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Hands-on: Sunset Overdrive is brash and joyously snotty

By Nick Cowen on Tuesday 17th Jun 2014 at 6:20 AM UTC

You can use one word to sum up Sunset Overdrive, Insomniac Games' open-world bullet-fest and the Xbox One's big white hope for the holidays: 'irreverent'.

After watching the game's second E3 outing at Microsoft's E3 press conference and finally getting a hands-on with it, I can report that Sunset Overdrive is one the most brash and joyously snotty shooters I've played in recent memory.

I mean that as a compliment, by the way. Sunset Overdrive seems to have been created by developers who are both fans of the shooter genre and yet utterly sick and tired of how po-faced it has become in recent years.

You can see this from is every aspect of Insomniac's game - it's even present in the E3 trailer, which mocks everything from military protagonists, to cover based shooters to even the idea that the player won't end up on the winning side of the overall exchange.

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But it isn't just the fact that Sunset Overdrive clocks a withering eye in the direction of the genre that birthed it that infuses it with irreverence. It's also the way in which it unapologetically borrows features and mechanics from any game Insomniac has taken a shine to. Seriously, this game is stealing from everyone.

Sunset Overdrive is a third-person shooter set in a chaotic open world, which the player navigates mainly through free-running and fluid motion (Crackdown, Assassin's Creed, Prototype). The protagonist starts off with normal ordinance, but gradually the guns they wield become crazier and crazier (Borderlands). The player is rewarded through chaining together stylish kills and the more variation they display, the more they earn (Bulletstorm).

Free-running over rooftops is the easiest way to get around, and grinding along roof edges - as well as conveniently placed wires - allows players to build up speed and avoid oncoming enemies (Jet Set Radio, Tony Hawk, InFamous).

"Some of the guns I had to play with were utterly fruity"

Perhaps the only aspect of Sunset Overdrive that hasn't been pilfered from some other game is its plot, which quite frankly, makes most other gaming narratives look like high art. The game kicks off with the launch for an obnoxious energy drink filled with the sort of people Charlie Brooker has made a career out of ridiculing in his Guardian columns.

Proving that, yes in fact there is a God, the drink turns out to be contaminated and it transforms the mewling hipsters in attendance into blood-crazed mutants. The plague spreads throughout Sunset City - which is essentially Shinjuku designed by street artists - and it's up to the player to save humanity. Hilarity ensues.

The demo available to play at the Xbox showcase was, fittingly enough, set in a fairground and it provided a very decent showcase of the sort of organized mayhem players can expect from this game. The first and most important tip I was given is that it's important to stay mobile and, where possible, to stay on the rooftops, wires or rails - and more often than not, that's possible.

Sunset Overdrive takes a little bit of time to get used to, but before long players will be grinding across edges, bouncing between rooftops off hedges and bunches of balloons leaping up the sides of building in one fluid surge. They'll also be blasting their way through packs of mutants using some of the nuttiest weaponry this side of Pandora.

The guns I had to play with were utterly fruity. There was an outlandish pistol that fired shells and unleashed swirling green dragons. There was a launcher that dispensed firebombs in the shape of teddy bears. There was a freeze ray. There was a gun that dispensed jets of contaminated energy drink, which attracted mutants in packs, putting them all conveniently in one spot. There was an AK-47, but really who cares when you can instead have a shotgun that punches holes through heads?

The guns weren't the only weapons in my environment, however. As I grinded and bounced my way around the fairground, I noticed items that allowed me to send oodles of mutants to hell, simply by landing on them. There was a trampoline that expelled jets of fire when I landed on it. There were strongman towers that dispensed streams of electricity when activated. There was even a roundabout that had cars that turned into missiles when I bounced off them.

"Sunset Overdrive unapologetically borrows features and mechanics from any game Insomniac has taken a shine to"

The map also included a boss battle and a couple of mini quests. The boss in question, a massive lumbering brute called a Herker, was pretty easy to deal with. It only had two attacks (a close-quarters ground pound and the ability to hurl rocks from a distance) but, interestingly, it could follow me on to the rooftops, thus negating my original plan of shooting it from a raised vantage point.

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Sunset Overdrive's mutant foes come in all shapes and sizes

In order to take it down, I simply blasted it with the freeze ray until it was a solid block of ice and then used my exploding teddy bear launcher to reduce it to a pile of ice cubes. Admittedly, in the interests of full disclosure, I was told how to that by the developer in attendance after I'd been thoroughly smashed a couple of times.

Once the Herker was dealt with, I was guided onto the fairground rollercoaster where I was tasked with blowing up two towers and taking out a couple of sentient rollercoaster cars. This opened up a second boss (a cartoon version of what looks like the Lord Humungus from The Road Warrior) and then the demo was brought to a close.

All told, Sunset Overdrive looks like a reasonably strong exclusive. You can trace its DNA to myriad titles, and while it feels very irreverent about its lineage, it also feels like more than the sum of its parts.

There's just one aspect that disappoints; in the original E3 trailer from last year, eagle eyed viewers will remember that the protagonist surfed across the top of a roof on a tea tray. When I asked the developers what had happened to that functionality the reply I got was:

"Oh, that? Yeah, we were never gonna do that!"

You see? Irreverent!

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