They try so hard. Studios, designers, developers. They all try so hard to tell you something. From the perils of imbuing the unprepared with power to the necessary heroics of all space marines, the net results is always supposed to be a sensation of revelation.
Perhaps you hadn’t played a platformer like this before or that was the only video game to make you genuinely laugh before. And when a game succeeds at conveying that simple notion to you, it’s quite remarkable. It’s how you end up with things like Gone Home or your own personal first outing with Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. And as great as those moments are, the failures are just as painful.
It is, more or less, because they tried so hard to fabricate something. Whether attempting to play off of nostalgia or ginning up some feeling of urgency with a tight FPS aim-fire-duck loop, that all branches off as a secondary vein. It rarely taps into the foundation.
That is what makes Sunset Overdrive so interesting. It is thoroughly (or quite close to it) some representation of what pure joy is to its studio Insomniac Games. As much as any other developer—and perhaps more than most—Insomniac has always had its roots in being absurdly happy about what it does.
Starting out from making the Spyro series, a jubilant franchise about a little purple dragon spitting party/fireballs, they transitioned into what would become the mechanical foundation for Sunset Overdrive with the Ratchet & Clank games. An equally joyous series, this followed the spacefaring antics of an earnest Lombax and a perfectly sarcastic robot.
Oh, and you have a bunch of incredibly insane guns and whackadoo enemies. In Ratchet & Clank: Up Your Arsenal, you have to fight a she-robot pop singer with backup dancers and disco balls. And then you’ll play as Secret Agent Clank, a James Bond-ian version of the mechanical half of the titular duo, and fight mini robot ninjas. And this is before you even get to the 2D side-scroller of Captain Qwark.
And the weapons. My lord the weapons. The series has the best gun, hands-down, of the entire video game industry. In Ratchet & Clank: A Crack in Time, you encounter the RYNO V, a firearm (an incredibly inadequate term) that spewed an endless spiral of missiles out of overlapping miniguns also firing an interminable spray of bullets. And this is all while blasting out Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, a song made famous by its literal use of cannon fire.
This was a studio made for making you happy by making itself happy. Just look at the childish in-jokes of the Ratchet & Clank subtitles. Their more serious fare has just never felt as natural. It felt like they were trying. With Ratchet: Deadlocked, arguably their first stone-faced outing, we didn’t get a terrible game but it also just wasn’t as fun as the other Ratchet games.
And then they transitioned into the Resistance series, which on some level sold the then-fresh PlayStation 3 as a worthwhile product. But it just wasn’t as interesting as even the first Ratchet & Clank; whether it’s true or not, it didn’t feel like they had fun making it. It felt awfully like a paint-by-numbers representation of a space/alien invasion FPS. And this continued with two more mainline, pretty good but not great franchise releases.
The final straw on the solemn camel’s back must have been Fuse. Debuting at E3 2011—then known as Overstrike—with just a pre-rendered trailer, it was an impressive showing for the formerly Sony-only studio. It showed personality and charisma and, most importantly, a fun take on a genre otherwise overstuffed with serious, furrow browed fellows.
Especially when thrown down in the same breath as Battlefield 3 at the same conference, Overstrike stood out like a bastion for the jovial with its blend of future tech and 70s(?) flair. But then an announcement came around the end of August in 2012 that Overstrike would be rebranded as Fuse. And things became a lot more serious. And a lot less interesting.
Whether or not it would have been good is a different question altogether and one we can’t possibly answer, but at the very least the milieu of Overstrike was on a fundamental level far more intriguing than the bland, everyshooter taste Fuse left in your mouth.
This is where Sunset Overdrive steps in. It is, by all measures, a game of absurdity. No amount of it is grounded in reality other than the fact that people have arms and legs. At every step, it seems as if the design was aimed at answering the question: how do we make this more fun?
Walking? Too pedestrian; let’s have people grind on rails. Not enough rails? Let’s have them bounce off of anything that is even a little soft. Oh, and they need guns? Here’s one that shoots out fireworks and another that has bombs strapped to teddy bears. And have everything explode in comic-style flourish and words and gorgeous color. And that doesn’t even include the part where even respawning is fun with homages to The Terminator, Portal, and more.
Beyond that, they successfully integrate all of that nonsense into systems that promote the active use of such nonsense. With a compelling combo system, the doomed fate of immobile players, and a plethora of activities to engage in, Sunset Overdrive both provides the fun and gives you reason to dive in headfirst.
Every bit of it feels like a direct line into the laughing, smiling faces of the people at Insomniac, and it’s comforting. There’s room for more serious fare like the recently released Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare and the like, but I’m always glad for things like Sunset Overdrive, games that seem to please me as much as the people that made it.