Insomniac, to put it bluntly, has something to prove right now. The renowned studio behind franchises like Spyro and Ratchet & Clank underwent what could very charitably be described as a dry spell after it released Resistance 3 in 2011 with a duo of unsatisfactory Ratchet & Clank titles and the thoroughly unremarkable co-op shooter Fuse.
Last month I spent a day at Insomniac's headquarters in Burbank playing their Xbox One-exclusive Sunset Overdrive and talking with members of the dev team for hours. What I experienced was an Insomniac that's cutting loose and indulging in a project that feels comfortable to them — and in which they have a supreme amount of confidence.
There is a quick, if complicated, way to sum up how Sunset Overdrive plays: I say it's Tony Hawk meets Crackdown 2 meets Ratchet & Clank meets Prince of Persia. That's a nearly incomprehensible combination out of context, but when I floated that list to Sunset Overdrive creative director Marcus Smith, he added another title to it: Platinum Games' Vanquish.
Sunset Overdrive is in every way an oddity. It's an open-world game about monsters taking over a city that has since been quarantined — a la Raccoon City, except bright and happy — in which you will grind around on everything, as if you were riding a skateboard in a Tony Hawk game, shooting monsters and other varieties of baddies while helping out other survivors of this localised apocalypse.
Insomniac has built a city that absolutely exists for your platforming pleasure — you can grind on Sunset City's ubiquitous rails or the edges of rooftops or most other things as if you're an overly ambitious '90s kid wearing a pair of Soap Shoes. Many objects in the city are also inexplicably bouncy, as cars, tents, upward-facing air conditioning vents and more will send you flying into the air when you jump on them. And if you wanna use the power lines as ziplines, feel free.
Being an Insomniac game there are some, ahem, notable weapons at your disposal, all silly makeshift things like a launcher that fires explosive talking teddy bears and RC helicopters with autoturrets on them and a rapid-fire LP shooter derived from Ratchet & Clank's buzz blades. There is also a more mundane "baseline" weapon, an AK-47 that the Sunset Overdrive interface refers to as an "AK-Fuckyouup". But given you can mod any weapon with any of the myriad powerups, called "amps", that you find in the game, even a regular AK doesn't have to feel normal — in my hands-on session the AK-FU was equipped with an amp that had some percentage change of creating a nuclear explosion when fired.
Where Sunset Overdrive stands out though is in how it brings its weird weapons and weird player movements together. When I talk about grinding and bouncing it's not as some novel, optional activity; you're supposed to do those things all the time. If you aren't grinding or bouncing or ziplining it's almost always because you made a mistake. These actions are collectively referred to by the game as "traversals", and successfully manoeuvring from one traversal to another without moving around like a normal person would up the damage multiplier.
At times, going off the rails, as it were, is not even an option. In my session, I faced a boss battle against an energy drink mascot blimp (pictured), and this fight takes place on top of a broadcast tower encircled with, ya know, rails. You can derail in order to bounce on amplifiers that produce a damage wave, but then you have to hop back on and keep sliding/jumping around and shooting at its eyeball laser cannons with whatever you've got with some range (the AK-FU is useful here). Sometimes this blimp fires his lasers at the rail in front of you, and in that case you'll just need to hang on from below instead. It's not to difficult to do all this stuff, as you snap onto the rails with a push of a button like, again, Tony Hawk. It's a dance that looks more complicated than it is.
It's fun but, perhaps more importantly, it's novel.
But to get to the heart of Sunset Overdrive we don't have to go any further than what happens when you fall off those rails and die. You won't see a loading screen, but rather one of a few respawn animations, such as a coffin emerging from the ground and spitting you out or a van skidding to a halt before a monster tosses you out the side door.
"There's a mantra that we had: 'fun trumps realism'," lead writer John Paquette told me. "So we have to look at what's fun to play and say OK, we're not going to try to explain why that is."
Though Sunset Overdrive is pretty much all fun and games, there is a tinge of darkness even beyond that whole "death of most of the city's population via monsters" thing. The plot setup is that a new energy drink is toxic and transforms the people who drink it into these gross, orange beasts. At the beginning of the story, before the mutations and subsequent mass slaughter, you're a temp worker doing a stint as a janitor. Your life sucks and you aren't happy.
"I was like, let's create a character who at the start has a really shitty life and who's just scraping by, who is literally picking up trash for a living," Paquette said, contrasting it with Resistance 3 (which he also worked on), which started low and went downhill from there. Sunset Overdrive starts low and then moves uphill.
When the worst comes to pass, you discover a freedom in the complete breakdown of society. Hanging out in this new, totally messed up world is something you're actually good at, since in Sunset City you're the only one who can grind on all the rails and bounce off cars and the like. You can do things no other survivors can, and so not only are you useful but you're crucial to the survival of various groups huddled up around town. Finding true joy for the first time in an event where thousands or millions of people are killed is a bit twisted, but Sunset Overdrive isn't a literal game.
Sunset Overdrive is a fantasy, one that lets you cut loose and be what you want. That core philosophy extends to character customisation, which is Saints Row-esque in its lack of restrictions. You can play as a woman or a bro, and regardless of that choice you're able to roll in any of the clothing or hairstyles or any other things you can do to your character because there are no gender-specific options. You get to cut loose, just like it seems Insomniac is itself cutting loose.
"There's a mantra that we had: 'fun trumps realism'." -Paquette
Maybe that makes the game a metaphor for a studio getting back to the sort of experience it knows it's good at delivering instead of, perhaps, reaching a bit the way you could say they did by making a co-op Ratchet & Clank or a very brown military shooter. Sunset Overdrive's creative director, Marcus Smith, did give some credence to that idea.
"Most of us came to Insomniac because we like what the company did. We're almost like fans who came and were given the keys to the castle and were allowed to make something," Smith told me when I sat down with him and game director Drew Murray. "And we did [Sunset Overdrive] in a way that it felt right for the company. It felt like what we would have wanted to do [as fans of Insomniac]. And [Ratchet & Clank: Into the Nexus] is the same way, there's Chad [Dezern] and Shaun [McCabe], they're guys over in North Carolina making games that they think epitomize what Insomniac does perfectly."
And Insomniac's niche, that thing it does well, is simply in being itself, and giving into its own whims, even if the end result isn't quite what was intended — but that's just a hazard of developing games.
"I can point to many, many things in our history that we tried, and didn't work as well as we thought," Insomniac CEO and president Ted Price said to me, though he later straight up declared he isn't worried at all about that happening with Sunset Overdrive. "We're building a game that'sa different. We're building a game that is not a dark, gritty shooter. This is a game that isn't what's become the expected view of the apocalypse. This a game where we're having fun. This is a game where we're asking players to join us on a very different vibe."
"This is the mashup game," Smith said. "This is the filter of Drew and Marcus and our art directors and our designers and everybody on our team, kind of filtered down into what an Insomniac game would be like made by adults who grew up on Insomniac games."
Phil Owen is a Los Angeles-based freelance journalist and critic. Follow him on Twitter at @philrowen, and send all hate mail to [email protected]