Sunset Overdrive review: Charming Chaos

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Sunset Overdrive review

The moment I shot a stuffed kitten into a crowd of mutants and watched a robot dog decimate those monsters in pursuit of the toy, I knew Sunset Overdrive was something special. This raucous third-person shooter packs wacky weapons, a gut-busting storyline and a stylish combat system that mixes mutant-killing with rail grinds and wall runs.

Foul-mouthed, charming and refreshingly colorful, the Xbox One exclusive Sunset Overdrive is the best reason yet to own Microsoft's new console.

Sunset Overdrive review: Awesomepocalypse

Irreverent and self-aware at every turn, Sunset Overdrive offers a refreshingly off-kilter take on the classic zombie-apocalypse story. An energy drink called Overcharge Delirium XT has turned almost all of Sunset City's population into a swarm of bulbous, orange mutants known as OD, leaving you to survive against monsters, looters and Fizzco, the evil corporation behind the beverage.

Sunset Overdrive review

In your quest to escape Sunset City, you'll team up with various friendly factions, including the bratty prep-school kids in the Oxfords and the badass boy and girl scouts of Troop Bushido. I found myself most attached to the Fargarths, a group of live-action role players who believe that the Overcharge apocalypse is a real-life 12th-century adventure. In a year when big-budget games such as Watch Dogs and Destiny failed to deliver compelling characters, Sunset Overdrive's colorful, foul-mouthed cast shines brightly.

Sunset Overdrive breaks the fourth wall so often that it feels like developer Insomniac Games is hanging out with you as you play. Your character frequently acknowledges the fact that he or she is in a video game, and pokes fun at everything from popular gaming websites to the clunkiness of Microsoft's own Windows 8.1 software. Sunset Overdrive isn't the first game to literally curse me out during a boss battle, but those moments made me laugh harder than any other game in recent memory could.

Sunset Overdrive review: Gameplay

Imagine playing a third-person shooter while simultaneously riding a roller coaster — that's what Sunset Overdrive feels like. You won't just be blasting away mutants and evil robots; you'll be doing so while grinding rails, bouncing on cars, swinging off poles and dashing through the air. The game's many stylish moves can be chained together, resulting in an addictive, always-moving gameplay flow that feels just as much like Tony Hawk's Pro Skater as it does a traditional action game.

Sunset Overdrive review

Once the game's controls clicked, I often found myself in a trancelike state, chaining together kills, grinds and wall runs across Sunset City's colorful rooftops and forgetting my main mission entirely. Being flashy serves a purpose, too: Filling up your style meter activates your Amps, which give wacky and powerful properties to the game's already wacky and powerful guns.

Story missions are broken up by occasional Night Defense segments, in which you defend a base while your pal Floyd brews up new Amps. This adds a welcome tower-defense element to the game's kinetic combat, as you'll lay a host of creative traps that will slice, freeze and toss away OD as they come running for your Overcharge.

Sunset Overdrive makes normally mundane game mechanics hilariously entertaining. You can use "portal potties" to quickly teleport between different sections of the city, and the game's random respawn animations will have you rise from the dead in anything from a phone booth to an ancient Egyptian tomb.

Sunset Overdrive review: An artful arsenal

Insomniac is known for offering players a wild arsenal of weapons, and Sunset Overdrive is its most shining example of that yet. Among the game's many firearms are a vinyl-record cannon, a gun that shoots exploding teddy bears, and — my favorite — the Flaming Compensator, a rather, ahem, anatomical-looking shotgun.

Sunset Overdrive review

Because the OD, Scabs (looters) and Fizzco robots all have different weaknesses, you'll constantly switch among these over-the-top firearms on the fly. This strategy goes even deeper with the game's unlockable Amps, which boost your abilities to devastating effect once your style meter goes up. Amps do everything from making enemies explode to making them fight for you, and you can cause some truly creative destruction when you pair them with the right weapons.

Playing stylishly earns you Overdrives, which can boost your health, weapon damage and help your style meter fill faster. Like Amps, Overdrives let you tailor your character to your preferred play style, whether that style involves mowing down OD with automatic weapons or bludgeoning them from above with a crowbar.

Sunset Overdrive's character creator is wonderfully inclusive; you can switch from male to female on the fly, and both sexes have the same wardrobe and hair options. Want to be a tubby man in short shorts, or a petite bearded lady with a big sword? Go nuts.

Sunset Overdrive review: Chaos Squad and Extras

You can team up with up to seven other friends in Chaos Squad mode, which has your group take on a series of small challenges that culminate in a massive Night Defense mission. The way you play these challenges determines the city's Chaos level: More Chaos means a harder Night Defense at the end, but it also means better rewards.

Sunset Overdrive review

Once Night Defense kicks off, the "Chaos" in Chaos Squad takes effect. Watching seven other players set off traps and blast away waves of OD is a joy to behold, and both my Internet connection and the game's frame rate stayed rock-solid in the midst of all of the madness. The mode is integrated seamlessly with Sunset's single-player mode, so any rewards you earn with friends can be used in the story.

If you're not the social type, there's still plenty to do in Sunset Overdrive once you beat its roughly 10-hour campaign. Sunset City is littered with collectibles, including smartphones that contain extra story tidbits and rolls of toilet paper that, strangely enough, can be traded for Amps. There are also tons of high-score and traversal challenges, the latter of which require you to truly master the game's fluid movement system.

Sunset Overdrive review: Graphics and sound

Sunset Overdrive is a rainbow-soaked punch in the face to the browns and blacks of modern action games. Every stretch of Sunset City is oozing with color, from the candylike oranges and blues of the downtown district to the lush greenery of Little Tokyo. The game's art style breaks as many fourth walls as the story does; enemy guts spell out things like "blam" as they explode, just as the phrase "Brrr" appears as you freeze the opposition.

Thanks to voice actors Yuri Lowenthal and Stephanie Lemelin, your custom character acts like a witty, fully formed protagonist whether you play as a male or female. The game's punk-rock soundtrack reinforces the troves of wild hairstyles and tattered clothing options at your disposal, and the sound of squishing OD into oblivion is mighty satisfying.

Sunset Overdrive review: Verdict

It's hard to recall a game that kept me grinning from beginning to end the way Sunset Overdrive did. Whether I was watching an over-the-top cutscene or putting together crazy combos using the game's creative mechanics, Insomniac's irreverent shooter always gave me a reason to smile. Thanks to its chaotic multiplayer mode and troves of collectibles, I still have a reason to play.

Offering some of the purest fun I've had playing a new-gen game, Sunset Overdrive is a must-have for Xbox gamers.

Michael Andronico

Mike Andronico is Senior Writer at CNNUnderscored. He was formerly Managing Editor at Tom's Guide, where he wrote extensively on gaming, as well as running the show on the news front. When not at work, you can usually catch him playing Street Fighter, devouring Twitch streams and trying to convince people that Hawkeye is the best Avenger.