For a game about the end of days, Sunset Overdrive sure is vibrant. The Xbox One exclusive, which comes out this fall, is about the sudden and violent collapse of society in Sunset City after a new energy beverage makes gibbering monsters out of anyone who drinks it.
But while recent post-apocalyptic games and movies have revelled in an earnest realism of browns and greys, Sunset Overdrive is an extravaganza full of what art director Jacinda Chew calls a "cacophony of colour."
In early April, Insomniac Games invited media to preview Sunset Overdrive at the company's studio in Burbank, California. Ted Price, founder and CEO, said that the game has a distinct personality. "We wanted to turn the idea of the apocalypse on its head," he said in an interview, "and take a different direction when it comes to open world, end-of-the-world shooters."
There's a strong boarding sensibility to Overdrive. A brief play session gave media the opportunity to traverse Sunset City using a combination of leaping, wall running, and grinding. The game has a sense of velocity that is at times breathtaking.
Combat uses a mix of melee and ranged weapons that are, in true Insomniac style, whacky. There's the "High Fidelity" gun which shoots 12-inch LPs. The "TNTeddy" fires teddy bears strapped to dynamite. And the "Captain Ahab" is a high-damage harpoon.
Enemies include "Over Charge Delirium drinkers" (OD'd for short), other humans trapped inside Sunset City who want your loot, and autonomous robot sentries under the employ of Fizzco, the beverage maker which has walled up the city in an attempt to cover up "Horror Night" when its energy drink was found to be toxic to people.
In a later conversation, game director Drew Murray said that he and creative director Marcus Smith started the project with two predetermined rules: no rubble and no grey.
They had just finished working on Resistance 3, the final tale in a trilogy of games about humanity's struggle to survive an alien invasion. Smith admitted loving stories about the apocalypse, but after years spent in the bleakness of Resistance he was ready for something more celebratory. So while the world of Sunset City descends into chaos, for the player it's become, in Smith's parlance, an "awesome-pocalypse."
The first two years of development on Sunset Overdrive were difficult, confessed Murray. "Because not only did the team not know the parameters," he said, "we didn't really know them."
So he and Smith started bringing in television shows and movies to show their developers. One of them was 2001 documentary Dogtown and Z-Boys, about the skateboarding subculture in 1970s Los Angeles. Smith said they were taken by the kids who were living in in "urban apocalyptic spaces" and who reinvented those environments with their skateboards.
"That was a big inspiration for our city," said Smith. "The idea of the city that was oppressing you before becoming your playground."
Sunset City is full of terraced high-rise buildings and rails along almost every wall, perfect for the parkour-meets-skatepark traversal that is central to the game. It's a place where there are suddenly no rules, and that free-for-all aesthetic is essential to the game. It's not just skater, it's punk.
"We always said that our lead hero should be a 'f–– you' hero," said Smith. Music from early '80s hard-core bands, such as Black Flag and The Misfits, had the loud, fast, aggressive nature that Murray and Smith wanted for the game. "That really dictated the tone of the game because the game itself is high velocity."
But extending that philosophy to everything in the game was too much. "For a while it was everything is awesome and crazy and it just became cartoon comedy," said Smith.
Establishing the fine line between no rules and complete chaos came down to making sure that every piece of the world had a set of rules. "Fizzco should always act like Fizzco," explained Smith. It's not the "awesome-pocalypse" for all the denizens of Sunset City, it's only that way for the hero.
"It's the fever dream of a video game player," Smith said with a grin.
The unnamed protagonist of the game is fully customizable so players can personalize their character including gender and body size, shape, and colouring. And while a transactional component was not detailed, it was not denied.
"As a studio we're not about 'horse armouring' our fans," said Insomniac's Ryan Schneider, referring to the downloadable content for Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion that has become a cultural meme. "That's not what we want to be. That's not how we got here and that's not how we're going to stay here."
The upgrade tree for players is provided in the form of "Amps," which modify movement, weapons, and character abilities, and are unlocked as players build up a style meter by traversing the environment.
Likewise, multiplayer for Overdrive wasn't demonstrated or talked about, but Schneider said that the game will "live up to the promise of what we showed at E3 last year", when a trailer suggested a multiplayer component. "We are not going to put something in a trailer that we can't back up in gameplay," he added.
Sunset Overdrive arrives exclusively on Xbox One in Fall, 2014.