What Made Sunset Overdrive Great? Fun Traversal Mechanics Tony Hawk Would Be Proud Of
I always have an affinity with developer Insomniac Games, their titles colour my childhood and their distinct flavour they put in their games is something I crave for once in a while.
I didn’t expect this to be the closest thing to being the latest great Tony Hawk Pro Skater game, until the new Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1+2 remake arrives and (hopefully) take that mantle away.
It’s the most shocking reveal I had after finally putting proper time into Insomniac’s first open-world game. I knew of Sunset Overdrive’s existence. I knew of its rebellious, punk, but ultimately fun take of the apocalypse. We had a review for this on the site. But there’s not enough discourse about this one thing that made Sunset Overdrive great. Maybe because it’s so painfully obvious, but we need to talk about it.
Let’s talk about Sunset Overdrive’s great traversal mechanics.
Welcome To The Awesomepocalypse
Sunset Overdrive understands it’s a video game. The 4th wall has been torn down to bits, the characters are as clued as to you are about how video gamey-this game is. There’s no logical explanation about the traversal mechanics. You just happen to be able to grind on rails (and under them), and jump on cars like it’s a trampoline. How does it work in-universe? Shut up, it’s a video game.
That may be the game’s selling point. A shooter with some cool moves you can do because heck yeah video games. But the traversal still carries the platforming DNA of Insomniac’s past. In Ratchet & Clank, you will find a pair of grind boots in your adventures. As the name implies, it lets you grind around specific grind-spots ala Sonic Adventure, usually a set-piece of sorts.
Sunset Overdrive is what happens when that specific gadget gets explored in full as an open-world traversal mechanic. Sunset Overdrive is Ratchet & Clank’s Grind Boots: The Video Game.
Ratchet & Clank’s Grind Boots: The Video Game
While it may not be as obvious at first- but the traversal is at the core of Sunset. The shooty bits very much feel like a Ratchet & Clank game in some parts, but in an open-world and with most of the enemies rushing toward you, just having a dodge button won’t cut it.
You are supposed to jump on surfaces with trampoline properties and grind on phone lines. Moving around means you’re not taking damage. And it also explains why the jumps and grinds feel overly slow. Doing traversal while shooting around with a controller is a massive feat of skill, so the slowness of your movements here makes it easier to course-correct your jumps or give ample time to turn around the rail line while still focusing on the not-zombies need killing.
And with Sunset, we now know what would happen if the grind boots was fully fleshed-out as a core moveset. It becomes a Tony Hawk game.
Pretending I’m A Superman
I’m not kidding, what made Sunset Overdrive stand out for me is when I discover I can play this game like it’s Neversoft’s old Tony Hawk games. The Tony Hawk games may be inspired in skateboarding, but the implementation of it borders on the arcade.
At high levels, you’re basically a skateboarding god (even beyond Rodney Mullen) where tricks are popping of that board every second, all in one combo lasting the full two minutes of a session, and then some. It’s ridiculous to look from afar as it is impressive and satisfying to pull off. A mark of mastery, not of skateboarding, but of pure video game skill.
And this is what Sunset does best. Grind rails are everywhere, and so are trampoline surfaces. The traversal moveset you have almost mirrors a Tony Hawk game in many regards. And the same mindset of comboing every single object nailed on the game world still applies.
You can grind, hop and even wall-run through Sunset City while punk rock is playing in the background. And heck the game even has a style meter that builds up for doing such traversal “tricks” like it’s the special meter. Only that the special trick you do are customisable damage-dealers like random lighting strikes or having the announcer deliver one-liners.
The Revert Moment
I have the most fun when it’s just me getting into the zone, jumping, grinding over and under rails, wallrun along buildings and then repeat them all again. It’s one of the games where collecting collectables are worth the time because you get to traverse the city. And traversing the city itself is wicked fun.
But during the first few hours, it’s lacking something. It is fun combo-ing the city with traversal, but up to a point. There will be moments where that combo naturally ends and you are ended up on the ground again. Boring old ground. You really need to understand the limits of the toolkit you have to make the best out of it, but having that one traversable object just a hair far away from your jumps is momentum-breaking, and not fun.
And this is where I realised that Insomniac pulled a big-brain move. Your traversal toolkit was purposefully not fully unlocked at the beginning of the game. At one point later, the self-aware, loud-mouth protagonist pointed out that a new text box appeared introducing you to a new move. The Air Dash.
And this is the last piece of the puzzle that completes Sunset’s traversal. Now with just a bumper tap, that one traversable object you want to land on and keep that combo going is now reachable. In fact, you can reach more objects in general, making for more opportunities to traverse the city in style.
With air dashes, you can truly combo the whole city imagining the ground is lava. It seems to be an idea the developers had too, considering there’s a setpiece where that actually happens!
The introduction of the air dash is equatable to when Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3 introduces the revert, which allowed air trick combos to continue on the ground and opening more freedom and creativity to express yourself. By way of continuing that sick combo even longer with a push of a button.
And from then on, Sunset Overdrive can be played like a massive Tony Hawk game, tricking the whole city with grinds, wallruns and jumps with the occasional air dashes. And maybe shoot enemies too.
My main gripe about open-world games is that the massive worlds are just a slog to travel. Fast travel should be an accessibility option, not a mandatory option to stop the game wasting your time. Open-world games should make the act of going from point A to point B worth your while.
Games like Sunset Overdrive absolutely understands this. They have the convenience of leaning into “hey we’re a video game haha” tone that not everyone can stand sometimes, but boy they ran with that idea hard and it was worth it. When you can spend hours just messing around the open world without doing missions yet still have fun, that’s when you know you nailed it.
Sunset Overdrive did just that, and you can argue Insomniac’s next game after that, Marvel’s Spider-Man, continued that combo.