TIME e3 2014

What It’s Like to Play Sunset Overdrive, the Xbox One’s Cartoon-Violent Exclusive Shooter

Pulling off extreme acrobatics while blasting mutant hordes is trickier than it looks, but maybe that's the idea.

In the hands of a skilled player, Sunset Overdrive is a beautiful sight. Effortlessly, the player bounces from car hoods to rooftops, gliding on banisters and leaping into the air, firing every manner of explosive, colorful weaponry at the scrambling, screaming mutants below. In a flash, they become a dazzling display of pyrotechnics and orange gore.

This was not quite my experience when I first played the game for myself at E3 2014. A perfect example of the disconnect between scripted presentations (like the one at Microsoft’s press conference) and hands-on demos, I immediately found myself on the ground and surrounded by mutants, failing to grasp the “traversal” system that lets players bounce and slide from one platform to the next. Moments later, I was dead.

But maybe quick punishment was a form of training. In no time, I learned that treating Sunset Overdrive like a typical shooter–strafing on the ground while using your weapons as crowd control–is a quick way to get killed. You need to learn the acrobatics if you want to survive.

This isn’t as easy as it looks in trailers and canned demos. If you’re trying to land on a railing and are off by a smidgen, or you don’t hit “X’ in time, you’ll simply fall to the ground below, leaving you exposed to the horde as you try to scramble back to high ground. While you’re positioning yourself and timing your “X” button taps, you also need to be aiming with the right stick, firing with the left trigger and occasionally switching weapons with the right trigger.

It’s a lot to handle, but in a way, Sunset Overdrive’s complex mechanics are better than something like Assassin’s Creed, in which the climbing and grappling feel automatic. It’s all the more rewarding when you actually start pulling off some impressive tricks yourself.

Over the course of my demo–which included a single-player mission and a “defend the base” multiplayer mode–I became more comfortable with jumping, landing and positioning. I started to grasp the intricacies of the game’s wacky weapons, which include a ricocheting vinyl disc thrower, a launcher for exploding teddy bears, an area-of-effect freeze ray and a gun that seems to just make everything explode. I stopped dying and completed my mission, laying waste to a pair of firework-laden towers while zipping around an old amusement park roller coaster.

Like any shooter that revolves around a central gimmick, I have concerns about how long Sunset Overdrive will remain as thrilling. It’ll depend on how much variety developer Insomniac Games can introduce through enemies and set pieces and, more importantly, how far the game will push its players toward mastery of more complex stunts. But in this demo, at least, it’s pushing in the right direction.

Sunset Overdrive launches for Xbox One on October 28.

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