If ever there was a game that required no explanation, it’s Rocket League. Here’s the breakdown: it’s soccer with - wait for it - rocket cars. That’s pretty much all there is to it; no story, no long-term objectives, no frills. But don’t let the simplicity of the premise fool you - Rocket League is an unmitigated joy to play and as addictive a game as you’re likely to find anywhere. The fact that it isn’t weighed down by unnecessarily gameplay elements only allows it to soar that much higher. It’s a celebration of simplicity in game-making, a game that’s easy to pick up, difficult to master, and thoroughly habit-forming.
Rocket League has been gifted unto us by Psyonix, makers of the 2009 PS3 game Supersonic Acrobatic Rocket-Powered Battle Cars. Based on the title it should come as no surprise that Rocket League is more or less a straight-up reworking of their previous game, and after only a short time playing it should be readily apparent that the unwieldy title isn’t the only element that’s been polished and perfected in the intervening years.
Despite the singularity of the premise you don’t need to know anything about cars or soccer in order to get the most out of Rocket League. Regardless of your comfort level with either of those elements, the fundamental rules and controls are simple enough to allow anyone with a basic understanding of video game controls to jump right in. Players can boost their speed by driving over designated markers scattered throughout the field, and the ability to drive right up the walls ensures that players can keep their momentum going throughout the match. There’s a satisfying learning curve for the controls that eventually allows drivers to progress from basic jumps and dodges to fancy moves like bicycle kicks, barrel rolls, and somersaults. The controls lend themselves equally well to offense and defense, as does the camera which can be toggled between the standard third-person view and a “ball view” that instantly reorients you to where the action is happening.
The cars feel light but controllable, and the addition of boost to various jumps and maneuvers often makes for some pleasingly chaotic movements. Conversely, the ball has a noticeable heft to it and seems to operate according to its own rules of gravity, bouncing and changing direction in unexpected ways. The juxtaposition of the precise, quick car movements and the ball’s much slower and more random trajectory makes for delightfully fast-paced matches that force players to stay on their toes the whole time.
The great news for players who wouldn’t normally venture within ten feet of a sports game is that the threshold of soccer knowledge required to play is extremely low. See that ball? Put it in that net. GOOD TO GO. Further, points are awarded not only for scoring goals but for a whole range of activities. Clears, shots, assists, saves, showy maneuvering - all of these things net the player points, ensuring that scoring goals isn’t the only way to succeed in Rocket League. In this way the game rewards solid, well-rounded gameplay and encourages teamwork. On the flip side, demolitions - that fantastic moment where a player rams another player so hard that they explode on impact - are not assigned a point value. These are a fairly rare occurrence and more of an amusement than an annoyance since the demolished player is instantly resurrected; but as fun as it is to carsplode your opponents out of the way it was a smart decision not to reward the destructive elements with points. This design choice prevents the game from devolving into an all-out demolition derby (though if Psyonix wanted to add a demolition mode I would be 100% on board).
Though still quite enjoyable as a single-player experience, Rocket League was clearly made to be played with other people. Players can solo full seasons or exhibition matches if they choose, though your AI buddies - both teammates and opponents - aren’t always the sharpest. Another available option (one that I wasn’t able to personally test out) is local split-screen co-op. Once you enter the online arena there are several flavors of matches to choose from, all of which can be played either publicly or privately. 3x3 is the standard gameplay mode, but you can also choose to go with a one-on-one duel, doubles, or the aptly named 4x4 “chaos mode.” The public matchmaking system on the PS4 was running quickly and smoothly every time I played, resulting in minimal lobby time and the ability to play many matches in a row without much downtime in between. An AI player pops in instantly in the case that someone drops out mid-game (or if you don’t have enough players in a private party match), which again ensures that matches proceed smoothly and with minimal interruptions.
The only nitpick I have here is with the cross-platform play. As is stands currently there’s cross-platform matchmaking with PC and PS4 players, but players are unable to form parties with friends playing on different systems. Here’s hoping that a fix for that will be coming in the future.
There are only a few maps to choose from in Rocket League. Matches take place in uniformly sized arenas, and the only real differences between stadiums are cosmetic. The stadiums themselves are well-designed for the task at hand: large enough so that a car can be brought up to full speed, small enough that the ball is nearly always in play, and enclosed to take full advantage of the momentum offered by gravity-defying rocket cars. It might be nice to see a bit more diversity in these settings, though the lack thereof doesn’t really detract from enjoyment of the game in any meaningful way.
There are a number of unlockable vehicles in the game, and a wide array of upgrades that can be applied to each. These upgrades are unlocked at random by playing either on or offline and are grouped into body styles, decals, paint, wheels, the car’s rocket trail, toppers (aka wacky hats), and antennae. Though having a viking hat perched atop your car or a stream of bubbles coming out of the exhaust is undeniably fantastic, all of these upgrades are purely cosmetic. There is no difference in handling between car models; this combined with the lack of deep customization means that just about every car feels exactly the same. The ability to customize would have created a nice sense of progression as you played (particularly when putting a squad together for a full season) but at the same time the current system ensures that on a basic level all players are evenly matched, which completely fits with the game’s overall emphasis on rewarding solid gameplay.
There’s no denying that Rocket League is repetitive, but that’s also what makes it so addictive. It’s true that the setup is exactly the same each time, but the nature of the game forces players to constantly make split-second decisions throughout which ultimately makes each match unique. The fast pacing of matches - each standard game lasts only five minutes - contributes to the frenetic energy of the game and applies a nice dose of pressure to each matchup, particularly when playing against online opponents. And as discussed above, the gratifying learning curve of the car’s controls encourages players to explore the full capabilities of their vehicles and rewards those who are able to master advanced maneuvers.
There is nothing terrible about Rocket League. Get out of here.
At its core Rocket League is a beautifully simple idea that’s been extremely well-executed. It may not appeal to gamers looking for a car game that provides a deep, progressive system of upgrades, but for those who can embrace a bit of chaos and appreciate a game that keeps you on your toes it’s incredibly satisfying. If you’re looking for a game that’s quick, addictive, and doesn’t take itself at all seriously this is one you need to look into.
Nicole T (street name: Barkspawn) is a gamer and writer who’s also holdin’ down a day job in California. You can find her on Twitter @ser_barkspawn, contact her here, and read more of her articles here.
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