I love rock ‘n’ roll. I also hate it. Music is the best, unless it’s music I don’t like, which is the absolute worst. Even worse is the beatification of the music I don’t like. From the boomer detritus that props up pointless halls of fame and pulls perfect reviews in Rolling Stone record guides, to the nice middle-class kids constantly exhuming punk, metal and indie rock to Pitchfork raves and terminally diminished returns, to the Warped Tour / Alternative Press axis of bands that nobody over the age of 18 will ever hear, the music I don’t like is bad and offensive and please don’t remind me of its existence. My stance might sound irrational (I prefer “passionate”) but music is deeply personal and entirely subjective and that’s why it is so powerful.
Sunset Overdrive loves rock ‘n’ roll, too, and sometimes our loves overlap. It’s the story of a mouthy punk trying to survive in a city overrun by energy drink-addicted mutants, and a stereotypical punk rock aesthetic informs its soundtrack and visual design. Rock music is the most important thing in the world of Sunset Overdrive—as one of the game’s designers said, they wanted to make the rock ‘n’ roll apocalypse. When my character tries to console a kid in a hospital, his dying wish isn’t meeting John Cena or dressing up like Batman. It’s going to a rock show by King Buzzo of the Melvins.
Every kid should want to go to rock shows. Every kid should be in a crappy band at some point in her life, with the same blind enthusiasm often found in this game. Sunset Overdrive presents a broad, caricatured, network TV version of punk, though, all wisecracks and prickly attitude, like I’m playing as the Fonz with an anarchy logo-bedecked jean vest instead of a leather jacket. This is the rock ‘n’ roll apocalypse for people who buy distressed CBGB shirts. It’s the Hot Topicalypse.
I say this as a man thoroughly divorced from the youth trends of today, who probably takes himself and music too seriously, and who almost always rankles at media depictions of what it means to make music or love rock ‘n’ roll. If I was 12 and just bought my first Clash record Sunset Overdrive might be a revelation. I’m in my late 30s and this game’s attitude is as obnoxious as the thought of people taking Green Day seriously.
That attitude is defined by my character’s non-stop barrage of snark, one-liners and meta references. Maybe every tenth joke lands, and there’s nothing clever about constantly reminding me that I’m playing a game. More games should try to be funny. More games should be light-hearted, and should be excited about their worlds and what players can do in them, and should avoid the turgid solemnity so common in entertainment marketed to postpubescent males. Comedy is almost as subjective as music, though, and at its best the humor in Sunset Overdrive is simply inoffensive. At its worst—which is too often—it’s actively annoying, an impediment to enjoying what the game does well.
To appreciate Sunset Overdrive I have to ignore the characters and the dialogue and focus on the mechanics. It plays like a skateboarding game with a gun fetish. My character moves throughout the city in combos, stringing together a handful of maneuvers, from grinding on rails and bouncing off cars, to flipping off poles and running along walls. The whole time I’m shooting mutants and robots or ripping melee strikes with my weapon of choice. This constant rush is the most captivating thing about Sunset Overdrive. It’s the closest we’ve gotten to a classic Tony Hawk Pro Skater in years, dashing through a city with an eye open for combo-ready lines from rails to walls to air ducts. Instead of doing tricks for points, though, I’m pulling them off to boost my style meter, which activates special abilities and makes it easier to kill the bad guys. Sometimes I find myself reflexively hitting the old Tony Hawk button combinations for an ollie or board spin while jumping from one grind into another.
Sunset Overdrive is a shooter, but it doesn’t glorify war. It does glorify guns, but of the cartoon variety—teddy bear grenade launchers, fireball shotguns, soda mascot acid fountains. There’s a machine gun that fires vinyl records, which is enough to make any self-respecting record collector cringe. There are no civilians or passersby to get caught in the crossfire, and most of the enemies I slaughter are non-human. This is a violent game, and it’s consistently glib about that violence, but it’s not as nihilistic as a Grand Theft Auto or as self-aggrandizing as a Call of Duty. It aims for the irreverence of a Looney Toons short, and that anarchic spirit makes it hard to take the violence seriously. That violence is constant and repetitive, though, and can grow tiresome in longer sessions. Like Tony Hawk, this is a game best played in short bursts.
It can be hard to stick to shorter sessions because of how the game is structured. Like most open-world games, it consists of dozens of missions. They’re usually short and easy to complete, and the game often flows from one directly into another, like it’s trying to hurry me through the story. There are occasional moments where I have to engage in a hybrid of tower defense and arena-style action, using traps and my skills to protect strategic points from an onslaught of mutants; these speed bumps bring the story to a halt, and can grow frustrating as they become more complicated. Outside of those timed excursions, though, the game’s rapid-fire pacing regularly keeps me playing longer than I intend to. And despite numerous collectibles and side-missions, this open-world game isn’t nearly as bloated as a GTA or Assassin’s Creed.
To its credit, Sunset Overdrive also doesn’t lock me into a rigidly defined lead character. Although not as diverse as Saints Row IV, Sunset Overdrive lets my character be a man or a woman, with a few different body types and dozens of fashion choices. All these possible characters act like they want to be in Blink 182, but that attitude is easier to take from a woman than a man.
That customization extends to my character’s abilities. I constantly unlock badges by performing the most basic tasks in the game, such as grinding or using a pistol or killing certain kinds of enemies. Those badges can be traded in for boosts that improve my skills. I can also equip special abilities called amps, which are earned after those tower defense bits or purchased from a friendly character who sometimes sounds like he’s trying to do a Bill Cosby impersonation. Amps can add randomly-occurring secondary effects to weapons, and also dictate the special abilities I unlock when my style meter fills up. It’s a lot to keep track of, and the benefits of new skills or buffs aren’t always apparent on screen, so I’ll often forget to check out my new amps or cash in my badges for a long while.
Sunset Overdrive is fun on a mechanical level and offers a tremendous amount of options to its players. When I can set aside my reactionary dislike for the game’s aesthetic, I can even appreciate its style. In a world where almost every game is set to EDM, dubstep or metal, even garage rock as bland and anonymous as this soundtrack is welcome. I’d love to see it remade with a licensed soundtrack full of good songs that fit the themes and story beats, and not just because the constant grinding makes it feel like an old Tony Hawk game. The Fall’s “Totally Wired” could just play throughout the whole thing on an endless loop, and it would both fit the story at every point and also be much better to listen to.
When my style meter is full, and I chain a grind into a bounce into a blast from my fire-shooting shotgun into a wall run, I forget how irritating Sunset Overdrive can be. And then my character says something incredibly obnoxious, or the game introduces new characters that are supposed to be ridiculous and funny but just come off as uninspired mash-ups of memes and archetypes, and I feel like I’m at an all-ages show full of my local high school’s worst punk bands. I am a firm believer in youthful abandon, but not of the particular kind on display here, that shit-eating suburban punk cynicism. I see my own younger self in Sunset Overdrive’s bad taste in music and attitude, or at least a person I narrowly avoided becoming, and that’s the most annoying thing about it.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s games section. He thinks music can be good sometimes.