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    Sunset Overdrive: Ubisoft will surely be taking notes

    The dialogue in Sunset Overdrive may be peppered with profanity, but there’s one word conspicuously absent from its vocabulary: restraint. Insomniac’s noisy, boisterous Xbox One exclusive turns everything up to 11, starting with its hyper saturated colours. Its gaudy sandbox is strewn with clutter there are no fewer than seven collectible types, each of which functions as a different form of currency. Indeed, it’s so densely stuffed with things to do, see, shoot and pick up, its map pockmarked with icons and waypoints, that Ubisoft will surely be taking notes.

    By genre standards, it gets down to business in satisfyingly brisk fashion. An energy drink, Overcharge Delirium XT, has transformed Sunset City’s population into pustular mutants, and its maker, Fizzco, has locked down the city in a massive cover-up, erecting energy barriers to prevent people from escaping. A clutch of survivors remain alongside a larger group of scavengers and Fizzco’s own robotic cabal, which use electric-blue blades and bullets to deal with troublemakers.


    The regular freaks, AKA OD, lollop after you, lunging forward and attacking with vicious melee swipes. Should they slurp down any more Overcharge, they’ll metamorphose into Poppers, creatures covered in tartrazine growths. These must be burst from a safe distance lest they get too close and explode in your face. The giant Herkers, meanwhile, throw large objects and smaller mutants from excavator scoops embedded in their swollen arms. All will shear large chunks from your health gauge if you’re not careful, and given that your unnamed avatar is incapable of breaking into anything more than a gentle jog on foot, you’re strongly encouraged to stay off the ground.

    Initially, at least, that’s quite the challenge. From the outset, you're able to grind across just about any horizontal edge, whether it’s railings, the side of a truck, or a rooftop, plus you can ride on overhead wires, or dangle beneath them from a hook. Alternatively, you can bounce upon cars, parasols, awnings and bushes, though you’ll most often use these to reach a higher place from which to grind. Changing direction is a simple matter of pushing the analogue stick and pressing X, a tap alone enough to flip from over to under grinds and vice versa.

    For the most part, then, you’ll be aiming downward while in constant motion. Sniper rifles are obviously out of the question, while area of effect munitions are in. You’d expect an inventive arsenal from a studio that made its name crafting unusual ordnance for the Ratchet & Clank and Resistance games, and you’d be right to, though most are analogous to familiar firearms. The TNTeddy, which fires explosive soft toys, is a grenade launcher in all but name, while Insomniac is careful to assuage the fears of any Xbox owners unaccustomed to such an outlandish arsenal, amusingly likening a weapon that shoots fireworks to an assault rifle.

    Meanwhile, successful traversals between grinds and bounces build a Style meter, which allows you to augment your moves courtesy of equippable buffs, here termed Amps. Hit the first tier and your dodge-rolls will damage enemies you collide with, or you might opt for a forcefield that prevents mutant swipes from connecting. The second tier may see your melee attacks produce a fireball or tornado, while the third could result in a spray of shrapnel from dive bomb attacks. Some Amps are purely cosmetic, however, with one causing foes to explode into glittering confetti.

    You could cut a decent trailer from the highlights of the first few hours, but it would create a misleading impression of the awkward, messy opening. Chaining moves is straightforward enough, but when you’re facing a group of mutants capable of leaping to your level and assaulting you from multiple directions, you’ll spend a lot of time wrestling desperately with the camera, often grinding back and forth across the same edge or in a circle while regularly pulling up the radial weapon menu because you’re out of ammo. Some would argue limiting supplies encourages experimentation, but at times it’s dispiritingly disempowering.

    It hardly helps that Insomniac is so desperately keen to ensure you’re not missing anything that it assails you with information, all but overwhelming you in the process. Then, of course, you’ve got all those collectibles to contend with: money for clothes, hats and accessories; drinks cans for weapons, ammunition and maps that show you the locations of the other five object types. You’ll need the latter, too: the pace is so relentless and the aesthetic so bright and busy that it’s easy to miss items. More often than not, we collected them accidentally, gliding backwards over a pair of shoes trailing from a wire while escaping a horde of OD.

    Soon you’ll be told that certain activities will earn you badges that convey additional perks, and in case you’d forgotten about any of this, text overlays will remind you that it’s been five minutes since you last hit the menu button. Occasionally, your avatar will even chip in that you haven’t purchased a new gun for a while. About six hours in, we were presented with a tutorial for the wall-run mechanic, arriving at least three hours after we’d mastered it.

    Still, the simple joy of locomotion is enough to compensate for this aggressive hand holding. Movement is sharp and responsive, with a generous degree of freedom when airborne and just the right amount of stickiness for grinding. Once you’ve unlocked a high bounce and an air dash, which perhaps should be available earlier, you’ll be racing between objectives without ever touching down. Sunset City is quite the sprawl, but while a fast-travel option between key locations is available, by hour seven you’ll never fee the desire to use it. The frantic nature of combat and the unyielding pace left-trigger aiming is supposed to slow things down, though it barely makes a difference means you’ll feel like you’re winging it, but that’s all part of the fun. Maintaining a semblance of control as you're hurtling along carries the same kinetic thrill as a high-speed run on Tony Hawk or SSX.

    On your travels, you’ll find several-dozen score-based challenges scattered about the world, too, exclusively focused on traversal and killing enemies. Though often straightforward and one-note, some have neat contextual twists. One such type is an objective based challenge that invites you to kill mutants in specific ways before luring a group onto an electrified track so an incoming train can splatter them. Elsewhere, unlocking more powerful Amps requires you to defend vats of Overcharge from increasingly voluminous waves of mutants. The wooden barricades that surround the OD’s targets will only hold up so long, so you have a limited supply of points to spend on traps to place. Some have whirling blades, others freeze enemies in the immediate vicinity, spraying icy blasts across a wider radius when you bounce upon them.

    With all of its core ideas exhaustively detailed, the game is finally free to try new things. There’s an inventive ascent that sees you firing harpoons between two skyscrapers while under attack, and a sequence where you’re invited to set off car alarms in order to attract mutants so that they might fight the currently entrenched scavengers. Boss fights haven’t always been an Insomniac strength, but the examples here are splendid: there’s an on-rails battle against a giant blimp in the form of Fizzco’s mascot, which feels like a surreal remix of Super Mario Sunshine’s Mecha Bowser face-off, while another set-piece sees you attempting to keep up with a dragon as it snakes through the city. It might still have a weak point that requires three direct hits to bring the beast down, but it’s refreshing to face an enemy where you’re not simply having to dodge predictable attack patterns before clamping your trigger finger over the fire button.

    And if the scattergun humour misses as often as it hits typically, the harder it strains for the zeitgeist, the wider it is of the mark the game’s irreverent treatment of death alleviates any frustration at repeated failures. After a short loading time, you’ll respawn in one of a number of different ways, emerging from a clay mould or a sarcophagus, or even climbing out of a TV like Sadako from Ring. The downside to this is that there’s little sense of peril when you’ve got so little to lose, indeed, with generous checkpointing that means you’ll emerge having lost seconds rather than minutes of progress, it’s often easier to just let yourself die when you’re low on health rather than struggle on with a flashing red distraction in the top left of the screen.

    Such obvious eagerness to please is laudable in some respects, but the insistent fervour with which Insomniac bombards the player with colours, with ideas, with pickups and powerups and buffs and bonuses means Sunset Overdrive is best approached as you would any caffeinated energy drink. In small gulps, it offers an exhilarating sugar rush, but too much will leave you with a headache. As such, it’s best consumed in moderation.

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