The idea that Sunset City—the locale of Sunset Overdrive—is someone’s personal carnival is a metaphor that works pretty well; especially since the world is full of colourful things to see, set pieces with unique game mechanics to experience, and colourful people to blow up. Like carnivals, Sunset Overdrive also relies heavily on humour, but in Sunset Overdrive everyone plays the clown. Comedy is certainly a pillar that tries to hold up this game, but like a list of the games made by Insomniac it is hit or miss. There are a number of times that Sunset Overdrive is unbelievably funny, but often you’ll watch the game’s protagonist utter common memes like “boom goes the dynamite” while breaking the fourth wall over and over. Trust me when I say that the worst Sunset Overdrive has to offer is pretty hard to watch without cringing.
Sunset Overdrive also relies a little too heavily on referencing pop-culture things that are funny; which can still be a rewarding comedy form if done with finesse. Often it feels like Sunset Overdrive nails the timing, but they’ve landed on the wrong part of the timeline. I’ll buy that there are early 20-somethings out there that will have seen The Big Lebowski, but what audience will get references to 1985’s Gymkata, starring American gymnast Kurt Thomas?
Unfortunately, the problems with Sunset Overdrive do not stop with movie references you will have to look up. For example, the movement system of Sunset Overdrive is a lot like that of Jet Set Radio. You can easily attach and endlessly grind along railings, power lines, fences, rooftops, and more. You can also bounce off of canopies, umbrellas, sky lights, and so on. Many of your character’s buffs will also only operate after pulling off a long chain of grinding and jumping tricks. That said, the problem with the Sunset Overdrive movement system is that there are gaps at ground level that are hard to get out of. The best way to play Sunset Overdrive is to stay high and constantly grind on objects, but there are times when you’ll get knocked off your chosen path. This is annoying by itself, and usually you just jump back up onto the object you were grinding along to continue. Unfortunately, there are also pockets around the game-space that are devoid of the items you can use to restart your grinding. When you find yourself in one of these areas the fast pace nature of the game grinds to a halt as you scramble to find some place your character will grab onto. To be fair, you can still grind the ground level railings that flank every road, but they are tactically unsound because they have breaks in them every few feet; also, you are always in danger of being mobbed by mutants at ground level.
Another big focus of this game is what Insomniac likes to call the amps. In common videogame nomenclature, these amps are buffs that increase your power or give damage boosts to your weapons. One thing I will credit Sunset Overdrive with is the inventiveness of their games. Many boss battles and major set pieces offer game-play that is unique to the rest of Sunset Overdrive (and gaming as a whole in specific cases). The elemental add-ons that some amps offer are also pretty cool. That said, the missions that create amps are by far the worst part of the game. In basic terms, they are always the same tower defense mission that forces you to babysit one or more stills that are “brewing” your amps. Most of what you do in Sunset Overdrive is fun and imaginative gameplay that focuses on your grinding and your general travel capabilities. Brewing new amps comes down to setting up traps and defending the area from waves of mutants. It makes sense from a story point view, especially since Sunset Overdrive loves pop-culture references like Breaking Bad; however, these repetitive tower defense missions are just not fun.
That also explains why I am not a big fan of the game’s multiplayer. The main multiplayer mode that Insomniac is trying to push is called Chaos Squad. You and seven other people join a match with the look and the items you have collected from the single player campaign. Your team of eight then goes through a number of different missions inside Sunset City with different goals, and the activities you complete will determine how hard the end of the match will be. The end of the match turns out to be another round of the same tower defense game that wore out its welcome during the campaign; however, this time seven other people join you. If you like those tower defense missions from the campaign, Chaos Squad will let you play more of them online. People who dislike the tower defense mini-game will not be a big fan of this flagship multiplayer mode.
In the end, Sunset Overdrive sets out to constantly stay in motion from the moment you start, and somehow it manages to produce unusual and unique set pieces on a regular basis. However, the game is not perfect and will trip a few times (metaphorically speaking) when it is trying too hard to be funny or as a result of making you play that tower defense mini-game over and over again. That said, Sunset Overdrive is fun and it deserves the time of anyone who is willing to play an open world game populated with references that flip between 30 year old movies and modern day memes. Most of the game’s elements or mechanics are good separately, but no single element/mechanic is strong enough to carry the game on its back. Luckily the parts come together to create a decent contraption worth sitting down and experiencing.