I had a lot of problems with Sunset Overdrive when I first started playing it. As I wrote in my review, the game’s humour really rubbed me the wrong way. But I haven’t really been able to put it down in spite of that. It’s a real challenge trying to stay mad at something so unabashedly joyful and cartoony.
Sure, it still annoys me whenever I hear my character “Player” beat the deadest of dead horses in Sunset Overdrive by cracking yet another joke about, say, how she’s not sure what her name technically is during the game’s multiplayer. And I continue to believe that the game’s penis-shaped shotgun is inexcusable. But as I’ve spent more time in the vibrantly coloured playground that is Sunset City, I’ve come to realise something important about Sunset Overdrive: it’s the kind of game that knows how to have fun with itself. Not having fun as a player inside that same game began to feel more and more like an arbitrary choice on my part as a result. It’s as if I was at a party with a bunch of friends, trying to maintain a stone faced, humorless expression despite the fact that everyone around me is laughing hysterically. At a certain point, I just had to cave in and crack a smile as well.
Sunset Overdrive benefits from the sheer novelty of the experience it offers in this regard. On one exceedingly arbitrary level, it’s a third-person shooter about killing hordes of zombie-like monsters with a bunch of different guns. But Sunset Overdrive is nothing like the countless other games I could lump it in with using that broad categorization. It’s a much more light-hearted experience than the vast majority of shooters I’ve played recently. That alone makes it feel like a breath of fresh air.
When I think back to many of the other games about shooting big scary bad guys with big scary guns I’ve played over the last several years, I recall a long line of oppressively sombre affairs. Games like Call of Duty, Battlefield, and the unfortunate Medal of Honour reboot that put me inside self-styled “gritty” militaristic landscapes filled with interchangeable casts of Middle Eastern or Eastern European villains hell-bent on destroying western civilisation. Other high profile titles that did their best to stand out from the military shooter pack such as Spec Ops: The Line, Far Cry 3, and BioShock Infinite, meanwhile, did so by levelling critiques of the very form they were trying to distance themselves from — asking players, with varying degrees of grace and tact, whether they had the stomach for so much virtual murder.
The flurry of avowedly “subversive” shooters that popped up over 2012 and 2013 all stood out to me because, taken together, they seemed to be advancing a similar question to one gamers have been asking for a long time now. It’s one Mark Serrells put into writing eloquently earlier this year: “Are We All A Little Tired Of Shooting Things In The Face?” The fact that developers have also been pressing this point in recent years only goes to show how weary people on both sides of the equation have become.
“Yes!” I remember thinking when I first saw Mark’s article. But then I went and played the latest Wolfenstein game, The New Order. And I had so much fun that I realised…no, I wasn’t done shooting things in the face. Er, at least, I wasn’t done shooting Nazis in the face.
But, I mean, come on: what’s a blander-sounding subject of a first-person shooter than Nazis? The fact that New Order developer managed to make killing even more members of The Third Reich seem the least bit appealing is an achievement in its own right. The fact that they also made the new Wolfenstein one of the best shooters I’ve played in years? Well, that’s an accomplishment of an entirely different order. In both cases, The New Order was a great game because it cast aside any allegiance it had as a shooter to authenticity or historical realism. In doing so, it replicated the zany counterfactual power fantasy of killing Nazis that people appreciated in all the other stories about arse-kicking jews that have appeared as of late — Quentin Tarantino’s film Inglorious Basterds being the prime example.
It’s always struck me as ironic that the developers behind The New Order would credit Inglorious Basterds as a direct inspiration on their work, because I can’t imagine a movie like Inglorious Basterds coming into existence in the first place without the legacy of Wolfenstein shooters that preceded it. Tarantino’s 2009 film certainly has a lot more in common with Wolfenstein creator id’s whacky pixellated shooters than it does with the pathos-riddled treatment that World War II and the holocaust have received in most modern cinema. In that light, I supposed that New Order developer MachineGames looking to a movie like Inglorious Basterds for inspiration only goes to show how far mainstream big-budget shooters have travelled from their point of origin. The new Wolfenstein felt campy in many of the same ways that the old Wolfenstein games did. But it also felt invigoratingly…new, somehow.
I think Wolfenstein succeeded for many of the same reasons that Sunset Overdrive, or even this year’s other wonderful shooter surprise Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare, succeeded. Much like the Borderlands series, all of these games embraced a degree of comic whimsy and irreverence into their unique, chaotic mixtures of running-and-gunning. Doing so might have made them less high-minded compared to something like BioShock Infinite or Spec Ops: The Line — at least at face value. But I’d also it also made them all a lot more fun. I’m hoping that I’ll be able to say the same about Nintendo squid-themed paintball-esque multiplayer shooter Splatoon when that finally comes out.
So, no: I’m not actually tired of shooting things in the face. I’m just tired of shooting the same exact things in the face, in exactly the same way, over and over again for years now. I hope that games like Garden Warfare, Sunset Overdrive, and The New Order are all signs that there’s still plenty of other great things to come in this new generation of shooters.