After videogames’ grey generation, Insomniac’s Sunset Overdrive is a riot of colour

Sunset

Publisher: Microsoft Developer: Insomniac Games Format: Xbox One Release: October 2014

The pitch hadn’t gone well. “It started off with us cranking out MC5’s Kick Out The Jams and ended with Drew [Murray] standing on a chair, acting out the entire game,” creative director Marcus Smith explains. “We thought for sure that was it, that we were gone. Microsoft… Well, they kind of have a square reputation. No offence.”

There were, says game director Drew Murray, “eight levels of Microsoft’s hierarchy” in that meeting, and Insomniac’s team left feeling deflated. Microsoft’s squares surprised the studio, however. “We were a little nervous after the meeting,” Smith says, “but they’ve been nothing but supportive of the vision of the game, the style and the attitude, and they’re supportive of what we want to do. It’s been awesome.”

After a decade spent almost exclusively working on Sony platforms, Insomniac has defected. Every single developer at the Burbank, California, studio not working on mobile title Outernauts is making Sunset Overdrive for Xbox One. But if the team thought it was a dicey prospect, it’s hard to say where the pitch might have gone wrong when the question Sunset Overdrive answers is so effortlessly and immediately intriguing: what if you gave Tony Hawk a gun?

Sunset Overdrive recalls the blue skies and punk rock of Crazy Taxi, the speed and style of Jet Set Radio, the grindable city of Tony Hawk’s Project 8 and the firepower of any Insomniac shooter. It’s an open-world superhuman adventure in the mould of Prototype and Infamous, but your power is traversal – every wall can be run on; every ledge, mantled; every car and awning is a springboard; every rail and wire can be grinded indefinitely while firing on the armies of OD’d zombies prowling the streets of Sunset City.

These aren’t the rotting undead seen in a thousand other games. “They’re a disaster brought about by corporate greed,” Smith says. “Fizzco is just weeks away from a worldwide release of a new energy drink called Overcharge Delirium XT. To celebrate, it invites everybody from its home town to sample it weeks before it goes on sale. Everybody in Sunset City is there having a great time. But you, the player, aren’t having a good time, because you’re working a shitty temp gig cleaning up at the party.”

Sunset Overdrive’s philosophy is that, for the right person, the apocalypse could be a thrilling escape from everyday life. Smith and Murray’s previous game, Resistance 3, had them immersed in the dark side of the end of the world, a sombre dystopia where humanity scrapes by on the edge of extinction. “The prospect of going through another gloomy period of our lives didn’t seem all that appealing,” Murray says. “But we thought about the other side of apocalyptic scenarios, things like Charlton Heston driving around a whale of a convertible in the empty streets of LA in The Omega Man, or Will Smith hitting golf balls off an aircraft carrier in I Am Legend. One man’s apocalypse is another man’s awesomepocalypse.”

“So [you’re working and] suddenly you’re attacked by a reveller covered in orange glowing boils, and the city is quickly overrun by enemies that we called the OD’d,” Smith says. “To make matters worse, Fizzco goes into cover-up mode and throws walls around the city, [then concocts] a virus story to keep people out. So now you’re not only a survivor, but a prisoner.

“But then you discover something. You don’t have that shit dead-end job any more, you don’t have that boss breathing down your neck, you don’t have bills to pay and there’s nobody to stop you from climbing on top of buildings, shooting guns, blowing stuff up, cranking the music, or living out your videogame fantasies. You can have fun in the end times.”

Sunset Overdrive’s open world is a series of islands with a full day-night cycle and a Crackdown-like degree of verticality. It’s also a world laced with cables and rails built to keep you mobile high above the swarms of OD’d flooding the streets below. Hit any rail and you can snap onto it and grind indefinitely, or at least till it terminates. So while our objective in the substantial demo is a far-off radio tower, distances have a habit of shrinking in Sunset Overdrive.

“Players can move at eight metres per second,” senior designer and level design lead Cameron Christian explains. “I’ve been stressing metrics from the beginning. When we’re working on a heavy combat space, we’re going to have longer grinds, [and in a lighter combat space, we’ll have shorter, trickier grinds]. It’s all about reaction time.”

While it’s possible to cross the city on foot, the safest route is just above street level, grinding on the telephone cables and crash barriers lining the city’s roads. A tap of X will begin a grind or a wall run, while a tap of A when you hit a launcher will propel you over rooftops. As you run, grind and leap, your auto-aim becomes more generous, and your Style Meter grows with every kill you score. As you scale the city’s towers, the grind lines become shorter and the opportunities for stylish play grow. “We wanted to keep the street level the easy tier,” Christian says. “You can move through the world at the ground level using basic grinds and basic bounces, but you start climbing higher and [you’ll start] seeing more areas, more routes, faster shortcuts. We wanted the growth [and the challenge] to be in the world itself.”

It’s a world of factions – some you’ll support and others you’ll fight. There are friendly survivors in the city, building their fortresses and setting traps, or even taking to the streets to fight the OD’d en masse. Other characters, meanwhile, offer sidequests, which tend towards the ridiculous (“A zombie stole my comics!”) and exist primarily to force players to traverse the city in ways they might never have considered.

“I looked at [Tony Hawk’s] Project 8 a bunch,” Christian says. “Prince Of Persia, Jet Set Radio… Once you start playing [Assassin’s Creed] or Infamous, after a while you’re not really thinking about the city any more. You’re just like, ‘I want to go there’, and you head over there in a straight line, and you lose that connection to the space. We’re trying to make our traversal a lot more thought-provoking.

“But from day one, we were like, ‘We’re definitely not having skateboards’. The rollerblade thing… Well, maybe for a moment [we considered it], but we just eventually went with sliding on rails and it worked. We didn’t worry about the fiction too much.”

Never mind the hows of Sunset Overdrive’s limitless grinds or wall runs, or why every car is spring-loaded. There is, says Murray, no story explanation for either, beyond this being a videogame set in a videogame land. “It’s a game that revels in being a game,” he says. “One of our first mottos was, ‘Fun trumps realism’. We don’t need an explanation if it’s fun; that’s good enough.”

Before you step into the world, you’ll begin by creating your character – male or female, heavy or thin – and dress them from a vast wardrobe, starting with their underwear and working outwards, layering up clothes in a naturalistic manner. For Sunset Overdrive, Insomniac has employed its first fashion designer, Carin Cronacher, to work alongside concept artist Vasili Zorin and character artist Gavin Goulden. The latter’s previous work was on the character creator for BioShock Infinite’s cancelled multiplayer mode and DLC chapter Burial At Sea’s version of Elizabeth. “It’s funny, because in BioShock [Elizabeth] was 40,000 [triangles],” Goulden says. “And even though it’s a much busier world, the shader support is more sophisticated, all the cloth is physics-enabled and it even wrinkles when you move, basically every character in Sunset Overdrive is 40,000 [triangles] too.”

It’s the nuances of the costume work that will differentiate players in the multiplayer mode teased in last year’s E3 trailer. “Given the opportunity, my daughter will dress and act like a crazy person at every opportunity,” Murray says. “And I find myself saying, ‘No, you can’t go to school looking like this’, and the only reason I can give is, ‘You’re going to be judged’. But what do you do when all the  rules are gone? Does it degenerate into Lord Of The Flies, or does it become something like Burning Man, where self-expression is paramount?”

Further self-expression comes in the form of Amps. Amps can be crafted from Overcharge and applied to one of your three character Amp slots, or to your gun’s single slot, activating insane superpowers as you push your Style Meter higher. “We reward you for doing cool things,” Smith says. “We reward you for traversing, we reward you for killing things, and we especially reward you for doing both at the same time.”

As the Style Meter climbs, your Amps fire up; one character Amp in the demo turns every evasive roll into a human fireball, while an Amp applied to the default machine gun gives every bullet fired a small chance of exploding like an atomic bomb. Guns are, after all, Insomniac’s stock in trade. “The biggest thing we’re trying to do is  get back to some of the things we had with Ratchet & Clank,” explains lead gameplay programmer and weaponsmith of sorts Doug Sheahan. “The big thing is giving players the ability to build different strategies out of their eight chosen weapons.”

As for those weapons, there’s a Roman candle firework launcher that indiscriminately sprays missiles with barely a hint of accuracy, the standard AK machine gun, a fire-extinguisher-powered teddy bear grenade launcher, deployable hover-turrets, a flame-throwing shotgun, the ‘Captain Ahab’ harpoon, a vinyl-record-flinging disc launcher, and a dozen more, all of which can be modified with one of many different Amps to change their effects. The machine gun can be Amped with ice ammunition instead of its infrequent thermonuclear rounds, say, but what happens when those same effects are applied to sentry guns during a siege or to the wildly inaccurate firework launcher? There will be, says Murray, many more Amps to craft for both characters and weapons, and their applications will be unlimited, leaving room for you to discover combinations and fight in your own way.

“What I consider success with our weapon array is when you can go to any person and say, ‘Pick eight weapons you want to put in your weapon wheel’, and everyone picks a different combination,” Sheahan says. “You can’t make everybody happy with every single gun, but if we can make everybody happy with half of them, we’ve done a pretty good job.”

“I think, over the past few years, we’ve really begun to truly understand what we love the most,” Insomniac’s CEO Ted Price says. “I think that’s reflected in the tone of Sunset Overdrive, with its humour, irreverence, stylised visuals, weapons: those are the elements that people come to Insomniac for. We’ve done darker games like Resistance, but this is where we shine.”

Traversing Sunset City is as much about engaging with the OD’d and hostile humans called Scabs on your terms as it is about the rush of sheer locomotive freedom. By the time you climb that once-distant radio tower, launching from “bouncies”, as Christian calls them, and grinding escalating rails to the tower’s top, you’ll want to have accumulated as much style as possible to have every Amp active for the area’s boss. “Sure, I can pick up the controller and do something awesome without being any good,” Smith says. “That’s something Tony Hawk’s [games have] in spades and that’s really what we wanted to do, but there’s a level of mastery that you need to build up in Tony Hawk to get good at it, too. [In Sunset Overdrive], you have to build momentum. You get extra powers and do more damage, and some of the enemies won’t even notice you’re shooting at them when you’re at style level one or two.”

“We’re overt about rewarding you for playing fast and hard and not stopping,” Murray says. “You can stop, but the whole thing is that we’re rewarding you for putting your neck out there and not letting up. A kill is worth more if you’re grinding, and if you’re not doing stuff, your Style Meter is going down, so getting in there, mixing it up and maintaining that velocity is your aim.”

The island’s boss is a colossal Fizzco balloon mascot named Fizzie, militarised and armed to the teeth to prevent incursions into Fizzco property. It’s a boss fight on rails that reclaims the notion of ‘on rails’ from a thousand guided shooters. Here, the rails are literal coils wrapped around the tower and Fizzie’s glowing weak spots are spring-loaded drums suspended high above the city’s rooftops – inexplicable, yes, but don’t dwell on it – that you’ll have to leap on while evading incoming fire by switching between rails and never, ever stopping. “I think, during the last generation, we’ve all been trained to hunker down behind barriers and wait out combat,” Price says. “Now we’re asking players to think differently, use a different toolset [and] push forward.”

“We wanted to take the shooter genre away from cowering behind cover,” Murray says. “You’ll be rewarded for jumping over that cover and taking the fight to the enemy.” And it’s this that makes Sunset Overdrive feel  new. If a trend is emerging at all from the new console generation, it’s that wall running is the new cover, and attack is the new defence. We’ve spent the best part of a decade lurking in the shade of bullet-chipped masonry. For Insomniac, it’s time to come out into the sun.

“I think there’s a certain level of fatigue among players right now,” Murray says. “If you look at Metacritic, there’s this downward trend of scores, and I don’t think it’s just that all of a sudden game critics want to be extra harsh. What I’m looking for is just different experiences. I like shooters, but I want something different. I don’t want every game I play to be another game like Call Of Duty; I  want things to feel different and to have different experiences.”

But the last time that Insomniac pitched a game so colourful and so different to a publisher and to the world, it shipped in a far greyer state than its early reveals. Fuse was the first major Insomniac game to stray away from Sony’s platforms and the game the studio shipped looked nothing like the game its fans were promised by its technicolour pitch at E3 2011. “I can assure you that it’s not going to happen with Sunset Overdrive,” Price says. “That’s why we’re showing you the game; that’s why you’re playing it. Fuse… We changed Fuse, and I think we heard loud and clear the reaction from players. We learned quite a bit about maintaining a consistent vision and growing it in a way that feels very authentic to Insomniac. So what I’m saying to you is that this is the game we’re making. We’re not changing it.”

Thanks for that goes to Microsoft’s squares. “The reason this game won’t change is because from the very beginning Microsoft has said, ‘We want Insomniac to be Insomniac’,” he says. “[With Microsoft], we had the opportunity to own our intellectual property, which we do with Fuse and we do with Sunset Overdrive. For us, as an independent developer, that’s important. We’ve been creating IP for many years and so being in control of how those IP evolve and where they go in the future is important to us. I think Microsoft trust us with that stewardship, and that comes through in all the conversations that we’ve had.”

Today, Sunset Overdrive feels like a Dreamcast game dragged 14 years into the future. It’s a game about blue skies, bold colours and no logic save for videogame logic. It’s a game built from recycled parts – the rails, the wall running, the colours, the ‘bouncies’, the guns – all scraps from games that died before they had a chance to really explore their ideas, or devices once so overused that players grew exhausted by them. Years later, they suddenly feel fresh again. Sunset Overdrive feels like something aggressively new, a gauntlet thrown down before the industry, and a manifesto for what comes next with a new generation.

“This is definitely what we want to see out of games,” Smith says. “Games like Jet Set Radio, Tony Hawk… We want to bring those elements to a more modern experience, with some depth, story and a campaign that has a lot of unique ideas, melding them into something good. I think at its core, we’re trying to make a really great arcade game that’s fun to play for 30 seconds, or a minute, or five minutes, or whatever.”

“The obvious thing players demand [of the new generation] is, ‘I want to see something visually different’,” Price says. “Whether it’s more on the screen, more realism, or more whatever. For us, it’s about ‘pop’. When I look at next-gen games, I want to see more popping off the screen somehow: more colours, more effects, more [things to see in] this city we’re building. To me, Sunset Overdrive feels much like my vision of what a next-generation game could be. It hits you.”

For Price, this nascent generation is also about a closer relationship with players, and Xbox One owners will be involved in the decisions that will shape Sunset Overdrive following its release. As you grind through the city, you’ll see big screens running Sunset TV – Insomniac’s own in-game TV channel – discussing the current and future state of the game and offering players a way (“better than just posting on a forum”, it says) to vote on how the game will change and evolve. Specific details will be revealed another day, together with solid facts about the multiplayer mode, the crafting systems, and exactly what happens after nightfall. For the latter, all Murray will do is tease. “In the early days, we were actually talking about the book version of I Am Legend,” he says. “He [protagonist Robert Neville] has free [rein] of the city, but then at night he has to hunker down and defend.”

“I think during the first year or two of a new generation are when the most risks are taken,” Smith says. “I think establishing a new idea is a natural tradition, and we’re looking at Sunset Overdrive as the first in a series. We want to build this into something bigger. We want it to be a real franchise. I’m personally looking forward to us being able to do more and more as we go, to build on the ideas we have now, and flesh those ideas out as the generation gets older.”

“And it all just came from a lunch conversation we were having a few years ago,” Murray says. “It was never meant to be anything real. It was just, ‘If you could make any game, what game would you want to make?’ We made Sunset Overdrive.”