Insomniac’s uncharacteristic break from long-time partner Sony gave us the Xbox-exclusive Sunset Overdrive in October 2014. Well-received but underappreciated, the high-octane, in-your-face, off the wall third-person shooter came and went without making many sales or leaving any legacy. A truly fantastic game with a few noticeable flaws, Insomniac has had the opportunity to learn from Sunset Overdrive and apply the result to the upcoming hotly-anticipated Spider–Man. Spider-Man shows hints of Insomniac’s original vision with Sunset Overdrive, and if Insomniac has focused on learning from their mistakes, Spider-Man will not meet the same fate as Sunset Overdrive. No, if Spider-Man reaches its full potential, it will quite easily go down as an all-time great. Hopefully, Insomniac worked on the obvious fixes needed last time around.
Although Sunset Overdrive hardly seems relevant on a PlayStation website nearly four years after its lackluster release, I believe that it can be viewed as a stepping stone on Insomniac’s path to Spider-Man. Sunset Overdrive was a chance for Insomniac to have near full creative control in building a game exactly as they envisioned. The result was excellent, but now that they are back home at PlayStation, Insomniac has hopefully looked at Sunset Overdrive during Spider-Man’s development. In a perfect world, they kept what worked and fixed or ditched anything that didn’t.
One example of what worked, and Sunset Overdrive’s main focal points, was smooth, effortless, and stylish traversal. The game directly discouraged walking on the ground – doing so made you more vulnerable to enemies. Walking was intentionally kept slow; there were no drivable vehicles, nor was there even a sprint button. Instead, players bounced off of bushes and cars, grinded down power lines, and ran along walls to quickly reach any point in the city. This seamless movement had me almost never use fast travel in my time with the game, and opened up tons of combat possibilities. It is quite clear that Spider-Man needs to do the same thing, and luckily, Insomniac seems to plan on doing so (wall-runs even look to be copied almost exactly from Sunset Overdrive). Acrobatic web maneuvers need to feel smooth in any good Spider-Man game, and they will need to be dialed up to 11 in what is our first AAA foray with the webslinger in nearly a full console generation. Flinging and slinging webs will hopefully be smoother than ever—that alone will be enough to carry the spirit of Sunset Overdrive’s fantastic movement.
The ridiculous weapons in Sunset Overdrive were off-the-charts insanity that carried on obvious Ratchet and Clank weapon philosophies. The Roman Candle (assault rifle that shot fireworks), the TNTeddy (grenade launcher that fired teddy bears strapped to dynamite), and The Dude (shot bowling balls) were just a few of the game’s dozens of explosive and powerful weaponry that kept combat varied and fun. While dynamite teddy bears would not quite fit in Spider-Man, Insomniac will hopefully utilize a wide array of physical combos and web attacks to keep things fresh.
Another positive from Sunset Overdrive’s combat was how fighting was so smoothly intertwined with traversal. Standing still meant death, so instead, you had to bounce and grind while stringing your way through streets, between buildings, and across rooftops while fighting dozens of enemies at once. While, once again, this concept would not translate exactly to Spider-Man, Insomniac ideally recognized that making traversal an important part of combat has the potential to keep Spider-Man without a dull moment. One of my favorite moments in the Spider-Man 2 video game came in a simple battle with random street thugs where I was able to jump a little bit out of the way before immediately turning around, jumping into a web swing, and knocking one of the bad guys down with a perfectly-timed kick. I want moments like that to be integrated into Spider-Man’s combat experience. Sunset Overdrive proved that Insomniac knows that combat and movement belong together – hopefully that is still the case come September 7th.
While Sunset Overdrive’s dominating emphasis on a fast and fun mix of combat and movement should translate perfectly to Spider-Man, there are other parts of Sunset Overdrive that need to be fixed or left on Xbox. Chief among these is the story. Sunset Overdrive mostly stuck to a no-holds-barred attitude that refused to take itself seriously amidst myriad fourth-wall breaks. This mostly worked, except for when Insomniac tried to randomly insert actual heartfelt story moments. One in particular at the end of the game felt completely unearned after an entire game’s worth of comedic moments (and a ridiculous premise), and what was supposed to be a nice scene was instead a cringe-inducing few minutes that I remember more clearly than a lot of the ensuing boss fight.
Spider-Man should not have this problem. Insomniac has decades upon decades of content that can guide them in shaping their version of Peter Parker and his stories. Furthermore, there should not be as much confusion with the game’s tone this time. Sunset Overdrive’s occasionally vulgar or crass humor has no place in Spider-Man, whereas lighthearted quips and jokes would certainly it right in while webslinging. The result of all of the available source material should be a solid original story, maybe even a great comic book epic, but Sunset Overdrive’s inconsistencies in this area provide reason to be weary.
Something else that needs to be fixed is gameplay variety. Sunset Overdrive’s third-person shooting was perfect for my tastes, and as a result, it is one of my favorite games of all time. However, someone who is not over the moon for smooth third person shooting would have trouble getting into Sunset Overdrive. Indeed, gameplay objectives did not have a ton of variation to them – it was mostly a combination of great traversal and killing things, set to the same colorful background with similar interactions and objectives. If you are me, then that was perfect, but for a lot of others, the experience wore thin, especially with the horde-mode missions. Spider-Man already seems to be fixing that. We know that Mary Jane will be playable to an extent, and that on its own should vary gameplay. Optimistically speaking, levels where we play as Spider-Man should have some uniqueness to them as well. This would go a long way in producing a campaign that does not get old and is fresh enough for everybody.
Spider-Man is one of my most anticipated games of all time. I view it as a second attempt by Insomniac to make their mark in the open-world space. As someone who already loved their first attempt, I am all for it. That, and, historically, Spider-Man games have been way better than they have a right to be – see Spider-Man 2, a movie tie-in, being the near-consensus best superhero game of all time pre-Arkham Asylum. Ultimate Spider-Man was another fantastic game. Both of those games hold up well today, but hopefully will be surpassed by Insomniac’s forthcoming attempt. The stars seem to be lining up for several reasons, not the least of which is that Insomniac’s last attempt at this kind of game is a fantastic learning opportunity.