Sunset Overdrive debuted at E3 2013 in a blaze of eye-searing neon, with an all-too-short teaser trailer that left everybody wanting more, desperate to find out what that was all about. Now, nearly 12 months later, it’s time for Insomniac Games to take the wraps off… and time for us to put our sunglasses on. The super-bright colours and cartoon graphics have not been toned down. Sunset City is the messy, sprawling love child of Times Square and Harajuku, flat surfaces covered with advertising, streets crawling with mutants.
It’s been 17 days since Horror Night, the fateful evening where FizzCo held a grand launch party for its latest energy drink. OVERCHARGE DELIRIUM XT (“You have to say it like that because it’s big and dumb,” the developers explain) is just the thing to quench your thirst, restock your energy levels… and turn you into a horrific, pus-covered fluorescent animated corpse.
Everybody who’s everybody was invited to the launch party – except you, stuck in your temp job, cleaning up after everybody else. When the screaming started, you ran.
…and now here we are.
At first glance, Sunset Overdrive seems reminiscent of Tony Hawk’s skateboarding adventures, or the graffiti-streaked streets of Jet Set Radio Future. You run, jump and grind in an open world with a rockin’ soundtrack.
Sunset City has been designed as a giant playground. Everywhere you look, there’s something to do, to explore, to climb. Umbrellas and cafe awnings become oversized trampolines for you to get that extra height – and if there aren’t any nearby, those parked and abandoned cars are also plenty bouncy. Of course, there’s no double-jumping allowed (that’s too disrespectful of the laws of physics), but if you jump at the precise moment that you hit a bouncy object, you’ll be thrown twice as high.
It’s worth noting that in the face of so much potential overload, Insomniac has kept the game’s control scheme to something easily handled. Moving around in the game is based almost entirely around two buttons. A handles all the jumping and vaulting (and you’ll be doing a lot of that), while X attaches you to things, whether that be grinding on rails or hanging beneath them. Triggers and bumpers handle weapons and other skills, but it’s really a very basic scheme, and easy to master quickly.
The developers have also neatly skirted the concept of overload when it comes to the graphics and art style, too. Yes, this is bright. Yes, it’s covered in billboards and exploding orange mutants, and it owes more than a little of itself to Tank Girl and the mind of Jamie Hewlett, but Sunset Overdrive somehow manages to remain coherent. There’s a lot going on, but it’s easy to keep track of it all.
Music is a crucial, integral part of Sunset Overdrive, even though the team hasn’t quite settled on a final soundtrack just yet. The raucous punk music that inspired Drew Murray and Marcus Smith to start the project turned out to be too fast for the game that evolved, forcing the team back to their record collections.
Jon Paquette, lead writer on the game, describes “music missions” – each writer was asked to create a mission based on, or inspired by, an iconic song. While most of these languished on the cutting room floor, Jon namechecks artists like The Who, Iggy Pop and Electric 6, illustrating the diversity – and energy – the team was drawing on.
There were books and films thrown into the inspiration melting pot, too. Various interpretations of Richard Matheson’s novel I Am Legend, including Will Smith hitting golfballs off the wing of a Lockheed jet in the 2007 film, and Charlton Heston driving his convertible with the top down through the deserted streets of Los Angeles in Omega Man.
Even 80s British sit-com The Young Ones cast its shadow over development, with some of the Californian development team left more confused than amused by the antics of Neil and Vyvyan.
Punk rock is the lifeblood of Sunset Overdrive. Its influences are obvious and everywhere, from the distorted power chords that scream as you trigger in-game events, to the bright coloured streak in your character’s hair. But there’s plenty that run along beneath the surface, too: The end of society as we know it has been triggered not by a virus, aliens or George Romero zombies, but by human error caused by greed – and then covered up by the anonymity of a large corporation.
The most obvious, most punk rock thing, though? The end of the world is an excuse to have fun, to do all the things you aren’t able to do in modern society. Run along walls. Jump on cars. Go places you’re “not allowed” to go, and do things you’re “not allowed” to do. Break things, celebrate the fact you’ve survived the end times, and just have fun. It’s a video game, after all.
You’ll still die, of course. Sometimes, the swarms of OD’d just get too much, a giant inflatable mascot fires one too many energy blasts in your direction, or you fall from a great height onto a not-so-bouncy surface. When that happens, Sunset Overdrive cackles with glee as it acknowledges that which sets video games apart from real life: Respawns.
Your character will be brought back into the game world in a beaten-up old van, teleported in from a flying saucer, and resurrected The Mummy-style out of an Egyptian sarcophagus. There are nods to pop culture and other games (keep an eye out for a certain piece of Aperture Science technology), and the whole thing makes you realise that video games are actually not at all like real life, so why not have some fun with it?
Throughout the years, whether it be the mechanical gizmos from Ratchet & Clank or Resistance‘s complicated Arc Charger, Insomniac is well known for having fun with its weapon design – and Sunset Overdrive is no exception, even if this time, the freeze gun has a little springy reindeer on the front of it.
Last year’s teaser trailer included a quick glimpse of something firing 12″ vinyl records, Shawn of the Dead-style. We now know that’s called High Fidelity, and it’s just one of a ridiculous arsenal of weaponry you’ve cobbled together in your awesomepocolypse.
The High Fidelity is also a great example of how each weapon has been created with a certain level of possibility in mind. Looking closely, you can see how these weapons might actually work. Sure, they probably won’t, but it’s nice attention to detail when you realise the weapon in your character’s hands is built around a carefully-recreated jukebox record-changer mechanism, rather than simply relying on video game magic.
The same pseudo-realism has been applied to the super-flashy Roman Candle Gun (which shoots fireworks), the “fire and forget” helicopter/pistol combo of the Hover Turret, and the Captain Ahab, sure to be a favourite with the snipers. Take aim carefully, you’re firing a harpoon attached to a can of Overcharge. The can bursts on impact, leaving a pool of energy drink that will attract – and trap – the OD’d. It’s then a simple matter of pulling out an explosive weapon of choice and blasting away to take out a whole bunch at once.
One of my favourite weapons (largely for its unique combination of adorable explosives) is the TNTeddy gun. Imagine a grenade launcher, but something that fires bundles of dynamite… and those bundles are being clutched, desperately, by the world’s cutest teddy bear. Making matters worse (or better?), the teddy wriggles and squirms as you prepare to send him to oblivion, making the whole experience just a little guilt-ridden. The toy’s not too cute to fire though, particularly when you know you’ll be rewarded with a teddybear head explosion for taking out enough enemies in a single blast.
The art team at Insomniac has taken obvious delight in consistently breaking the fourth wall. Your character lands on the pavement from a great height, leaving “KRAK” broken across the concrete. One weapon causes an explosion with flames curling to spell out BOOM, another strikes an enemy and labels it clearly a “HEADSHOT”. It’s not so clear as the character turning directly to the camera, but it’s another example of Sunset Overdrive not pretending to be anything other than a video game.
Full of punk rock swagger, the more stylish and aggressive you are, the more you are rewarded. An on-screen style meter fills up as you kill enemies, traverse around Sunset City, or – for bonus points – kill enemies while traversing Sunset City. This adds up, unlocking abilities, power-ups and damage multipliers, and contributing to your skill tree (known here as an Amp system).
Rather than simply landing on your feet from a jump, you’ll now KRAK into the concrete and cause an energy blast, killing nearby OD’d. Early on, you might duck and roll – as you progress, you’ll learn the skill of morphing into a wrecking ball and smashing through crowds. The Twist of Fate Amp can be applied to your assault rifle (or TNTeddy gun), giving you an ever-increasing chance of triggering a miniature nuclear blast with every pull of the trigger.
This Amp system is boosted by exploring the world, discovering recipes and then crafting them using cans of Overcharge as well as other bits and pieces that may be dropped by enemies.
Mostly, you’ll increase your style points organically, as you cruise around Sunset City completing challenges (these include timed comeback, traversal and loot collection), story-driven quests (“Collect three comic books”, that sort of thing – these are not required to complete the game), and compulsory missions (like taking down a radio tower). To keep your interest, the dev team is promising a “more Insomniac approach”, so you won’t be stuck doing the same thing time after time.
Enemies work on a dynamic encounter system – if you clear out a section of the map, it will remain empty for a while, but the OD’d, Scabs (other people who have not mutated, but who have used their powers for evil) and robotic security guards will eventually find their way back and respawn.
…and this whole time, nobody’s really spoken about you, the player character. That’s because there isn’t really one specific you. The character is deliberately non-gender specific – you can make it male or female – and has very few defining characteristics. It’s essentially a blank canvas, which you can decorate to your heart’s desire. Ripped jeans, a flowing trench coat and a shaved head? Pigtails, a beard, a tutu and a full-body tattoo? Clothes are also non-gender specific: One wardrobe fits all here, folks. It’s refreshing and exciting to have the freedom to create your own character that truly represents you in Sunset City, and I can’t wait to get my hands on it again.
Of course, we have to wait a while. The Xbox One exclusive Sunset Overdrive isn’t due out until the second half of this year (North American autumn, AU/NZ spring), and the team at Insomniac still have plenty of work to do to get it ready. The HUD is being completely redesigned – rumour has it Microsoft gave the studio an award for the most terrible health meter of all time – but if what we’ve seen so far is any indication, we’re in for a punk rock treat by the end of the year.