Sunset Overdrive is a garish, over-the-top explosion of color and sound. Its punk rock sensibilities are evident at every turn. Even four years after launching in 2014 as an Xbox One exclusive, this is still one of the best games of its generation.
The credit for that belongs entirely to Insomniac Games, the same studio responsible for 2018 game of the year contender Spider-Man. Fans of Sunset no doubt felt echoes of that earlier game in Spidey. At their core, both games are about the joy of movement.
Spider-Man feeds that joy with the bursts of motion that spring out of your web-swinging and death-defying leaps through the breaks in Manhattan’s concrete jungle. The Marvel superhero is you constant anchor, a fixed focus point who sails through the skies under your guidance as the bustling Big Apple becomes a blur all around you.
Sunset Overdrive pulls more from the Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater playbook. There’s no skateboard (or wheels of any kind), but your custom hero’s seemingly magical footwear can grind on, bounce off of, or wall run across most surfaces, physics be damned. Realism goes out the window in the name of fun. It works.
The premise is simple, if ridiculous: It’s 2027 and Sunset City is caught in the grip of an apocalyptic mutant uprising triggered by a shady company’s toxic energy drink. Your nameless hero — a completely blank slate for you to customize — is one of the few survivors of the so-called “awesomepocalypse,” and you’re on a mission to figure out What The Hell Happened.
It’s hardly a straightforward effort. Many of the surviving humans in Sunset City have formed together around different factions, with each one based in a fortified location that keeps them safe from the mutant hordes. Your investigation crosses paths with all of them at different points, and those interactions drive the bulk of Sunset Overdrive‘s plot.
The factions of Sunset City are similar in a lot of ways to the gangs of director Walter Hill’s cult film classic, The Warriors. Each group of average Joes and Janes has defined their post-society identity around whatever stuff they were into: fantasy LARPers, a privileged rich-kid faction of “Oxfords,” and a group of former Scouts that now lives by the samurai code.
Sunset Overdrive pulls from the Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater playbook.
Helping them is often a matter of defeating some baddie or finding and fetching a lost treasure — simple video game objectives — but Sunset Overdrive‘s sticky mechanics keep you engaged. Once you master the controls (no small feat!), the simple act of getting from A to B becomes deeply satisfying.
That’s especially true when you factor in the combat. Sunset Overdrive draws much of its inspiration there from another notable Insomniac favorite: the Ratchet & Clank series.
You have a massive arsenal at your disposal in this game, but it’s not the all-too-familiar video game lineup of handguns, assault rifles, and grenade/rocket launchers. Sunset Overdrive‘s weapons are cobbled-together creations, built out of the remains of a fractured world.
There’s the High Fidelity, a Sunset Overdrive take on an assault rifle that spits out a stream of vinyl records whenever you pull the trigger. The Dude, on the other hand, is a grenade launcher-like weapon that you can charge up to fire explosive bowling balls. Many of Sunset Overdrive‘s weapons behave like more traditional guns, but with a twist: for example, High Fidelity’s records bounce off of walls and ricochet around the environment; The Dude’s bowling balls aren’t launched so much as they just roll along on the ground.
In case it wasn’t clear already: Sunset Overdrive doesn’t take itself very seriously. But it commits. There’s no space for realism in this world, but the internal logic is consistent all throughout. Once you understand Sunset City and the motivations driving the people living in it, everything else falls into place.
Wrapping around all of Sunset Overdrive‘s big ideas is a punk rock aesthetic that informs every inch of the game: the blaring music that responds organically to whatever’s happening on the screen; the garish cartoon graphics that more often than not look like an elaborate back tattoo come to life; the DIY design of the weapons, and the “have it your way” approach to character customization.
Even the game itself rebels against traditional ideas of open world design. The environment is littered with different kinds of collectibles, but all of it doubles as in-game currency. More standard “fetch/find/kill this thing” quests are broken up around much more elaborate tower defense-style encounters where you set up defenses around a base as you fend off hordes of mutants.
Games like this that aren’t built around drawing in a large online community don’t tend to have a long shelf life. And four years old is positively ancient in video game industry terms. But this is the rare game that’s filled with such fresh ideas and novel mechanics, it’s as vital now as it was when it launched on Oct. 28, 2014.
Now, in 2018, it’s easier to get than ever. You can find Xbox One copies for pennies online, or subscribe to Xbox Game Pass and get it that way. Sunset Overdrive is also, in an unexpected twist, coming to Windows on Nov. 16, 2018. It’s a special game. Go play it.