Joystiq Top 10 of 2014: Sunset Overdrive

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ATTENTION: The year 2014 has concluded its temporal self-destruct sequence. If you are among the escapees, please join us in salvaging and preserving the best games from the irradiated chrono-debris.

Some days you just can't catch a break. Your apartment sucks, your job sucks and thanks to the greed of corporate fat cats, your technicolor city (which also generally sucks) has just been overrun by bloodthirsty mutants. Other people might flee in terror, but not you, the desensitized, self-aware, modern twenty-something. You see this horrible turn of events as a cathartic excuse to splatter creatures with unwieldy weapons while spouting cool one-liners. "How hard could the action hero schtick really be?" you think to yourself before setting off, flaming shotgun in hand, to save the world.

That's all the story given in the first few minutes of Sunset Overdrive, but it's all you need. This isn't some somber, dragon-infested role-playing epic, nor is it the latest dour, paint-by-numbers futuristic military shooter. Instead, Sunset Overdrive is a vibrant rainbow smile; a game made by people who want you to share in their glee. Sunset Overdrive is an explosion of giddy rebellion in an industry obsessed with the stereotypical teenage boy's grim, overwrought idea of what's cool.

While it does feature busty women, copious swears and building-sized explosions alongside the sort of mission-rich sandbox environment that's grown so popular over the past console generation, Sunset Overdrive is set apart from its big budget brethren by a palpable sense of fun. Whether you're grinding telephone wires, shooting mutants or launching bowling balls at a giant squid, Sunset Overdrive never loses its infectious grin.

Style and tone only go so far, but Sunset Overdrive backs its flippancy with some of the most thoughtfully designed movement mechanics in recent memory. Grinding on rails, running along walls and bouncing to extreme heights are not novel ideas, but Insomniac has mated these disparate ideas together in a system that's engaging enough to keep players focused on the game, but is also intuitive enough to become muscle memory after an hour or two traversing Sunset City. Comparisons to the sublime movement controls in Jet Set Radio or the Tony Hawk Pro Skater games would be valid, except that this gameplay system is just a bedrock on top of which Insomniac has built a diabolically clever weapons system.

From a pure numbers standpoint, the Sunset Overdrive arsenal leaves much to be desired. However, the game's strength lies not in how many guns it offers, but in what you can do with those guns. Launching explosive teddy bears is neat, but by adding a certain Amp to the weapon, you can transform what was effectively a grenade launcher into a man-portable nuclear cannon. Or maybe you'd prefer the Amp that drops lightning bolts at random on nearby enemies, or the one that turns corpses into schools of deadly piranha. The sheer number of Amps available lends Sunset Overdrive a novelty rarely seen in single-player games, but it also adds immense variety to the frantic multiplayer Chaos Squad mode.

In lieu of head-to-head combat, Chaos Squad gives players a series of combat objectives to complete alongside their online cohorts. These sessions are brief and uncomplicated - at most you'll have to set up some traps and defend an area - but that's their strength. Even players brand new to the game will have little trouble picking up the basics of where to go and who to shoot. Best of all, since the game is entirely cooperative, there's no real way to grief other players. Since that's not an option, online trolls are non-existent in Chaos Squad. That alone puts Sunset Overdrive beyond most modern games.

Beyond the mechanics, beyond its thoughtfully crafted weapons and multiplayer gameplay, Sunset Overdrive succeeds not because it's a great game, but because it's a great game that achieves greatness the hard way. Instead of relying on tired memes to make players smile, Sunset Overdrive punches through the fourth wall with a postmodern quest to collect quest markers. Instead of relying on new graphics technology to carry its pretty world, Sunset Overdrive boasts stylish, colorful art design. Even its character customization system is overflowing with far more options than you normally see. There's just so much attention paid to every aspect of Sunset Overdrive's design that it's apparent the game was a labor of love for its developers. If Insomniac were to vanish tomorrow, Sunset Overdrive would ensure the studio a sterling legacy.
[Images: Insomniac]

Joystiq is highlighting its 10 favorite games of 2014 throughout the week. Keep reading for more top selections and every writer's personal picks in Best of the Rest roundups.

The list so far:​​
  1. Sunset Overdrive
  2. Alien: Isolation
  3. Valiant Hearts: The Great War
  4. Mario Kart 8
  5. Far Cry 4
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