As somebody very much set in my ways in terms of the games I’ll play, Rocket League is one of many games I have (ashamedly) put on a mental list to have a go at or at least read up on, and inevitably not ever set aside the time to do so. That changed just this week when it launched for Xbox One and was suddenly the buzzword coming from all my friends’ mouths. Within two minutes of my first match, I realised what a phenomenal mistake I had made in maintaining such an ignorance toward what is, at its core, a game whose personality can simply be described as pure, unadulterated fun.
For those who haven’t yet played the game, Rocket League is effectively the lovechild of Robot Wars, Mario Kart and football (or soccer, to those mistakenly calling a hand-centric sport “football”). A standard Rocket League match will set two teams of three against each other, each team vying to get a highly-explosive, ludicrously huge ball into the opposition’s goal, within which it will explode sending nearby players flying across the pitch in glorious slow motion. The twist? You’re not kicking this ball, you actually play as cars kitted out with a few tricks under the hood.
At the players’ disposal are a short but powerful boost ability, which can be replenished by driving over pads spaced out across the pitch, and an arguably more valuable flip capability, allowing you to launch your car in a variety of directions, effectively forming the primary method of “shooting” for the goal, redirecting the ball or barging your way through the opposition.
Did somebody mention barging the opposition? That’s because any new player will soon learn that tasteful dirty play is totally acceptable in Rocket League. Remember how I referenced Robot Wars? Well, if you really come up against it, slam on that boost pedal, set your sights on the nearest enemy car and wait for the fireworks as you collide and emerge unscathed.
If you can be that accurate right from the get-go, then a gold star to you, but don’t worry if you aren’t a master of the wheel right away, Rocket League has a smooth and satisfying learning curve thanks to its hilarious physics. The ball and your cars interact with gravity in an unusual way, and it takes some time to be able to launch yourself gracefully over another car and catch the ball with your tail, sending it flying exactly where you want. Expect to initially have moments of hopeful excitement crushed as you realise how woeful your timing was, as your car glides past the ball, painfully close without ever making contact.
Speaking of getting things right, Rocket League‘s visual design is excellent, feeling polished and premium from start to finish. The UI design is clean, slick and feels very much at home in its futuristic spectator sport setting, as do the wide variety of arenas on offer, spanning from wasteland backyards to big-league set-ups with distant crowds cheering as one. Vehicle customisation options too come in a wide variety of parts and designs, allowing players to select entire bodies, decals, types of wheels, accessories like novelty hats and antennas – you can even change the trail left behind when you boost! Among these options are a few nods to other games, including two exclusive vehicle bodies – the Halo-inspired HogSticker (Warthog) and the Armadillo from Gears of War.
Now, with design successes will inevitably come some shortfalls, albeit not game-breaking ones. As a match progresses you’ll often find players quitting for one reason or another, and whilst in the game’s defense they are often replaced by other players in a timely fashion, there are times where they will be replaced by AI-controlled vehicles.
Unfortunately, these AI players seem to go through peaks and troughs of intelligence, and despite the peaks producing a formidable ally, the troughs are extremely frustrating. Just in 4 matches this morning I found my team conceding a total of three own-goals at the hands of AI teammates. These weren’t at all forgiveable either, we’re not talking accidental nudges, but rather what could be interpreted as intentional head-on goal shots. Thankfully for the most part the game avoids this with a strong matchmaking system, but in those times it doesn’t succeed, it can really harm the experience.
On the subject of matchmaking, my other criticism comes in the form of a lack of cross-platform functionality. The PC and PS4 versions are able to communicate with each other and combine the two populations in the same pool, however the Xbox One population is kept firmly within its own. This is a minor criticism, personally, as the population on Xbox is hardly wearing thin, with strong activity figures showing day in, day out – however it does raise the simple question of why exactly Xbox One players are unable to play with the other platforms.
Despite that small grumble, it’s fair to say that the matchmaking system, and by extension the technical design of the game as a whole, has a lot to be praised for. Load times are almost unnoticeable and the time between matches is minimal, giving you the freedom to drive around and practice your skills as you wait for more players, which in itself doesn’t take long at all.
Aside from those somewhat minor complaints, the game succeeds in what it set out to do – offer hours of unpredictable, plain silly fun. No two matches are the same with a unique set of physics rules, and an ever changing mix of players in each match, some intent on blowing up their adversaries, some gunning to make as much contact with the ball as possible, and other more patient players, cruising around at a short distance, waiting for their moment to strike. This becomes especially evident in the “scrums” at the start of each point, where a poor balance of patient/chaotic players can result in failure as the other team gets a solid first touch.
By not taking itself too seriously, yet upholding a beautiful balance of key gameplay elements in the process, Rocket League manages to offer a wholly unique and thoroughly entertaining experience that will keep players wanting to come back for a very long time. The game has built a huge following and reputation already and I’ll be surprised if it slows down any time soon. Give the game a shot and I have every faith you won’t be disappointed. Now, what are you still doing here – go out there and boost, flip and ram your way to an explosive success in Rocket League!
Have you played Rocket League yet? What sort of player are you?
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