'Sunset Overdrive' review: energy drink-fueled insanity for Xbox One

'Tony Hawk' meets 'GTA,' doused in Red Bull

73

What action games really need is more skateboarding.

Sunset Overdrive, the latest release from Ratchet & Clank developer Insomniac Games, has a lot in common with other third-person action games. There's explosive combat like in Infamous, and a huge city to explore like in Assassin's Creed. But what really separates the game is how you move — and how you never really stop. Sunset Overdrive turns the simple act of traversing a city into an extreme sport. You can grind, jump, and climb your way from one side of Sunset City to the other without ever touching the ground, all while using bombs and machine guns to lay waste to hordes of mutants and killer robots.

The game is what would happen if you combined Tony Hawk with Dead Rising, and then doused the whole thing in Red Bull. And it's exactly as fun as that sounds. It features a style and tone that would feel more at home on the Dreamcast than something launching in 2014. Sunset Overdrive is exuberant and fun, a game that knows it's absolutely ridiculous and revels in that fact.

The game is set during an apocalypse, but one far removed from the brown-and-gray wastelands typically found in video games. It takes place in the bright, vibrant coastal town of Sunset City, which has been overrun with mutants created after citizens drank a dangerous new energy drink. (These mutants, naturally, are known as OD.) Over the course of the game you'll come across everything from ninja cheerleaders to a group of larpers that think they're living in Medieval times. You'll wield weapons that fire exploding teddy bears and vinyl records. At one point you’ll literally forge a nuclear-powered samurai sword that shoots fireballs.

There’s a simple story at the core of Sunset Overdrive, one that has you fighting both to escape the city and get revenge on the company that caused the apocalypse in the first place. It’s mostly just window dressing, though. You won’t find yourself caring about the characters or shocked at any sudden plot twist. The only remarkable thing about the narrative is the main character.

As opposed to the typical grizzled white dude out for revenge, Sunset Overdrive puts you in the skate shoes of a wise-cracking hero of your own creation. You can build essentially any person you want, and the creation tool is incredibly flexible. And whether you play as a black woman or a white man, an armor clad warrior or a hipster goth, the story plays out the same. In an age when video game heroes are often indistinguishable, this freedom is very welcome.

What's really amazing is that you can change any aspect of your character at any point in the game. I spent most of Sunset Overdrive playing as a tiny woman with freckles and flowing red pigtails. Later on I realized I could change her to a hulking guy in the same way I could change her shirt or pants (I could even keep the flowing red pigtails). It makes no sense, but then neither does the rest of the game. Likewise, all of the clothing and visual options are available no matter what race or gender you choose, turning the character creation process into something wonderfully fluid.

The game’s in-your-face, almost 1990s sense of style manages to successfully straddle the line between being funny and obnoxious. Occasionally the constant one-liners can be a bit much, like when the energy drink mascot keeps telling you to stay still so it can kill you, but the writing is sharp and almost always funny. Whereas other open-world action games like Watch Dogs or Infamous often try (and fail) to be dark and serious dramas, Sunset Overdrive absolutely loves being a video game. There are references to gaming forums and fourth-wall breaking jokes about cliche missions. When you collect health you'll hear a SNES-inspired beep. After the lead character delivers an inspirational speech about defeating the enemy, she ends with "and if not, at least we'll see some new respawn animations."

Most aspects of the game are actually very familiar. The missions, which typically involve going somewhere to collect something or kill something, are completely standard, as is the way your character gains new skills over the course of the game. Likewise, you'll feel completely at home with the combat if you’ve ever played an Assassin's Creed or Infamous game before.

It's the skateboarding-style movement that makes Sunset Overdrive feel fresh and new. For some inexplicable reason your character can grind on almost any surface, whether it's the edge of a building or the power wires that line the city's streets, all while wearing regular shoes (don’t worry, putting on those heels won’t slow you down). It’s weird, but it’s fun enough that you won’t care. You can also run on the walls of buildings almost indefinitely, and use trees and cars like trampolines, bouncing to impossible heights. There isn’t even a run button, because you're not supposed to spend much time on the ground. Sunset City doesn't feel like a living, breathing world. It’s one giant skatepark just waiting to be shredded.

In some ways, this is reminiscent of Titanfall. It takes elements you already know, with its familiar combat and missions, and then adds in a completely new way of moving around that makes the game so much faster. When you combine the skateboarding-style movement with actual combat, Sunset Overdrive becomes absolutely insane. You'll fight against dozens of enemies at a time, from acid spewing mutants to freakishly fast killer robots, and if you just stand around you’ll definitely die. Sunset Overdrive also features boss battles on such an incredible scale that I was literally sitting on the edge of my seat. A few of these take place on battlefields high above the city, where one small mistake can see you plummet to your death.

The downside to all of this is that the game can occasionally throw too much your way. A battle might feature a few too many waves of mutants, or a boss that requires far too many shots to kill. There were a handful of instances where I found myself dying repeatedly because there was simply an overwhelming number of bad guys to confront, or a boss that just wouldn’t die (thankfully the game has relatively forgiving checkpoints). These moments were thankfully rare, but they stood out because they absolutely killed the game's momentum — and Sunset Overdrive is all momentum. When things slow down it feels like just another action game.

Sunset Overdrive may take place during the apocalypse, but it's a game filled with unbridled enthusiasm. Simply moving from one area of the map to the next is exhilarating. It really only falters when that enthusiasm becomes too much, and in those moments the game becomes overwhelming, slowing things down to the point that it loses what’s really special. But it’s easy to look past that when you're grinding along a looping rail that takes you a few dozen stories into the air, while a giant floating robotic balloon shoots rockets at you and kick-ass punk rock blares in the background.

Who needs a skateboard?

Sunset Overdrive launches on October 28th on Xbox One

The best of Verge Video