This week, Zero Punctuation reviews Sunset Overdrive.
You know, I don't think it's a valid complaint to decry something as "trying too hard". That was today's Zero Punctuation master class on indirectly giving your opinion away, but honestly, "trying too hard" is a criticism leveled by aloof, joyless wank-tanks who spend their days smirking dismissively at the inside of their own rectal passages. God forbid that someone try too hard! God forbid that they insert a little passion into the things they do, forcibly if necessary, spraying their passion all around the inside of- Sorry, that got weird on me. Well, if you're so concerned about looking cool and dignified you can't put the effort to meet something halfway, then maybe you're the one with the problem, mate!
Sunset Overdrive then, the new sandbox by Insomniac Games, a developer that's been up and down in my eyes. On the one hand, Resistance 3; on the other hand, Fuse. Don't shake that hand, it's covered in wee. I'm not gonna say Sunset Overdrive is trying too hard. I will, however, say that it's not trying hard enough - to avoid looking like it's trying too hard.
Of course, it was already making an uphill start, 'cos if you're going to make an anarchic punk fantasy about living free in defiance of the system, man, maybe check briefly over your shoulder to make sure you're not an Xbone exclusive. Which is not to say an Xbone exclusive necessarily has to be chugging on corporate cock so hard that its alveoli are tickling the bell-end, but the main character of Sunset Overdrive seems to be what a roomful of men in their thirties and forties think the kids are like these days; a snarky young punk who grinds through the town on an invisible skateboard, obviously does graffiti, and might as well have a slingshot sticking out of their back pocket.
I say "punk", I guess he could be a hipster depending on how you dress them, because you can fully customize appearance. Sadly, there's no option to fully customize personality into one that doesn't sorely deserve to have their vocal cords gouged out with the length of their own frozen smug.
The plot is, an evil corporation mistakenly releases a tainted energy drink that turns people into evil mutants and has now locked the city down to cover up their cock-up in the standard evil and corporate manner. Well, that's the alleged plot, anyway. The real plot is simply "It is a video game." Hoh yes, we're so fucking eye-rollingly self-conscious that if we rolled them any harder, they'd plop down through our internal organs like balls in a Pachinko machine.
- Why can we grind infinitely along rails and wires with no apparent means of propulsion? "Because it is a video game!"
- Why can we bounce three storeys up in the air off of potted bushes? "Because video game!"
- Why are you winking to camera with every single line of dialogue? "Because I'm having a stroke!"
And you know what, it is quite a fun video game. It goes for superhero sandboxing on an InFamous kind of level, and pulls off creating that whole "The Floor is Lava" thing, where it's just fun to traverse the city trying to keep your style combo up as you switch from rail grind to wall run to bounce pad without touching the ground. You're encouraged to bounce around and grind to make yourself harder to hit in combat, and there's fun to be had in squatting on a grind rail and gunning enemies down as you slide slowly along, like a firing range target from the mirror universe.
Though having said that, the weapons are a mixed bag. For this kind of thing, they need to be punchy and cathartic, like the quality Painkiller has where you inadvertently hip-thrust with every pull of the trigger. My favourite weapon was the magnum, just because it had some punch to it. Most of the silly hilarious weapons get lost in the chaos. I'm not clear on why it's necessary for the grenades to have teddy bears strapped to them, although I know what the game would say: "To make them more awesome!" Because Sunset Overdrive uses the word "awesome" like a legal document uses the word "hereby".
I feel that if the game spent as much time making itself awesome as it did declaring itself to be awesome, then perhaps it wouldn't be a liar on top of everything else. There's an air of desperation to it. Saints Row 4, a game that is awesome, opens with the President fighting off an alien invasion at the White House. At no point do they turn to camera and go "Wow! I'm the President fighting aliens! How cool and random, right, viewers?"
I almost feel sorry for the protagonist of Sunset Overdrive. They're stuck playing this protracted game of "Awesomer than Thou" against no one in particular. I'm willing to bet they'll turn out to be in their mid to late thirties. "Whoo, look at me, all into youth culture and shit! Civil disobedience, FTW! I'm all about that rocking and rolling music."
As is the sandbox way, Sunset Overdrive introduces a number of NPC factions who give us our missions, and all of them seem to be nerds: engineering students and LARPers and the like. It's another thing that comes across as desperate. "Look at the nerds! We're not nerds, we're cool! Video games are cool and not nerdy!" I didn't say they were ner- "Good, 'cos they're not! Let's all laugh at the nerds and their funny nerdy ways! Fa ha ha ha ha ha!" Except let's not laugh, Sunset Overdrive.
And here we veer close to the crux of the issue: Sunset Overdrive is shooting to be a comedy game but it didn't make me laugh once, which, for a comedy game, is a bit of a stumble into the lion enclosure. Well, I tell a lie; I laughed once at the end credits when I noticed several names credited as "Humour Consultants". Fucking hell, those guys must have taken some long lunches!
The humour lies almost exclusively on sarcasm, pop culture references and fourth-wall breaking, which between them make up the comedy equivalent of the Third World, where entire families must subsist upon a single custard pie, and even that is ineptly handled. Every gag is drawn out to the point of agonized death (which is any length at all), and the "hilarious" dialogue wouldn't understand timing if you shoved an alarm clock up its... flagpole. After every open-quotes "funny moment", characters react like they're waiting for the laugh track to fade.
I think that "humour consultant" thing gives the game away. Comedy designed by committee, shrink-wrapped Microsoft-brand Fun® (registered trademark), all the individual elements that would, in theory, create fun but something was lost when they were strung together. It just doesn't have the energy as this sort of thing needs.
I mean, take Saints Row 4 again: madcap fun, but self-aware without being smugly self-referential. It's got plot that's more than just wacky setpieces, it's got characters that are more than just archetypes for the protagonist to roll his eyes at like he's playing lawn bowls. And most importantly, it's got a decent fucking soundtrack that's more than just the entirety of the Guitar Hero "Let's appear relevant to people born after 1995" section, that thinks all you need to do to rock out is switch idly back and forth between three or four chords while strumming like a chimp with itchy bollocks.
- Overlong Sunday drive: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- In the comedy Third World people must walk for hours through silent audiences just to fill their water pistols
- Nobody tries to make me have fun and gets away with it