowing power lines ensuring you won’t get lost in the dark.”
It’s frantic enough when playing solo, but the madness is amplified in multiplayer mode Chaos Squad. Here, you and up to seven friends work together to save Sunset City, playing through a range of sandbox missions involving combat, traversal, scavenger hunts and friendly competitions. Once each mission sequence is over, the Night Defence section tasks you with working closely as a group, as you defend vats of energy drink from waves of OD’d. Even after the sun goes down, the world pulses with colour, with neon signs and glowing power lines ensuring you won’t get lost in the dark.
Our main concern is that Sunset Overdrive could be lightweight in theme and in execution. While the weapons, humour and open world are all present and correct, it’s vital that Insomniac nails the controls and the sensation of weight and momentum, without making your avatar feel too leaden-footed. It’s a tricky balance, but assuming it gets that oh-so-important part down, Sunset Overdrive could well provide Xbox One with the jolt of energy Microsoft’s console needs right now.