Stace Harman goes hands-on with Insomniac Games’ new IP and discovers that the end of days needn’t spell doom and gloom for everyone after all.
"This is a video game that relishes being a video game and while its post-apocalyptic-style fiction is familiar it has been approached in a manner that befits its similarly offbeat weapons."
The most succinct way to convey the tone of Insomniac Games’ upcoming open-world third-person shooter, Sunset Overdrive, is introduce you to a few of its weapons – the most ordinary of which is the machine-gun-style AKFuckYouUp.
If that made you smile, you're off to a good start but let's see how you fare with some of the others.
The High Fidelity fires 12” vinyl discs that ricochet off hard surfaces, the Roman Candle’s firework ammo fizzles, pops and burns, and the TNTeddy is a grenade launcher by any other name but one whose ammo is an adorable teddy bear that toys with the deadly payload strapped to its chest while it sits idle in the launcher. The Captain Ahab is a powerful, slow-firing harpoon gun with an attached can of sugary energy drink that doubles as a means of crowd control and there’s a freeze gun that turns its victims into snowmen. All the weapons feature fourth-wall-breaking, Scott Pilgrim style meta-effects and all are designed to riff on the notion of a traditional arsenal.
As should be abundantly clear from this small sample of the final weapon count, Sunset Overdrive sees Insomniac continue its proud tradition of leftfield armaments. It also goes a long way to shouting - loud and clear - that this is a video game that relishes being a video game and while its post-apocalyptic-style fiction is familiar it has been approached in a manner that befits its similarly offbeat weapons.
Its 2027 and FizzCo, a mega corporation based in the vibrant but recently ruined Sunset City, has inadvertently created a monster. Well, a whole city full of them, actually, after a preview night for the launch of its new uber-energy drink, Overcharge Delirium XT, should have sent consumers home on a high instead turned those that drank it into grotesque, pustule-covered monsters known as the OD’D.
Fearing an understandable backlash that would halt its planned worldwide rollout of Overcharge, FizzCo hastily erects walls around the city and blames a viral outbreak for the horrors taking place inside, while assuring the world that it’s doing everything that it can to contain the situation. It’s on the wrong side of these walls that you find yourself; a down-on-your-luck regular Joe who was spared the fate of your fellow citizens due to having had a job collecting litter on the night of the big soiree rather than being able to join in (yes, you’re that regular a Joe).
The thing is, over the course of the subsequent seventeen days since “Horror Night” came to pass you’ve come to realise that this localised apocalypse isn’t quite as bad as it might initially have seemed and that, as it turns out, you have an untapped skill for survival and, once you move past the fact that everyone you previously knew has been transformed into a ravenous freak, you discover that residing in a city with no rules is actually kind of fun.
“We had a very clear goal upfront of creating Fun in the End Times,” offers creative director Marcus Smith. “At that time we didn’t really know what our mechanics were going to be, so as designers you sit around chewing over things like ‘what is fun’? Well, fast is more fun than slow, so then we look at how we can speed things up and add that feeling of velocity throughout the game. We also want to have a load of abilities but to also make it easy to jump in and still have a feeling of mastery in the game.”
"Referencing the likes of Tony Hawk’s and Prince of Persia, Sunset Overdrive’s combination of rail-grinds, wall-runs and zip-lines ensures that moving around its world is an entertaining diversion."
Much of this fun – and the thing that most evidently separates Sunset Overdrive from the likes of Capcom’s similarly OTT open world third-person shooter, Dead Rising 3 – is the traversal system. Referencing the likes of Tony Hawk’s and Prince of Persia, Sunset Overdrive’s combination of rail-grinds, wall-runs and zip-lines ensures that moving around its world is an entertaining diversion in its own right.
Jumping towards one of the myriad obstacles and hitting X has you snap to it ensures your avatar doesn’t accidentally zig when you wanted them to zag, while a large number of bouncy obstacles, from cars to shop awnings, add zing to your vertical movement as well as your horizontal traversal. Add combat into the mix and it quickly becomes apparent that Insomniac is on the verge of capturing that hallowed combination of easy to grasp, difficult to master.
After ten minutes of running around and falling off stuff, I’m able to put together some basic movement and combat combos that feel both fun and empowering. Aiding this feeling is the style system, that rewards combat on the move with higher levels that enhance damage and triggers Amp upgrades – craftable kit that slots into the weapons and the melee attack to imbue them with a chance of causing status effects and customise your eight-weapon load-out to make it still more offbeat.
The wider customisation options of Sunset Overdrive extend beyond the Amp system to include a full range of aesthetic decisions. By setting up your character as just another Sunset City resident, Insomniac can offer the option to make them anyone you want. Male or female, you can choose one of six different races with comprehensive tattoo and body paint options.
What’s more, irrespective of which gender you choose you can wear every item of clothing - including underwear - so if you find the lack of restrictive social norms and eyes of judgement liberating you can indulge to your heart’s content. It shouldn’t be a big deal that I can choose to adorn my avatar’s manly physique with lingerie, a ball-gown and a tiara but I’m grateful to Insomniac for extending its sense of Fun in the End Times to allow me to break out my weekend wardrobe on a weekday.
“We had the ‘be who you want to be’ element and we will have multiplayer so we want people to be able to distinguish themselves from one another,” says Smith. “That meant taking the decision to make clothing aesthetic only and have no functional attributes on clothing because as soon as you do that everyone’s wearing the same overpowered piece of armour.”
"Sunset Overdrive is a game about excess but one that looks to have a degree of style in the manner in which its urban playground facilitates high-velocity traversal and calls for sharp thinking on the fly."
It’s when talk of multiplayer rears its head that things get a little quieter and it’s apparent that we’ll have to wait for E3 for a more in-depth look at how this will work with Sunset Overdrive’s mission structure. NPCs will feature strongly, however, as various factions that have survived the seventeen days since Horror Night re-emerge, irrevocably changed – like the Adventure Scouts that took refuge in the Japanese Heritage museum and since adopted the Bushido Code alongside their own basic survival techniques. You can expect these factions to feature in a number of the missions that progress the main story as well as the optional quests and bite-sized challenges, while alongside the various classes of OD’D, there’ll also be opportunistic human survivors known as Scabs and FizzCo’s own robotic security force.
Sunset Overdrive is a game about excess but one that looks to have a degree of style in the manner in which its urban playground facilitates high-velocity traversal and calls for some sharp thinking on the fly to make the most of its combat system. There’s still plenty more to see and questions to be answered concerning its progression systems and just how well its multiplayer components will slot into its open world but after the doom and gloom of so many post-apocalyptic set-ups it’s refreshing to experience something whose primary concern is that you’re having fun and whose tongue is planted firmly in its cheek.
Sunset Overdrive will be released exclusively on Xbox One later this year.
This article was facilitated by a press trip to Insomniac’s offices in California. Travel and accommodation were paid for by Microsoft.