Rocket League Review – A Smashing Success

0
Posted July 24, 2015 by Eric Gerson in Video Games

Developed By: Psyonix

Published By: Psyonix

Available For: PC & PS4 (Reviewed)

PREAMBLE: On May 15, 2015, I published an article on We The Nerdy entitled “Rocket League (PS4) – Beta Impressions”. In that piece, I went into great detail about this title, its mechanics, and all the things it does right–basically, much of the content I would cover in a full review. It would not make sense for me to completely rewrite all of the same points in a different way for the purposes review. As such, I have borrowed some language from that piece to help expedite the process a bit. If you find this to be journalistically untoward in some way, it may help to consider the original piece a “Review in Progress”, with this piece adding to the original and rendering a final verdict on the game. Of course, if you never read the original article, this means nothing to you, so ignore all of the above and read on.

It isn’t a stretch to say that competitive games, including sports games, have become quite complicated. To succeed in Battlefield 4, you need to understand an overwhelming amount of on-screen icons, learn the layouts of a dozen maps, master any number of ever-so-slightly different weapons (and their respective bullet-drop-rates), and decipher the chaos of the 64-player battle unfolding in front of you. To be competitive at an EA Sports title like Madden, not only must you come to the table with a solid level of football IQ, but you also need to memorize the ever-changing controller layout, which is different when you are on offense, on defense, on special teams, changing the play at the line of scrimmage, and so forth. And don’t even get me started on the popular MOBAs of the day–their learning curves are so steep, I don’t even dare approach them.

That is why I am so glad about the resurgence of simple competitive games that have cropped up as of late. Games like Towerfall Ascension, #IDARBNidhogg, and Sportsfriends feature highly competitive gameplay, with deep strategies to master and impeccable balance, all tied together by straightforward systems and uncomplicated controls. However, the only issue some may take with the aforementioned titles is that they all take place on a 2D plane and utilize old-school pixel art graphics. Now, this doesn’t bother me one bit; but for some, this prevents these games from feeling like true “sports”–or at the very least, sports games. And that is where Rocket League absolutely shines. By marrying modern, HD graphics with deep-yet-simple gameplay that transpires on three planes of movement, Rocket League has something for both audiences, with a fun-factor that cannot be denied. And after the extensive time I’ve spent with both the beta and the recently released full game, Rocket League has rocketed (#natch) to the top of the list of my favorite sports games. And I use the word “sport” quite definitively.

16013930546_296ec999b2_z

But first, a little background. Developed by Psyonix, Rocket League is the follow-up to Supersonic Acrobatic Rocket-Powered Battle-Cars (SARPBC, for short). A download-only PS3 exclusive that received a lukewarm critical response, but which developed a small but dedicated (obsessive?) cult fan base. SARPBC itself was based off of a popular Unreal Tournament mod called “CarBall”. Unfortunately, I never played either of the originals, so I can’t comment on what, from a gameplay perspective, has changed in Rocket League, but the general framework is the same. The basic idea is soccer + cars = fun (a mathematical constant to which I can now attest).

Diving a bit deeper, matches can be played 1v1, 2v2, 3v3, or 4v4, and play out on a large, walled-in soccer pitch. Each player controls a rocket-powered stunt car, and the two teams drive around the field at high speeds (including up the walls), trying to hit a futuristic over-sized soccer ball into the opposing team’s net. While preventing the same ball from making its way into theirs. Players can fill their boost meters by driving across glowing pads on the floor, and can use their boosts to chase down the ball, add power to their shots, or demolish the opposing players’ cars; causing them to respawn back by their goal after a short delay.

I know what you are thinking: I thought you said this game was simple! Well, while the above description may sound crazy and complicated, Rocket League is actually quite accessible thanks to a very basic control scheme. The cars handle, steer, and drift much like the cars in any modern arcade racer would, with very few buttons to learn; just R2 for gas, L2 for break, square for drift, circle for boost, and X for jump. There are only two real unique skills to learn and master. The first is the “dodge” mechanic, which is a “double jump” of sorts that players use to flip their car forward or backward, or to barrel-roll to the left or right. Dodging is the Rocket League equivalent of kicking, and can be used to slam a powerful shot, pull off an incredible save, or tap the ball against and around an opponent as you work your way up the field.

The second is flying–and to be quite clear, this is a skill I have yet to master. By using your boost in mid-air, you can actually propel your car through the air like a rocket ship. How you control your car while flying is completely physics-based and depends on your pitch and angle, as the rocket boost fires out of the back of your car. With a full boost meter, you can successfully fly from one side of the arena to the other without touching the ground. And since the ball in Rocket League has a tendency to fly quite high in the air, being able to go airborne is key to making impressive plays while leaving your opponents grounded, feeling flaccid as they wait for the ball to land.

From these simple controls and straightforward mechanics arises a shocking amount of depth and strategy. What begins as “chase ball, hit towards goal” quickly evolves as you  learn how to effectively play the ball off the walls, the importance of having a player back on defense, and how to run an organized offensive system and set up the ever-important one-timer shots. And because the controls are so tight and responsive, any failure to capitalize on a well placed shot or an easy save is solely the result of the player’s own dexterity (or lack thereof). As a result, success is incredibly rewarding, as you know that the impressive pass off the boards or the un-saveable goal you just blasted to the back of the net was exclusively because of your skill. This is particularly refreshing given that most sports games hinge success on some behind-the-scenes algorithm performing calculations based on your character’s numerical skill values and the area of the field you shot from. Finally, Rocket League’s rewarding gameplay is compounded by a smart progression system that is tied to a wealth of unlockable customization options.

As you play, you are awarded points based on performing certain actions–from basic things like goals, assists, and saves, to more complicated maneuvers like demolitions, long-distance goals, and bicycle kicks. Since these points are essentially experience points which level up your account across all game modes, you are encouraged contribute to the team in ways beyond just scoring goals. And as you level up, you unlock a bevy of new options to customize your vehicle, including bodies, decals, paint textures, wheels, hats, antennas, and even what your car expels as you slam on your boost. When you add this all up–high speeds, simple mechanics, tight controls, surprising depth, rewarding gameplay, and deep customization–you end up with a sports game that is best-in-class in terms of fun, and a “just one more match” addiction that is impossible to sate.

Rocket-League

The straightforward approach Rocket League employs with its gameplay bleeds into its content offering–to somewhat more mixed results. Multiplayer modes are basic but more than serviceable. You can play all four modes of play online, alongside friends and strangers via matchmaking or private matches against party members. There are also online ranked modes for 1v1, 2v2, and 3v3; though at launch, only ranked 2v2 can be played alongside a friend. In addition, Rocket League offers split-screen play for up to four players on the same couch–a feature that many modern multiplayer games sorely lack. And while I thirst for online leagues, online tournaments, or something akin to the NHL series’ EASHL, it is hard to complain when the online options on offer are just so damn fun and addictive.

The only real niggle I take with the multiplayer modes is that, when playing unranked online matches, if the matchmaking struggles to find a human player to fill a squad, or if a human player quits or is disconnected mid-game, their spot gets filled with an AI player. This would be fine if the AI played in a manner that was in line with the average human player. But they are quite distinct in that they have incredible shot accuracy even at a distance, they are remarkable at defense, and every so often, they dribble the ball straight into your own net. As such, anytime the opposing team ends up with an AI player, my teammates and I groan and take special note. And when you lose a match you were winning because a human player on the other team rage-quit, an AI player took their place, and the AI scored a hat trick of perfectly placed goals. It really hurts.

All that said, I don’t know how to program AI, this doesn’t happen in ranked play (when players leave ranked matches their spot remains unfilled for the remainder of the match), and I can’t really suggest a more elegant solution, so I can only chalk this up as a minor annoyance; certainly not one that detracts from the consistent, otherwise unadulterated joy the multiplayer modes deliver.

It is far harder, however, to be satisfied with Rocket League‘s single player options. Apart from a few bare-bones practice drills and an exhibition mode, the meat of single player is season mode; which lets you pick a logo, team name, and color scheme, select 1v1-4v4 and the AI difficulty level, and compete in a season of up to 36 weeks (plus playoffs) in the quest for the championship. While the inclusion of this mode is thoughtful, since it only involves matches against the AI (and alongside AI teammates), for reasons mentioned above, it can be quite frustrating, and gets old very quickly. A bit of extra fun can be introduced by having local or online friends stand in the shoes of your season mode teammates, but even then, playing against full teams of AI opponents can never match the visceral fun of taking on human opponents online.

rocketleague_2

So what, then, could have Rocket League included to provide a compelling single player offering? A more fleshed out suite of practice drills would have been a start. My mind jumps to the training camp-type drills found in the Madden series. Right now, you can only run shooting, goal tending, and flying drills, each of which have three difficulty modes, and which simply feature a moving or stationary ball that you are tasked with hitting into or out of the net. More creative drills are not hard to imagine, like a drill that requires you to hit the ball into a specific side or corner of the net, rewarding you with more points the closer you get. A more instructive flying drill would also be a boon, which perhaps focuses a bit more on mid-air car control by requiring you to fly through a series of rings. There are also a wealth of drills that could be introduced that focus on playing with teammates or against opponents–drills focused on playing the ball off the wall for centering passes and overtaking opponents, or winning the drop-ball, for example. Add to these new drills a points-based scoring system and online leaderboards, and a whole new metagame would be introduced that not only would fulfill a need for a stronger single player offering, but would also help improve your online game in the process.

It also should be mentioned that when Rocket League launched, the game suffered some fairly serious server issues. During the first week, it was not uncommon to be completely unable to find a match, or for Psyonix to have taken the game offline completely to perform maintenance. It seems we are now out of the weeds in this regard, as playing online the past week has been better, and since online issues at launch are fairly common, I can’t hold this against the game–but it is still something worth noting in case similar problems crop up if Psyonix were to, say, introduce a large update to the game sometime in the future.

These few complaints aside, my overall feelings about Rocket League are overwhelmingly positive. The weak single player offering is more than overshadowed by the unmatched levels of fun to be found online. When you consider that this is a $20 title that most PS4 owners will be playing for free, these qualms are even easier to overlook. If you haven’t done so yet, stop what you are doing and pick up Rocket League before the end of the month. It may take a good 5 or 10 matches before you really start to get into the zone. But once you do, you will find a surprisingly deep, visceral sports game that rewards equal parts tenacity, risk-taking, thoughtfulness, and precision.

A perfect marriage of simplicity and depth, of speed and finesse, and of, well, soccer and race cars, Rocket League is not an experience to miss. So grab this game (pay the $20 if you need to), scrounge together some teammates, crack some beers, and smash the ever-living daylight out of your online opponents. Just keep your eyes peeled for GerStud101, because I am coming for you, and I do not take mercy even on my most loyal readers.

KRPjGE


About the Author

Eric Gerson

A karaoke visionary and an avid gamer, Eric has been a Nintendo fanboy since birth, and a PlayStation owner since the PS2 era. An equal-opportunities gamer, Eric believes games are either good or bad, irrespective of their genre or setting. PSN and NN ID: GerStud101.