Platform: PC via Steam [Reviewed], PlayStation 4
Release Date: July 7, 2015
Price: $19.99 USD
If you were to hear the idea behind Rocket League being pitched, it might sound like it was thought up in some fevered dream. Take the core gameplay of soccer (also read: football), replace the ball with a two-storey tall beach ball, and swap out the players for rocket-powered, back-flipping super cars. Then, put them all in the middle of a fully-enclosed stadium, throw the rulebook out the window, and let them go at it.
Fortunately for us, some dreams become reality, because Rocket League is, quite simply, the most fun I’ve had playing a competitive game in years.
At its core, Rocket League is a sports game. You play on a team of between 1-4 players with the sole objective of trying to outscore your opponent by knocking a giant ball into the enormous opposing goal, all while preventing it from finding its way into your own net. Unless you play solo, teamwork is necessary, and the ability to hit a ball with split-second timing is the difference between victory and defeat.
But this is no simulation. Rather, its sports game pedigree might be better found in arcade sports games like NBA Jam and its descendants such as Wayne Gretzky’s 3D Hockey. But where those games streamlined standard sports gameplay to ratchet up the action, Rocket League injects jet fuel, replacing human participants with rocket-powered cars and ensuring that nothing except a goal ever breaks the flow and action of gameplay.
There are no penalties, out-of-bounds, off sides, or time-outs here. From the initial scramble for the ball in the center of the field to the last second of a match, the only time control is taken out of the players’ hands is to watch a short replay of each gravity-defying strike that finds its way into the opposing net.
And controlling these rocket-powered vehicles is a joy. The basic controls handle like one might expect. One button to accelerate, one to break and reverse, another to power slide. But it’s in the air that things get interesting.
The cars jump on little boost rockets beneath them, allowing them to hop not once, but twice into the air. Tap a direction during the second jump, and it dodges in that direction rapidly, causing the car to do forward or back flips, or to sideways roll. This dodge is the primary striking mechanism, allowing the vehicles to smash the ball in all directions around them. Using it is remarkably intuitive, and novice players will be doing bicycle kicks before they know it.
A rocket boost bar can also be raised by driving over shiny pick-ups littered across the field. Using the boost causes the main rear rocket to fire, launching the car across the field at high speed and enabling powerful shots. Mashing down the boost delivers a sense that you just broke the sound barrier as you speed faster.
In the air, the rocket boost can be used to fly by carefully angling the exhaust downward, allowing for some stunning aerial maneuvers and strikes that will make you want to save your replay and send it to your friends.The speed and ferocity of play will make the most jaded adrenaline junky purr.
This is a game which delivers a dozen highs and lows in a five minute match, full of missed opportunities, glorious successes, poor plays, and textbooks goals–all of them exciting. I can’t remember the last time a game had me fist-pumping the air and screaming excitedly while alone at my computer. Winning a close game with a last second strike delivers the sort of exhilaration that makes any sourness from earlier losses disappear. And it’s a testament to the joy of playing Rocket League that even bad defeats feel neither frustrating nor discouraging.
The skill-cap is enormously high, and there’s always little improvements that can be made to one’s gameplay. Most importantly, doing so feels natural, and fun. You don’t need to spend hours in practice before you’re ready to test your skills online. The beginner tutorial takes about five-minutes and provides everything one needs to be ready to enter the arena, where even being bad is still a blast.
The game also looks and sounds phenomenal. From the rocket streaks left behind from a boost, to the cheers of the crowd as one player smashes the ball towards the goal, every area is polished and reflective of the genre. The backgrounds to the levels are also interesting, from crowded cities to natural landscapes to a train station with trains passing overhead. The cars look great, and fortunately, you have the option of customizing your car with different chassis, paint jobs, rocket trails, wheels, flags, and even hats. Yes, the cars can wear hats. Personally, I prefer the wizard hat.
These attachments are unlocked simply by playing, and they confer no benefit besides the thrill of leaving a cloud of dollar bills in your wake every time you boost. Even using different car chassis does not meaningfully affect gameplay or handling, though according to the developers, there are some slight variations in hitboxes.
There aren’t a lot of modes, which can feel like a missed opportunity in a game with such a fantastic core. An exhibition mode allows you to play by yourself or with friends against AIs, or you can enter season mode to take on a series of computer-controlled teams and fight your way through round-robin play and into the playoffs. Practice mode contains a useful variety of skill challenges to help you build your skills, from basic shooting to masterful aerial control.
For the real action, you can form a group with up to three friends for normal online play. There’s also a ranked mode, but unfortunately, ranked play is limited to 1v1, 2v2, and 3v3 games. While you can group with a friend for ranked 2v2 play, for some reason the 3v3 ranked mode requires you to queue alone and be paired with others at random. This is a real setback given that team 3v3 is the heart of the game. A few small oversights also mar the experience.
In normal online play, when a player leaves mid-match, they’re immediately replaced with an AI player until a new human player can be found. But in ranked play, leaving players simply disappear, allowing for some truly lopsided games, especially in the solo queue 3v3. Additionally, some items claim to track statistics while equipped, such as wins, goals, or distance travelled, but they largely fail to do so in practice.
The Bottom Line:
With Rocket League set to become a potential e-sport, hopefully these issues, including the lack of a group 3v3 option, will be addressed. However, for now, these are small issues utterly overwhelmed by the immense fun of playing Rocket League.
The game doesn’t force you into microtransactions or to grind for a higher level tier. The unlocked items are simply for looks, allowing players to customize vehicles and simply enjoy the fun-facets of the game.
If you’re still not sure if you should play Rocket League, there’s really only one question you need to ask: do you enjoy games that are fun?