As we close the book on another fantastic console generation, it’s only natural to look back at some of its defining games. A lot of them come as a general consensus — the impeccable open world of Red Dead Redemption 2, the dramatic evolution of God of War, the gorgeous discipline of Bloodborne, and the boundless wonder of Outer Wilds. But for my money, there’s one single game that stands out as the single most underrated game of the generation: Sunset Overdrive.
Before releasing Spider-Man on PlayStation 4 and officially sealing the deal with Sony by becoming a first-party studio, Insomniac Games was in business with Microsoft. And through that partnership, we got 2014’s Sunset Overdrive, which was and remains the Xbox One’s best exclusive. But sadly, it seems to be one of those games that got lost amidst the chaos of the generation.
At first glance, it has everything you’d expect from an open-world action game from the minds at Insomniac. Sunset City pops with vibrant colors and a strong sense of style, like an amalgam of Miami, Tokyo, and a Saturday morning cartoon. The architecture feels like a playground designer was promoted to city planner, which works wonderfully with the game’s tone.
There’s a massive array of strange weapons at your disposal as you battle endless hordes of mutants hopped up on a toxic energy drink. Like in the Ratchet & Clank series, you’re encouraged to experiment with your strange arsenal as it grows and evolves the more you use it. Acid Sprinklers in the shape of corporate mascots, explosive teddy bears, and a Roman Candle Gatling gun are just a few of the toys you have at your fingertips. Coupled with a smartly balanced scarcity of ammunition, Sunset Overdrive keeps you constantly experimenting with each new piece of equipment you come across.
And then there’s a fire-from-the-hip approach to humor and pop culture references that had me genuinely laughing at the game’s writing and scenarios in that classic Insomniac way. From spot-on dialogue to the dozens of amazing animations that randomly play after you fast travel or come back to life, it felt like spotting the Easter eggs and references was a meta-game in itself. These elements are great individually but ultimately congeal together impeccably well too.
However, the magic of Sunset Overdrive, and the thing that vaults it up to such a rarefied atmosphere, is in just how it feels to play the game. I’ll be the first to admit there’s a steep learning curve here. You have to rewire your brain and forget a lot of what other open-world games have taught us for decades. But once you start to understand just what it is Insomniac’s going for, Sunset transforms into a singular experience.
When you’re on the ground, your maximum speed is just north of a brisk jog, which isn’t great when there’s an apocalypse going on around you. But what Insomniac teaches you pretty early on in the game is that if your feet are touching the ground, you’re doing it wrong. That’s because Sunset City is designed to be traversed less like Grand Theft Auto and more like Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater or Jet Set Radio.
Most open-world games are filled with pockets of fun, separated by stretches of low-key travel. Drive across the city to start a mission, climb up a tower to unlock some more of the map, ride your horse to an interesting spot over the horizon. But what Sunset Overdrive accomplishes so well is in making the journey from A to B every bit as entertaining at the destination itself.
You’ll quickly start to see the world around you not as a series of streets and buildings, but as a playground for you to jam across in the most stylish ways possible. Power lines are there for grinding, cars become makeshift trampolines, and even the walls themselves are simply surfaces to ride across. Your own momentum becomes your best friend as you quickly process the landscape around you and figure out the best way to get to where you’re going without slowing down.
The expression you put into your movement also feeds into the game’s excellent combat encounters. While something like Gears of War feels immensely heavy as you slam up against a wall and use it for momentary cover, Sunset Overdrive makes you feel as light as a feather. Juggling among where all of your enemies are, which weapons are most effective for which scenarios, and the best routes to stay in firing range while keeping up your momentum is a lesson in multitasking. Like I said, it takes a bit to fully grasp this concept, but once you have it, the game becomes a ballet of destruction unlike anything else.
I understand why Sunset Overdrive isn’t talked about as much as it should be. In a generation largely defined by major single-player games that could be played on PlayStation 4, having Sunset never make its way to Sony’s shores kept it out of a lot of conversations. And that’s a genuine shame, because the game feels like a singular and unique experience that stands out from its peers.
Thankfully, the strong sense of style and unique mechanics have allowed it to age gracefully. It looks and plays every bit as good today as it did back in 2014. And with its inclusion on Xbox Game Pass, and the backwards compatibility of Xbox Series X, here’s to hoping that this new generation ushers in a brand new flock of players to experience the most underrated game of the previous one.