Over a year ago we learned that Activision was working on Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 5, the first numbered title in the series since 2002. Activision was saying all the right things, stating that this would be a return to form for the series after a number of mediocre additions since the fourth installment. Fans were hoping for a game that recaptured the magic of the first four games, games that reached lofty critical and commercial heights. Unfortunately, the more we saw of the game the more skeptical we became but fans still held out hope that the finished product would somehow live up to its predecessors. Ultimately though it was not only mediocre but down right awful, an opinion shared by critics and consumers alike, much to the dismay of diehard Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater fans. And while it may be a very long time until we see a new game worthy of the Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater franchise there is a great game that is much more like the series’ best than you might think, it’s Insomniac’s Sunset Overdrive.
Let me start off by saying this, no Sunset Overdrive is not a skateboarding game. In fact, it’s formatted completely differently than Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater. Sunset Overdrive is an open world game about a mutant outbreak and you, the nameless protagonist, are tasked with figuring out how to escape the Sunset city. In premise it seems difficult to believe that these two series are at all related but once you experience Sunset Overdrive it’s immediately clear how similar they feel.
The obvious comparison to make between the two games is grinding. In Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater grinding is a primary means of getting from one section of a level to another while stringing together combos and tricks. Anyone whose played knows it is perhaps the core game mechanic. Well, grinding is also the core mechanic in Sunset Overdrive, except you don’t have a skateboard. In Sunset City grinding is your main traversal mechanic. You won’t find yourself on foot for more than two seconds throughout your play through. The world is designed in such a way that almost everywhere there is something to grind on. While at face value that may seem basic it’s not because between grinding there are number of game mechanics that allow you to string together combos for interesting and skill demanding traversal. For example, to get to my destination I may have to grind on a railroad track, swing off a light post, grind on a wire, bounce off an umbrella, wall run around a building, divebomb a group of enemies, slide across a pond then jump back onto a railing and grind again, all while not stopping to break my combo. There’s a flow and a smoothness to it, similar to Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, and it’s oh so satisfying to master these mechanics and pull off a massive traversal combo.
While Sunset Overdrive is an open world game certain challenges and quests will confine you to small pockets of the city. Not unlike Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, many are timed, requiring the objective to be completed in the time limit. The primary differentiator of the games is the combat. Under the hood, Sunset Overdrive has many weapons, bonuses and systems to customize to your gameplay. These usually apply to combat where you use your weapons to vanquish the mutants. But before you jump to any conclusions these mechanics actually aren’t as different from the Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater games as you’d think. In order to access powerups and achieve success in Sunset Overdrive you always have to be moving, combining grinding, jumping, and gliding with fighting, as the more combos you perform to you powerful you become. So in a weird way combat is like a session is Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, where you grind and jump and use combos but in this case it’s to defeat your enemies not rack up a high score.
While Sunset Overdrive’s gameplay definitely has the spirit of the Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater franchise that’s only one half of the puzzle. Sunset Overdrive has a tone and presentation that distinctively feels like Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater. These days it feels like every game is either gritty and serious or charming and whimsical but Sunset Overdrive is simply ridiculous, funny, and insane. The game is very much what everything the 15-year-old inside of you loves. It has the same, say no to the man, cavalier attitude the Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater games always exuberated. If the Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater games had dialogue, I am positive they would sound very much like Sunset Overdrive’s. The game pokes fun at everything it can and doesn’t apologize for its vulgarity and grotesqueness. The art style walks the line between realistic and cartoony, almost comic book like, one that feels like it’s what Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater should look like today. What really caps it off though is the soundtrack. Sunset Overdrive has a soundtrack of custom songs and it wouldn’t be difficult to put the soundtrack in Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater and have it fit perfectly. The songs are fast, upbeat, and punk with a rebellious attitude. Once a song starts to play you immediately get the urge to start grinding, jumping and wall running, even if your destination is nowhere in particular.
Sunset Overdrive isn’t Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater and differs in numerous ways, but underneath it all it has the spirit of a Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater game. That feeling of slowly getting better until suddenly you’re doing tricks and grinds with ease, coupled with the soundtrack and presentation, elicits strong feelings of nostalgia. So if you’re a Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater fan and were craving that series again only to be disappointed, pick up Sunset Overdrive because it just might scratch that itch.