Since the beginning of the console wars, there’s always been a fight for exclusives. Console makers strive to have one game that not only sells the product but also win converts. In the golden age of gaming, it was much easier to have an exclusive title. However, as time went on and businesses grew, companies began to publish their games on as many platforms as possible. In order to adapt, both Sony and Microsoft would sign companies to exclusivity deals. One of those companies, Insomniac, made the PlayStation the home of Ratchet and Clank, Resistance, and Spyro the Dragon. No one would ever expect them to make a game for any console outside of PlayStation. Except for the one time they did.
The industry is full of games that reviewed well but never moved the needle. Sunset Overdrive was at one time Microsoft’s next “it” IP. An open-world game from the makers of popular PlayStation franchises. Yet, the game came and went and now lives on Microsoft’s Game Pass service as a period piece. A reflection of what once was.
To understand Sunset Overdrive, we must look at the film industry. When we think of the Waynes family, we often think of various sitcoms and In Living Color, which defined sketch comedy for generations. But they were also the source of many popular spoof films. The Scary Movie series, Don’t Be A Menace, this comedy family created a successful formula making fun of culture and popular movies.
The game begins with your character, simply known as ‘Player,’ escaping from a burning subway train. You run from the subway station to your apartment, where you find a brief moment of safety. The next morning the OD, people who have turned into monsters by drinking a popular energy drink, storm your apartment and almost kill you. You’re saved by Winston, a friend, and tutorial guide. And from the minute you learn how to grind a rail, you’re off on your quest. The problem is that the game never properly introduces your motivations. At first, I’m lead to believe that I’m just going to survive, then it becomes an escape plan to finally I’m supposed to stop Fizzco, the company behind the deadly energy drink. The story isn’t groundbreaking. Nor is it something that you’ll immediately gravitate towards. It’s here to serve as the basis for jokes.
Sunset Overdrive is what Scary Movie is to movies. The game is a spoof of traditional open-world video games. It was the answer to the question – “what if characters in Grand Theft Auto knew they were in a video game?”
The game has everything you would need for a proper spoof. A cast of characters that occupy some type of pop culture stereotype. Moments where the main character will break the fourth wall and jokes about everything from player death to fast travel. There are moments in the game where you must travel across the city, and the player will yell, “oh, that’s right, I can fast travel.” The game consistently presented me with jokes wrapped in a presentation that I did not relate to.
The references in this game speak to a particular demographic. The person who loves rock music, knew or knew of people in bro culture and occasionally listened to dubstep. It’s all the things the ‘traditional’ gamer would relate to on a cultural level. I’m a black man, and my interests and cultural touchpoints are on the complete opposite of the spectrum. Yes, I have knowledge of these references, but they are not my experience, so my experience is only skin deep. The jokes aren’t as funny to me as their cringe.
Yet, I can appreciate the feel of the game as a moment in time. There was a time when your companions’ dialogue and snarky comments would be deemed hilarious and smart. As someone who enjoys video games, it’s easy for me to sit back and say, “hmmm…this was a thing.” But it’s not all about self-references and colorful jokes. You also have to kill things.
Open world games are built with fetch quests and collectibles to populate the environment. Otherwise, you’d have no reason to explore the world. In this game, you complete side quests and collect random items for character and weapon upgrades.
Energy drink cans are used to buy ammo and new weapons. Money can buy new cosmetics, and your collectibles buy you weapon mods and character abilities known as amps. You do earn all of these things (weapons, amps, cosmetics) from completing quests, but there are some things you can only get from purchasing them from a vendor. The game starts by giving you a basic weapon and no amps. And it’s actually the worse time you’ll have in the game.
Insomniac built the combat system around a simple idea – your character must always be moving. More specifically, the player must attack while grinding, jumping, or wall running. Following the rules will build your style meter and let you use your amps. Running around on the ground will lead to your death.
The game forces you to play their way by handicapping the player. The player cannot sprint; he can only grind on objects. The character cannot jump more than a few inches unless they bounce on an object that will propel them to the sky. And to keep you in the air and on the move, the enemies attack in hordes, and their aim becomes laser-like focused when you’re on the ground. It’s a system that starts as a headache, then transforms into a chore before finally becoming tolerable.
Here’s what I mean. At the beginning of the game, I spent more time learning how to navigate the player and camera properly. Since I cannot fight the OD on the ground, I constantly have to make sure my character is in motion. And when I do shoot my gun, I have to make sure I’m targeting the right enemy. And God forbid if I’m using the wrong weapon, which means opening the weapon wheel and finding the right weapon to use and firing it before exiting a grind or jumping to the next rope or canopy.
Over time you get used to the movement system. And the game has a wide variety of weapons, yet it never truly allows you to let loose. The game is at it’s best when you’re grinding rails and shooting teddy bear grenades. And for the basic enemies, the variety of weapons is great. But as you progress through the game, the tougher enemies soak up way more damage, forcing you to use specific weapons and limiting the mass destruction you can chain together. Not to mention, some enemies can knock you off objects, forcing you to the ground. You’re then scrambling to find some way to get back to the air before the hoard gets you. It’s not as fun as it is aggravating in the second half of the game.
The first moments of Sunset Overdrive put me in a space where I didn’t know if I was having fun or completing an assignment. It’s a dangerous place to be in because I could easily find myself wasting time when I could be playing something else. However, if I quit too soon, I could miss out on something great.
In the end, I enjoyed studying the game more than playing it. Films like Scary Movie have a shelf life. They’re only good as long as the references have a connection with the audience. After that, it serves as a history guide. A piece of entertainment that says, “Hey, this used to be a thing everyone loved.” Sunset Overdrive is just that – a history lesson of what once was. A love letter to crazy, over the top games of our past. To the Saints Row and PS2 era Grand Theft Auto games. And more importantly, the prototype of what would be Marvel’s Spider-man. If you have Game Pass or find the game at a steep discount, it’s worth adding to your library because there is some fun studying your history.