Sunset Overdrive's a blend of Crackdown and Jet Set Radio - and it's delivered with winning enthusiasm.
You can tell a lot about a game by the first thing it chooses to teach its players. Sunset Overdrive doesn't kick off by baffling you with a bunch of pointless upgrades and unlockables that you couldn't care less about. It tells you how to pull off a dodge roll, a punkish splinter of weaponised evasion that gets to the heart of the game's deliriously pleasing traversal system. Then it baffles you with a bunch of pointless upgrades and unlockables that you couldn't care less about.
Seriously, though, that dodge roll. After a wobbly period of grit and grime, a kind of thematic pebble-dashing of the CV, Insomniac's latest is set in Sunset City, a breezy and laudably colourful metropolis where a new fizzy drink has turned everyone into breezy and laudably colourful mutants. There's a bit more plot beyond that, but not much. The most important thing the game's story has to do is dunk you into a compact yet cleverly designed playground filled with former people to kill.
This is one of those open-worlders where your character is just a blunt avatar to be dressed up in whichever stupid haircuts, samurai helmets and pyjama bottoms you can find along the way, and where each wipeout sees you warping back into the mayhem via Bill and Ted's phone booth or a Portal portal. Inevitably, late on in proceedings, the plotting tries to give you a bit more depth; Christopher Vogler would be proud, but the graft doesn't stick. At most, you're a clothes rack and a shadow here. At best, you're sheer forward momentum.
As a game built around its traversal multiplier, Sunset Overdrive lives or dies on the interaction of your moveset with the passing landscape. Happily, they clip together as if magnetised. Ratchet and Clank always had rail sections and jumping, but Sunset Overdrive's a sugary fusion of Crackdown and Jet Set Radio. The city comes alive at the rooftop level or when you're grinding along a telephone wire, and the true joy emerges as you chain moves together, turning the entire skyline into a gymnastic combo rendered in geometry.
At times (and I feel very weird typing this) Sunset Overdrive has actually improved on elements of the games it's cribbing from so shamelessly. Insomniac's given itself the freedom to allow you to change direction on a grind with no loss of momentum, for example, and you can also switch from overgrinding to undergrinding with the press of a button and a glimpse of some truly dazzling animation. As you spring from riding a rail to hanging below it, your body swings outwards from all the kinetic energy: it's lovely. You can chain grinding together with wall-runs, boosts, water-gliding, and super powered jumps, and the developers have solved the Second Storey Problem (the fact that starting off on the sidewalk can be a drag) by littering the city with bounceables that propel you into the air, providing a regular leg up.
Vending machines, cars, AC units and shrubbery - almost everything in the world is a bounceable. The visual direction is so good that the art team hasn't needed to highlight interactive objects in a way that would damage the vista, a Jetsons wonderland of piping, solar panels and passing drones. Elsewhere, while the targeting system's generous as you leap towards a ledge or a wall, you'll need to press the X button to latch on, spire-jump style. It's a tiny detail, but a crucial one: Sunset Overdrive's traversal isn't quite as deskilled as the traversal in many other games - although when things get hectic it is sometimes a little button-mashy.
The combat's extremely button-mashy, mind, and Insomniac does its best to keep you mashing by flinging a nutty new gun at you every few minutes. In truth, for all the clever designs and artful feedback, these guns aren't actually as nutty or as new as they seem. They may fire explosive teddies or liquid flame or bullets with nasty smiles, but they're ultimately doing little you haven't seen before, offering a grenade launcher, elemental effects, an Eastwood-spin on the classic hand cannon. Later unlocks include a gun that unleashes fireworks and another that fires bowling balls, but the art department's having most of the fun, turning a standard arsenal into different sorts of paintbrushes. There's little of the genuine mechanical invention you get from something like Bulletstorm.
Luckily the guns aren't left to handle the action by themselves. Here's traversal to the rescue again, encouraging you to swing between wires and bounce through the sky as you tackle a range of enemies that scale from pustules to human militia and even gleaming robots, bladed, cannon-headed, or simply gigantic. In forcing you to keep moving the right way, Sunset Overdrive has you truly sluggish on foot, where you're quickly picked apart. Comboing, on the other hand, is a trick Insomniac supports with some beautiful tech, rendering a city that feels solid and intricate, while handling dozens of swarming foes and millions of particle effects at 30 fps without skipping a frame.
Some missions hinge on the classic Hot Lava kid's game, in which touching the floor means instant failure. As time goes by, though, it becomes apparent that the whole world is hot lava, since the minute you hit the ground your combo meter tanks. This alone keeps you busy when the enemy types struggle to introduce real variety, and when the suggestion that you match the right weapon type with the right foe is shouted down by frantic spamming of the trigger. Sunset Overdrive is about action, but it isn't always about precision. Chaos is inevitably a slightly weaker stand-in, yet it has a certain charm nonetheless, and it's been very well-stoked here. A forgiving aim combines beautifully with small clips, a big weapon wheel and an absence of recharging health to keep you racing aggressively into each battle. Only forward!
The upgrades system is less successful. As you play, you can level each weapon and also unlock amps and overdrives, the former modifying specific items or providing hero perks and the latter adding passive upgrades. There's a nice template here, and I like the way different tiers of amps are activated at different points on a style meter fed by combos. That said, the actual benefits offered by both amps and overdrives are pretty dull, the faff required to equip another lame stat boost or a chance to conjure melee tornados more than outweighing the novelty they bring to a game in which novelty is hardly in short supply anyway.
Missions initially seem similarly problematic, but I think it's the structure of the missions' delivery that ultimately annoys. The plot's ceaseless struggle to be glibly hip grinds against Insomniac's unshakable corporate vibe, so it's all a bit anarchy in the 401k from the off. The narrative's worst sin isn't the fact that it aims for Community and too often hits PowerPoint exec who likes to lolo-ball in his office, but that it's forever breaking objectives down into an endless parade of fetch quests and busywork as you move between factions only to be told, over and over again, that before you can get the thing you want, you're going to have to clear another bunch of roadblocks. For a game as mechanically rote as this, Sunset Overdrive can't resist some foolhardy fourth-wall breaking that attracts attention to its inability to surprise you. If you rely so heavily on the rule of three, you probably shouldn't make many jokes about that. Equally, early on a supporting character explains that the apocalypse is a chance to finally be free, even as he directs you between waypoints.
Luckily, the things you're sent to do are frequently fun, even when they amount to little more than turning up at an address and killing everyone. When Sunset Overdrive does stretch itself a bit, you sometimes get a genuinely memorable moment - a boss on a rickety rollercoaster, a scramble up skyscrapers that sees you launching harpoons to create your own grind rails. There's a tower defence game that pops up every night as you place traps and zip from one hotspot to the next, too; it's rudimentary, but it works.
And, by the time the game's headed to the final act, riffing on everything from Ghostbusters to Mary Poppins, its faux coolness has drifted away and it's just authentically charming. At times, Sunset Overdrive's name-checking smugness can be easy to dislike, but what saves the tone in the long run is the effort with which it will throw any madness your way and the fact that its idea of what's cutting edge is charmingly out of date. This is clearly the product of a team in its mid-thirties, and I feel their pain as they parade their faded cultural touchstones. Their assault on the seismic mountain of pop culture is doomed but endearing, putting me in mind of those sneakers with the flames down the side that Chandler's forced to try and sell in an episode of Friends - a reference I suspect ageing Insomniacs would instantly be au fait with.
If you wanted to be uncharitable, you could voice the suspicion that a great many baseball caps were turned backwards in the echoing board room where this project was greenlit, but with the campaign done and the city freshly filled with challenges, I don't really feel like being uncharitable. Beneath the glorious tech, and once the writing relaxes a little, Sunset Overdrive's wonderfully lurid and heartfelt - a bit like playing an old 4AD album sleeve. If you get that reference, you'll probably get this, too.