In today’s games industry, true originality is almost shunned – the big money is made by familiar annual franchises, so the default setting is an aversion to risk that borders on the agoraphobic. But there’s one window in which originality is prized above all else: when a new console is on the market. Gamers aren’t stupid: if they are going to splash out on new hardware, they want demonstrably new games to go with it. And that’s why Sunset Overdrive might be Microsoft’s most effective weapon in its battle to close the disparity in sales between the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 this Christmas, because it really does feel fresh and original, and you could argue that it effectively reinvents the third-person shooter, one of the world’s favourite games genres.
That it does so by nicking key elements and mechanics from other games is indisputable – but what quashes any suspicion of plagiarism is that none of those elements or mechanics has been sourced from other third-person shooters. Developer Insomniac freely admits that Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater and Jet Set Radio were massive influences on Sunset Overdrive, and the best aspects of the former thoroughly pervade its gameplay, to surprisingly clever and satisfying effect, given that it is at heart a third-person shooter.
The first thing that strikes you about Sunset Overdrive, though, is its appearance: it’s stylised without being cartoonish, and draws from a very bright palette of primary colours and, especially, Dayglo orange – a far cry from the standard grey and brown of the average third-person shooter. This brings to mind Jet Set Radio, although with properly next-gen attention to detail. Humour-wise, Sunset Overdrive sets its stall out early, too: it kicks off with a nauseatingly overenthusiastic launch of a new energy drink called OverCharge Delirium XT – which you don’t yourself drink, because you’re doing your job, namely cleaning up the mess that the gormless selfie-taking attendees are making. Unluckily for them, OverCharge Delirium XT turns them into warty, orange mutants.
So it’s up to you to take vast amounts of them out, while working out how to escape Sunset City. But just killing mutants isn’t enough: it’s all about doing so in style, and Sunset Overdrive is chock-full of game mechanics and systems allowing you to do just that. The key one being the Style meter, which has been more or less lifted from Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater. You build that up by traversing the city in flashy ways, such as grinding on wires and powerlines, wall-running, bouncing off pretty much anything at ground level (including cars) and undergrinding from lines using a crowbar. As the game progresses, you get some extra moves, such as an air-dash. The Style meter has four levels, with the first three allowing you to use different types of Amps – essentially super-powers with an element of randomness that give you massively powerful attacks, such as localised nuclear explosions, or whirlwinds that emanate from melee attacks. And the fourth level essentially lets you obliterate everything around you for a period.
It sounds complicated, but it isn’t in practice – as long as you mix up your movement with grinds, bounces and so on, you’re able to take out vast hordes of OD (which is what the mutants are called). It wouldn’t work if the level design wasn’t absolutely sublime, with wires, rails and bounceable objects letting you cut a thrillingly fluid swathe across Sunset City. And when you get your Amps going, it makes for quite a spectacle.
Beyond the core gameplay, there’s a vast amount to do in Sunset Overdrive. It constantly pokes fun at modern society, especially when you hook up with pockets of survivors, like the Oxfords, a bunch of overly entitled college kids with a penchant for communicating only via their mobiles, or the Fargarths, who think they are in a world created by JRR Tolkien. There are countless challenges and side missions, some hugely entertaining boss-battles, and plenty of set-pieces where the gameplay takes a sideways step, forcing you to use new techniques. Plus there’s a co-op mode called Chaos Squad, which involves surviving waves of OD attacks, but keeps things interesting by letting you have a say in (pretty fearsome) difficulty levels, and includes some mission-based stages.
The end result is that Sunset Overdrive both looks and feels utterly unlike anything else out there, and provides deep satisfaction and genuine hilarity in equal measure. Which is exactly what Xbox One owners will have been craving. Right from the off, it gives you the impression of having been crafted by a developer at the top of its game, and it will be interesting to see whether it tips many gamers into taking the Xbox One, rather than PlayStation 4, route this Christmas.