Sunset Overdrive serves as a digital reminder that it’s past time to kill punk. Now that it’s nearly four decades old and drifting into obscurity, let’s bundle all of it together—the frenzied music, the grungy fashion, the snide attitude—and smother it with a studded leather jacket.
Harsh? Perhaps, but look at it as a justifiable mercy killing. Deep inside, punk knows that it deserves to die. Punk stares mournfully into the mirror, sees its receding mohawked hairline, paws at the paunch protruding from its middle and acknowledges the truth: It has become what it once hated. Prudish businessmen mumble “Oi! Oi!” along with the Sex Pistols in their BMWs. Millionaire tech executives clad in hoodies and tattered jeans smugly co-opt the language of dissent to describe the disruptive power of their mobile apps. Corporate America rents punk anthems to hawk luxury cruises, condiments, or—as is the case with Sunset Overdrive—video games.
This is not new, of course. There’s a long, inglorious tradition of video games that slather themselves in “edgy” youth cultures for marketing purposes. But timing is important. The Hot Topic-style mall punk aesthetic of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater—which Sunset Overdrive closely mimics in style and substance—felt dated a decade ago. When the same old thing is trotted out in 2014, it’s like developers have exhumed the corpse of punk and expect it to feel fresh and cool. It doesn’t. Had Insomniac Games instead swapped out its garish palettes for shades of black and white and dressed its hero in natty three-piece suits or flapper dresses and incorporated a 1920s jazz-era soundtrack, it would be nearly as relevant.
The story is a familiar one in the abstract—an adolescent power fantasy about a young person (players can craft either a male or female avatar) who tosses off the yoke of The Man for anarchy-fueled self-actualization. More specifically, you play as a blue-collar punk who’s stuck working as a lowly custodian for an energy drink company called FizzCo. Things go horribly awry during a launch party for a new drink called Overcharge because the bubbly beverage lacked proper lab testing. Drinking the orange junk ends up turning the denizens of Sunset City into rampaging, ’roided-up mutants. The corporation hopes to avoid a big PR headache, so it quickly quarantines the city, dooming the survivors to become monster food.
Players’ ultimate goal is to escape from this deathtrap of a city, but why hurry? Post-apocalyptic fiction like The Walking Dead or The Road treats the end of the world like a total bummer, dude, but here it’s a hopeful opportunity for the spunky hero of Sunset Overdrive, who deems it the “Awesome Apocalypse.” Almost everyone is dead, but hey, no parents, no cops, no rules! The environmental art reflects this jovial attitude. The muted grays and browns of typical post-apocalypse times have been jettisoned for Day-Glo pastels and so many bright and shiny colors, it’s as if a toucan vomited a box of crayons onto the whole city.
It’s a livelier backdrop than most, but the moment-to-moment experience of living through the awesome apocalypse is largely the same as the non-awesome variety in terms of shooting almost everything that moves with guns. Sunset Overdrive’s arsenal is full of inspired choices like a grenade launcher that fires exploding teddy bears or a Big Lebowski-themed bowling ball cannon. As a fan of vinyl records, I especially enjoyed the LP-blasting High Fidelity weapon. You get full use of all of them because Sunset City is swamped with thousands of Overdrive-crazed mutants and armed FizzCo employees, and you’re constantly assaulted on all sides.
Stand still for a couple of seconds, however, and you’re likely to go splat. The key to survival is to keep moving and treat your surroundings like a low gravity skate park. The city has been designed so you can constantly grind, flip, or bounce on nearly every surface imaginable like you’re some kind of X Games superhero. Eventually, a rhythm of traversing obstacles and pulling off death-defying tricks while simultaneously gunning down enemies is established. The constant acrobatics are a thrilling adrenaline rush at first, granting a sense of freedom and easy mobility, but as the game’s difficulty increases, it feels as if you’re being funneled onto railings and the edges of rooftops: Every encounter with an enemy becomes a game of finding the right grind spot and firing away. It’s kineticism for its own sake, as if the developers were afraid players might get bored if they stopped moving for a half-millisecond. The same goes for the over-complicated upgrade system. You’re constantly concocting new “amps”—special upgrades for your weaponry—and gaining new powers by performing specific actions. Sunset Overdrive constantly harasses players about those actions because, well, ain’t acquisition grand? Even the soundtrack is all chugging guitars and breakneck rhythms aimed at keeping the game’s volume turned to 11.
Sunset Overdrive does pause the action once in a while, but it doesn’t do anyone any favors. Much of the “plot” usually involves watching jokey interaction with the game’s wacky supporting cast. The chilled-out scientist Floyd is a welcome addition, but nearly everyone else is a stereotype or throwaway character: the trigger-happy redneck, the gruff-but-wise old guy, the socially inept nerd. There’s even a hobo, who is supposed to be a source of humor because… he’s a hobo! Get it? That’s indicative of a lot of the game’s humor, which is full of cheap video game in-jokes and pop-culture references meant to reward the player for simply recognizing the reference. Remember that Breaking Bad show everyone watched? Are you ready for a character who makes blue substances and says “bitch” a lot?
And yes, Sunset Overdrive apes the anti-everything spirit of punk by taking spiteful passing shots—but only at the easiest and most harmless of targets, like annoying marketing practices and preppy kids who text too much. Perhaps it’s too much to ask of an ode to punk culture published by multinational mega-corporation Microsoft, but Sunset Overdrive can’t escape the fact that it’s a harmless product of the machine it pretends to rage against. After all, it’s hard to keep defiantly flipping the bird at authority and the conformity of comfortable adulthood when you’re the middle-aged guy calling the shots and your milieu has become interchangeable from the culture at large it claims to be subverting. Squint hard enough and all that angry fist pumping looks an awful lot like an eager thumbs up for the status quo.
Developer: Insomniac Games
Publisher: Microsoft Studio
Platform: Xbox One