Rocket League Review

Rocket LeagueA Top Gear Special without ClarksonI am rubbish at Rocket League. Genuinely terrible. Most of my matches are something akin to watching an under six soccer team play. There’s a lot of running around in random patterns trying vainly to touch the ball with whatever flailing limb has the longest reach interspersed with moments of stillness and confusion. Of course, I’m playing a game of PC car football but you get the picture. I’m genuinely terrible at the game, so much so that I think with enough practice and time I could only progress to being really bad. But it doesn’t matter. There is a competitive spirit at the core of Rocket League but so far that doesn’t seem to boil over into the actual experience. It’s ridiculous, fast and most importantly fun, win or lose. It’s a sports game that boils down the appeal of sports without featuring any of that actual sporting crap.

The core concept of Rocket League is beautiful, simple nonsense. Rocket cars play football in an enclosed arena. All of the corners are rounded allowing the cars to climb walls if need be and a huge goal at either end of the field beckons the massive ball. No matter how skilled a gamer you are, your first few games are all but guaranteed to be a comedy of errors as you grapple with the surprising intricacies of the control scheme, the speed of boost, its effects on the ground and in the air, how to defensively and offensively flip the car, how to barrel roll to maintain momentum on a landing, how best to hit the ball to give it enough speed and momentum to make a shot on goal, how to defend, how to take out opposition cars. It can be a little overwhelming at first, prompting you to simply hoon  around like an idiot in the hope that you can somehow bash the ball into the goal in much the same way as some people play pool – smashing the ball and hoping it finds a pocket before friction stops it rolling. If you do get the ball into the goal it explodes, because of course it does. Even without the intricacies of control Rocket League is a blast, but when you start to get to grips with them it really comes into its own.Rocket LeagueCars move as quickly backwards as they do forwards, so sometimes it’s more advisable to simply back up than turn, and when trying to outrace an opponent a forward flip can give you the speed boost you need to beat them to the ball. Directionality determines what the car does when jumping – flipping forwards, backwards in a vehicular approximation of a bicycle kick, spinning or performing a barrel roll. Physics are, let’s say lenient, for both the cars and the ball. Not only are all the objects rather floaty when they are in the air, players can also control the axis and angle of their movement, giving that extra level of precise control needed when trying to use a rocket car to punt a giant ball into a goal. Boost is a chaotic joy, filled through driving over small boost pads or picking up larger boost capsules that slowly respawn on the field. Boost is the fuel for everything other than basic driving and jumping in Rocket League – a well timed boost can get you the first touch on the ball, can knock an opponent out of line, clear a ball or score from half a field away but a poorly timed boost can leave you having to drive over some boost pads before you can effectively rejoin the game. This may only take a few seconds but in a game as fast and chaotic as Rocket League a few seconds is more than enough for goals to be scored. It’s a complex set of moves and mechanics, each with a definite use in the game tied together with a remarkably simple control system, lending Rocket League the air of accessibility while still having more than enough complexity to appeal to those of a more competitive mindset.One of the things that quickly becomes clear after playing only a few matches is that Rocket League is predicated on a level playing field. Experience is rewarded for winning a game, sure, but an only slightly smaller amount is awarded for losing, and anything you do in a game is likewise rewarded. Goals are of course a prime XP earner, but getting the first touch, defending, clearing the ball and shots on goal are also rewarded. This experience unlocks new cars and cosmetic enhancement for the cars, but there is no advantage to driving a truck wearing a cowboy hat over one of the starting selection of cars and remaining tragically hatless. All cars handle the same and no matter the looks and relative size all seem to have the same hitbox, leaving the only defining factor being the skill of the player.Rocket LeagueBeing in a match with a good player, especially one that was a fan of one of developer Psyonix’s previous games, Supersonic Acrobatic Rocket-Powered Battle-Cars, can be a little daunting. Seeing a player being able to make accurate shots on goal, juggle the ball or balance the ball on the roof of the car and “dribble” it towards your goal really shows you your own relative skill level, but unlike many other competitive games Rocket League doesn’t seem to have the kind of ultra-competitive community that makes new players feel unwelcome. Part of this may have to do with the games rather absurd premise, but it also has to do with the fact that in any game other than 1v1, even the most inexperienced player can contribute in some way. In a team of three it’s perfectly acceptable to have a player roaming about like an idiot trying to simply get a touch on the ball. While there are undoubtedly some strategies for how best to shoot a goal, Rocket League doesn’t have the kind of in game knowledge requirement that makes other competitive online games – mobas for example – so difficult for new players to pick up and play, not to mention be accepted by the community.For those who are ultra-competitive and want to play with a set team against the greatest competition available, there are ranked matches and a leaderboard letting you know who is at the top of the heap, but for everyone else there are a number of online and offline modes. Choose the number of players a side, from one to four and wait for the server to kick you into a game. Then it’s a matter of showing your skill, or lack thereof for five minutes, get your XP and find another game. The servers are nice and full (there were nearly 80k players online at the time of this writing) so there’s very little in terms of down time between games, but if the servers are down for some reason, or you’re having trouble with your internets there are also single player modes that pit you and up to three AI allies against an equal number of bots. The basic difficulty setting is pretty terrible, but the higher difficulty levels actually pose a decent challenge and are good for honing your skills. A full seasonal mode is also available against AI bots, giving the game a definite soccer feel offline. A handy training mode also instructs you as to the basics when it comes to defending the goal, being a striker and pulling off aerial shots.Rocket LeagueWith the exception of the 1v1 duels which prove to be uninspiring unless both players are equally good or bad at the game, Rocket League is a pure pleasure. It’s a perfect example of how a simple, if ludicrous idea well realized can make for a truly memorable experience. The lack of bells and whistles or extraneous rules outside of the main game modes indicate how strong the core experience is. It’s easy to pick up but has one of the longest, steadiest learning curves in modern gaming, with each subsequent match improving your ability a little (a very little in my case), teaching you new ways to touch the ball or stymie an opponent. For a game predicated on every match using the same rules and every player being on the same level when it comes to in game advantage the variation between individual matches is enormous. No two play alike, and due to the fact that nobody has discovered any exploits or cheap tactics as yet, there is no foolproof strategy for play aside from having an experienced team. Instead what you get is five minute bouts of ridiculous fun. You can’t really ask for much more than that. DANIEL WILKS

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