‘What if you gave Tony Hawk a gun?’ Meet Insomniac’s Xbox One shooter Sunset Overdrive

Publisher: Microsoft Developer: Insomniac Games Format: Xbox One Release: 2014

Sunset Overdrive is an open-world superhuman adventure in the mould of Prototype and Infamous, but your power is traversal – every wall can be run on; every ledge, mantled; every car and awning is a springboard; every rail and wire can be grinded indefinitely while firing on the armies of OD’d zombies prowling the streets of Sunset City. But these aren’t the rotting undead seen in a thousand other games. They’re mutants, transformed by a new energy drink called Overcharge Delirium XT. Here’s what else you need to know.

Maybe the apocalypse isn’t so bad

Sunset Overdrive’s apocalypse isn’t a sombre dystopia where humanity scrapes by on the edge of extinction. You play as a bored office worker who grasps the chance to break out of the trudgery of everyday life with both hands. “You don’t have that shit dead-end job any more, you don’t have that boss breathing down your neck, you don’t have bills to pay and there’s nobody to stop you from climbing on top of buildings, shooting guns, blowing stuff up, cranking the music, or living out your videogame fantasies,” says Insomniac creative director Marcus Smith. “You can have fun in the end times.”

It’s fully customisable

Before you step into the world, you’ll begin by creating your character – male or female, heavy or thin – and dress them from a vast wardrobe, starting with their underwear and working outwards, layering up clothes in a naturalistic manner. This will differentiate players in the multiplayer mode teased in last year’s E3 trailer, and further self-expression comes in the form of Amps, which can be crafted from Overcharge and applied to one of your three character Amp slots, or to your gun’s single slot, activating superpowers.

It’s deliberately, defiantly different

“We wanted to take the shooter genre away from cowering behind cover,” says game director Drew Murray. “You’ll be rewarded for jumping over that cover and taking the fight to the enemy. I think there’s a certain level of fatigue among players right now,” Murray says. “If you look at Metacritic, there’s this downward trend of scores, and I don’t think it’s just that all of a sudden game critics want to be extra harsh. What I’m looking for is just different experiences. I like shooters, but I want something different. I don’t want every game I play to be another game like Call Of Duty; I want things to feel different and to have different experiences.”

It’s another sub-1080p Xbox One game

Until Outernauts and Fuse, Insomniac’s games lived exclusively on various flavours of PlayStation. “Working with the console manufacturer is something we’ve done before and we know it’s a great opportunity to introduce a brand-new IP, especially one taking creative risks,” Insomniac CEO Ted Price says. “It was really refreshing to see [Microsoft’s] enthusiasm and acknowledgement that we were trying to do something different, tonally, from where most games are going.”

But that doesn’t mean Insomniac is having an easier time developing for Xbox One than any other thirdparty. Sunset Overdrive is, for now, another sub-1080p game. “We’re still working on optimising and we’re going to continue to do that,” Price says. “We can get into all the technical stuff later. This is going to be a [question] for every game that comes out. People will be counting pixels. For us, it’s about the vision: you saw it, you played it. It’s about creating a world.”

“I’ll say it’s not a difficult system to work on,” says creative director Marcus Smith. “We’re coming from Sony platforms during the last gen! For us to focus on Xbox One has been great, because the guys can really dig into the hardware, and working with our partners [we’ll] continue to optimise so we can get more onscreen.”

It’s definitely not brown 

“The colour delivery turns up once a week,” art director Grant Hollis jokes. “Constant colours come into the studio.” Insomniac didn’t have that problem with Hollis’s previous game, Resistance 3 – “Someone on YouTube wrote a song about how brown it was,” he remembers – but Sunset Overdrive’s style demanded some changes at the studio. “Initially, we had every colour in the rainbow and that was a problem,” he says. “Our other art director [Jacinda Chew] wanted the islands to have a more unified look – just a little hint of something to help unify it. So we [desaturated] those colours a little bit and popped the effects and enemies forward, so that you’re the foreground, the enemies are the clear middle ground, and the background is the environment.”

Insomniac has also partnered with UK design studio I Love Dust to work on some UI elements, concept art and in-game graphic design. “We wanted the graphic design stuff to look… not grungy, but more ‘I don’t give a shit’. It’s really hard, because I’m a classically trained graphic designer, so for me not making straight lines is really hard. It’s like, ‘Draw it with your left hand so it’s not perfect’. It’s a very distinctive style.”

It’s about powerful guns

Doug Sheahan is one of Insomniac’s lead programmers who “does a lot of stuff with player interaction”. In other words, he’s become something of a central point for the studio’s makeshift gun workshop since the days of Resistance 2. “We’ve never made guns this powerful before,” he says. “When you have lots of enemies, having one shot take out six dudes is awesome; you feel powerful, but you’re only taking out like 15 per cent of the OD’d. It lets us have weapons that have wider and bigger effects, which look and feel really cool, but won’t let players just stomp the entire game.

“We have 150 people that are all creative, and everybody has their great ideas for guns. I start by thinking, ‘Hey, we need assault rifles, rocket launchers, grenade launchers, something you can fire and forget, what have you’, and then the whole studio starts sending ideas. Ultimately, a player can feel the difference between a bunch of guns that are thematically different but play the same and a bunch of guns that play completely differently.”

There’s plenty more detail on Sunset Overdrive and insight from Insomniac in our new issue, which is available now in print, on iPadGoogle Play and Zinio.