15 November, 2014

Review - Sunset Overdrive, The Ultimate Grind

Fizzco’s latest energy drink, Overdrive – all the kids are drinking it – has had some unexpected consequences, the most dangerous being the OD (Over Dosed) mutants who rove the streets looking for yet more Overdrive to quench their ravenous thirst. Can Sunset Overdrive live up to its impressive announcement trailer? Is it possible to stomach this much videogame humour? Find out inside. 

Sunset Overdrive

The events of Horror Night changed Sunset City and some say for the better; people can live however they choose, be whoever they want to be. Well I’m confident in saying if an apocalypse like that one looks likes it is heading this way, I’ll be the first to flee the proverbial invisible shield, because there is no way I have the patience to survive more than a few hours of that hell again. 

Sunset Overdrive is a very stylised game, in terms of graphics and sound it pulls off its high contrast punk aesthetic with flare. The character animations, and models, are very over exaggerated; combine that with the use of text and graphic pop-ups on screen, and it forms a cohesive and unique art style that is the game’s strongest component. The writing and dialog by comparison, is an uneven mess. Comedy is a hard thing to write, being by its very nature so divisive, but there are times when Sunset Overdrive doesn't even feel like it is trying. Most of the one-liners that Player (the playable character… okay that’s pretty funny) spouts fall flat, with bad deliveries and few punch lines. There are multiple occasions when it feels like every other joke breaks the fourth wall, the amount of times I heard, “…if I were in a video game…”, or some permutation thereof, were enough to make me audibly groan in dismay. It tries too hard to be edgy – restrained use of the few gems of actual humour might have been a far more effective than the game having to remind you it is meant to be funny every few minutes.

I wish there was dubbed laughter, because at least then I would know when to laugh. 

Go home Floyd. You are the worst.
The story is a conceit to have you travel to the various districts of Sunset City and meet its most eccentric denizens. You’re first acquainted with Walter, a bald gentleman with a white beard, Walter works with Floyd, who cooks amps (definitely not meth). Floyd embodies every single thing is dislike about this game; every line uttered from his irritatingly grating mouth is devoid of humour and wit, all his jokes wither because he doesn't have the personality to pull them off, not that the dialog is great to begin with. What’s worse, every time he contacts you, you know the next mission will be a ‘defend the vats’ affair. If Floyd were the bland scientist he apparently was in a past life, he would be a lot more bearable than his current flamboyant form. The only character I think I may dislike more is Fizzy, the Fizzco mascot. 

There are moments, a few fleeting missions, where the writing and characters become bearable – dare I say good? The Fargarths, a band of larpers (live action role players) have some pretty great moments, as well as some of the better designed missions in the game. There are the obvious role playing game references, jokes about dungeon masters, XP, and boss fights, which are delivered well. The core larping cast is pretty memorable because they are so absurd, one bruiser only says (bellows), “Hardcore.”, another delivers his lines with sing-song poetic grace.  

 “It’s a fine day to farm for XP aye?”

The core shooting action of Sunset Overdrive is awkward and monotonous, there is no precision, enemies are locked on to automatically allowing you to sit back and spray. Not that I believe for a second that precision shooting would be fun while grinding along walls, but the current system disappointing. The weapons define the combat; each is unique and best suited towards specific enemy types, considerations such as range and the type of fire must also be taken into account of course. Acquiring new weapons is pretty fun, however, most weapons I acquired I never found a practical use for, instead the more banal rifles and pistol were my go to for most fights. 

Weapons, and the player themselves can be boosted by equipping amps. Amps are activated as the Style meter fills up, and they add some interesting twists to the combat. For example; Bear Force One (itself a reference to one of the greatest ‘boy bands’ of our time) has a chance to turn enemies killed by the weapon it is equipped to, into an explosive TNTeddy. Some amps maybe as mundane (and useful) as dealing more damage when you jump or grind, others may call lightning strikes from the sky. It is a real shame then that amps are purchased from Floyd – the most unbearable of non-playable characters. Overdrives can also be acquired and equipped, but they are more passive, such as, more ammunition, or increase style generation from a specific type of movement.

Sunset Overdrive’s gameplay is constructed to service of the quite novel movement mechanics; jumping, grinding, and swinging. It does a very good job of capturing the cadence of the movement shown in the announcement trailer at the E3 press conference two years ago. The player leaps and bounds across abandoned cars, large bins (or dumpsters), and air vents. But you’re really only doing that to gain enough height to latch onto Sunset City’s telephone infrastructure and grind. Low walls and barriers are also grind points, but elevated surfaces, like cables, allow for hanging below which is crucial for dodging obstacles and enemies. You can also wall run indefinitely, a useful but slow way of scaling a building. The player character is well animated, movements like jumping and swinging are exaggerated and look great. Despite the apparent freedom this system allows in terms of traversing the city, I often found myself restricted to jumping between a couple of objects when trying to accomplish anything. Even when travelling between locations your options will be limited, because all movement is binary; you’re either attached to this surface, or falling. You’re probably falling because you quickly progress to the point where all but the most basic of enemies can knock you from grinds. Spelling death for your style and probably your character too, while it is often easy to see the enemy attacks, you’re also probably not paying attention to the path ahead of you, because there are enemies all around.

A great deal of my frustration can be attributed to the mission design, which is largely a mixture of clearing the area of enemies, fetch quests, and escort missions. The derivate structuring is at its worst when it comes to cooking amps, the insufferable Floyd will have you set up traps in choke points to defend a vat of Overdrive from the OD. You must then fight of waves of enemies as a timer counts down. It is not hard necessarily, just boring, the defensive nature of it means at some point you’ll need to grind back and forth along the same rail spraying whatever you have equipped into the horde. Missions get more interesting as the writing improves,in the back half of the game, but the core objectives don’t really change all that much. For example, in one mission from the Fargaths; you need to collect a feast of roast pigeons, your companions hurl feed towards several fire traps that you activate by grinding and jumping on. It is a cool idea, but when that part is over the mission shows its true colours as an escort mission, and you now have to defeat checkpoints of enemies so the pigeons can be returned. 

Chaos Squad, the multiplayer component of Sunset Overdrive is a series of challenges that players undertake, such as, destroy all the vending machines in this area, or get fifteen melee kills. It is more faced paced than the single player but aside from that there is nothing new to see here.

Sunset Overdrive succeeds in creating a vibrant world, dripping with style and character. Unfortunately, the actual characters that fill Sunset City served only to remind me how hard it is to write, and deliver good comedy. Sunset Overdrive prefers to scream its attitude at you rather than deliver it with craft, the exception being the Fargarths, who feature some pretty great moments and dialog. The shooting and movement is also pretty disappointing, there are the foundations of something fun, but it is constantly hamstrung; mushy aiming, elaborate but ineffective weapons, uninspired mission design, and style-killing enemies, all conspired against my enjoyment of the gameplay. Sunset Overdrive as an idea has some real potential, but so little of that has been delivered here, yet plenty squandered. 

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