‘Sunset Overdrive’ delivers madness with an apocalyptic message

Oct. 30, 2014 | 4:00 a.m.

THE PLAYER

The ridiculousness in “Sunset Overdrive” borders on anarchic. There are rules, like any game, but long before players discover a gun that fires a stuffed kitten — a plushy that’s used to send a robotic dog on a killing spree — “Sunset Overdrive” manages to excitedly toy with many of them.

None of it should work. The look is cartoonishly crass (imagine a mash-up of every West Coast city, remade in the blunt architecture style of a rock festival), the music out of date (see the Warped Tour, circa 1995), the plot simple (humans consume too many energy drinks and turn into giant monsters) and the sociopolitical targets obvious (as for those sugary drink peddlers, yes, they’re probably insidious, but we learned that from Mike Judge’s “Idiocracy”). There are also guns. Lots and lots of guns.

“Sunset Overdrive,” however, works because it ecstatically embraces all of the above. Not only is it the rare mainstream video game to freshen up a staid format (the shooter), it also channels the subversive-for-subversive’s sake glee of the genre’s roots. Even the pop culture references are of an earlier time, as our hero longs to be cast in a remake of 1985’s bomb-turned-cult film “Gymkata.”

An exclusive for Xbox One, Insomniac’s “Sunset Overdrive” is loaded with a zany, B-movie irreverence that’s easy to get swept up in. But there’s a brain beneath all that fuzzy neon goop.

The female characters are formidable in "Sunset Overdrive." (Insomniac Games / Microsoft Studios)

The female characters are formidable in “Sunset Overdrive.” (Insomniac Games / Microsoft Studios)

The game makes two wise choices at its outset. The first gives players the ability to create a main character of either sex and with any body shape (I went with “emo” red hair and matching glasses for my female hero). Impressively, the player creations meld seamlessly into the game’s high-action sequences, whether that’s swinging on a roller-coaster track or battling an army of monsters in a fenced-in playground that becomes the setting for a game-within-the game (an apocalypse-themed reality show).

But better than all that, “Sunset Overdrive” is a shooter that doesn’t feel like a shooter. Its gameplay most resembles a skateboarding game, but it also serves as a challenge to forever stay in motion, bouncing on cars, giant mushrooms and vending machines in a punk rock-obsessed fictional city that treats corporate and class cynicism with exuberance.

Want to take a second and admire the game’s candy store layout? Your character will perish. This sense of free-form, nonstop movement is why I gradually tailored my character to resemble Franka Potente’s in “Run Lola Run” as the game wore on.

Coupled with the angry-yet-bonkers tone, “Sunset Overdrive” has injected a jolt of “Mars Attacks!”-like insanity into the take-aim-and-cover play mechanics that plague many games. At one point my character glided on the sea, ran across a wall, surfed on a telephone pole and then shot a Teddy Bear bomb at the bulging feet of a gelatinous monster.

All of this is handled from start to finish with a wink. The game opens with your hero mopping up the sweat and garbage of over-privileged revelers at a corporate rave. For anyone in L.A. who’s been to a not-so-private industry party, it’s a cringe-inducing scene of bobble-headed mascots co-opting a once underground subculture.

A scene of mayhem and revelry in "Sunset Overdrive." (Insomniac Games / Microsoft Studios)

A scene of mayhem and revelry in “Sunset Overdrive.” (Insomniac Games / Microsoft Studios)

It also begins to telegraph how “Sunset Overdrive” is more than just a hyperactive interactive comic book. Once people start twisting and shivering into energy-drink-addled monsters, “Sunset Overdrive” reveals an overlooked, uncomfortable reality: For anyone living paycheck-to-paycheck, a zombie-like apocalypse isn’t all that bad.

No wonder the characters in “Sunset Overdrive” refer to it as an “awesome apocalypse.” The rich have jettisoned to the Bahamas and left a playground in their wake, albeit a dangerous one. When one twentysomething finds that his parents left him for dead and cut him out of the will — “Max is now poor and an orphan,” our protagonist observes — he reacts not in fear that pulsing creatures will kill him but out of excitement that he is suddenly “free.”

Even the baddies in the game resort to childishness, building couch forts as if they’re grade-schoolers. Day of the Dead-style costuming is in vogue, and survivors in a fictional Little Tokyo misguidedly start appropriating Japanese culture, but they look no more ridiculous than those playing dress-up on Halloween and act as bullheaded as those who insist on flaunting ethnic attire for a sports team.

The game still left me with some quibbles, however. As much as I love local surf-punk outfit FIDLAR, for instance, “Sunset Overdrive” seems to take a few too many jabs at dance culture. But for a big-budget “open-world” game, one filled with numerous tangents and side-quests, “Sunset Overdrive” owns a singular vision. If the game’s disgruntled thesis, as one character states, is that we’re all a “walking cliché,” then “Sunset Overdrive” makes it feel profound by stubbornly sticking to the bizarre.

— Todd Martens | @Toddmartens | @LATherocomplex

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‘Sunset Overdrive’

Developer: Insomniac Games

Publisher: Microsoft Studios

Platform: Xbox One

Price: $59.99

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