Friday November 14th, 2014

The zombie/mutant genre is ubiquitous in pop culture today. Those types of monsters are everywhere—television, movies, comic books. And most of the time, it feels like our zombie-fiecation is just a bit too serious.

There are exceptions to the rule (Shaun of the Dead comes to mind), but generally, zombie/mutant products fit the elements of a stern drama more than a light-hearted romp. There isn’t anything wrong with that, necessarily – a dramatic tone doesn’t inherently make a movie or game any less enjoyable. But there’s certainly room, too, for something a little more care-free, something that doesn’t take itself so seriously.

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That’s a big reason Sunset Overdrive (available exclusively for Xbox One) is so enjoyable. Following the M.O. of developer Insomniac Games, Sunset delivers an expansive, engaging and joyfully simple gaming experience. “Simple” can seem like a dirty word, but in this case, simple is great. You don’t have to worry too much about any grave storyline or overwrought deeper meaning. It’s no-frills fun, and a lot of it.

The game might not look like it takes place during any sort of apocalypse, but it does — just not the type of apocalypse that we’re used to. Set in the near future, the fictional Sunset City becomes a dangerous-yet-fun, hellish-but-colorful death site full of mutants when local beverage corporation Fizzco releases new energy drink Overcharge Delirium XT to the residents of Sunse. The drink is contaminated, and anyone that imbibed it becomes one of the inhuman, violent, Overcharge-guzzling mutants rampaging through the city, making life miserable for the (very) few humans that remain.

You take control of one of those human survivors. An underachieving slacker before,  your character is suddenly thrust into the role of Hero as you join forces with other survivors to unite various competing factions, survive the mutants, rogue humans and Fizzco forces that fight against you and hopefully find a way to escape the city. (The mutant infestation results in an information blackout and no one outside of Sunset knows what actually happened in the city.)

The campaign is relatively straightforward. You progress through missions taken on at the behest of various characters and factions, earning cash and upgrades along the way. It’s a fun plot, and without spoiling anything, there’s enough twists to keep it interesting. The action includes RPG elements, too, as you earn more powerful weapons, maneuvers and abilities through a combination of successfully completing missions, buying said improvements through money collected in gameplay and by collecting various items and parts throughout the open world that is Sunset City. The upgrade system (levels, badges, amps, etc.) is confusing to navigate at first, but it becomes a lot more digestible as you go along. There’s plenty of side quests and challenges to complete, too, if you don’t feel like ripping straight through the story — those, too, can seem like a lot to deal with at first, but they’re not hard to get a handle on as you go along.

You can activate the game’s multiplayer mode at any phone booth located throughout the city. That launches up to an eight-person game in which you collectively vote on missions to take on, earning money and power-ups, and culminating in a “Night Defense” (seen in the campaign too) in which you try and defend against an advancing horde of enemies. The multiplayer is seamless with the single-player in that all the power-ups and advancements you earn in one carries over to the other, and it’s cool to be able to jump right in from the solo mode. I do wish you could also select multiplayer from a menu instead of having to activate it in the single-player, but overall, it’s a good experience.

Sunset ‘s gameplay is a truly unique experience. Unlike most open-world games or shooters, jumping and grinding your way through the city is the primary form of movement instead of walking or running. In fact, walking like normal will make you significantly more susceptible to enemies and deplete your style meter as well (please note that style is very important when fighting zombies), while jumping and grinding will fill it up, which results in weapons and maneuver boosts that can often be critical in keeping you alive in the midst of battles. (Though another fun twist of the game is that dying doesn’t really hurt you all that much, as you just respawn. Serious gamers might take exception to that, but it fits the world of Sunset.)

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As with the other features, the gameplay takes some getting used to, but not as much as you’d expect. I thought I’d find it a lot more frustrating than it ultimately became. It helps that you can do almost everything necessary as far as jumping and grinding with just two buttons, making it easier to pick up than it otherwise would be.

Beyond the gameplay itself, the very atmosphere and aesthetics of Sunset are fun and funny, too. You can completely customize your character with a variety of outfits and accessories, and you can even change from male to female or vice versa whenever you want. The city/graphics are gorgeous to look at, and a lot of the dialogue pokes fun at various aspects of video game culture and zombie/mutant pop culture, which can make for some awfully funny satire. When the main character conversing with the narrating “voice of God” that booms down from parts unknown to explain aspects of gameplay? Hilarious.  Sunset’s story allows for deeper examination of important themes — many a serious analysis could be written about the idea of corporate overreach and the corporation-dominated state by using the tale of the misdeeds of Fizzco, but there’s really no need for that when the game is as innocently fun and enjoyable as it is.

Sunset itself will be the first to tell you that this game is about having fun; it uses the phrase “Awesomepocalypse” to describe the plot (again, poking fun at its own genre). The main character’s life suddenly becomes better despite the prospect of death-by-mutant, because he gets to be a hero instead of an underachieving slacker (which is every gamer’s dream, isn’t it?). All games are forms of escape, but Sunset is especially so. There’s a slight danger that gameplay and Sunset’s mechanics could get repetitive for some users, but that didn’t happen for me. The game is just a blast to play, and it doesn’t require any huge investment to really get into it. You won’t regret diving into the “Awesomepocalypse” that is Sunset Overdrive.

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