Sports games get routinely criticised, often by those not entirely enamored by the genre (or non-gaming fitness enthusiasts), for being effectively pointless. After all, why don’t you go outside and play real football? What’s stopping you from organizing your own Tour De France? Where’s that little bit of oomph to practice MMA by goading the big lug sat at the bar of your local pub you lazy sod? So, it’s great when a games developer decides to make up its own sport that would certainly be horribly convoluted and deadly to attempt in real life, thus excusing you from that condescending line of questioning. Well, you could only hope so. Psyonix’s Rocket League is that kind of sports game, and it kind of makes you wish it was a real sport too. Because quite frankly, it’s stupendous.
The simplest way to explain Rocket League’s concept is to call it "Soccer with Cars". This is something Psyonix has experience with as Rocket League is the successor to Supersonic Acrobatic Rocket-Powered Battle Cars (not the catchiest of titles, but kudos if you can say it three times fast). The game pits two teams of cars (between one and four on each team, with three being the default) against each other in a pitch-sized dome where the objective is simply to put the oversized ball in the back of the net as many times as you can in five minutes while preventing your opponents from doing the same.This naturally involves lots of high speed collisions as you battle for the ball, and to begin with it’s a little overwhelming to handle. You’ll find yourself overshooting the ball, mis-timing shots and generally finding the combination of cars and footie a tough task to get your head around. Still, the soundtrack in the menus is damned good and that awkward fumbling with the game soon fades.
Bit by bit, Rocket League starts to click. The first time you chance a goal by accidentally driving up the wall and twisting your vehicle in the air to get a headlight onto the ball is a moment that leaves you grinning from ear-to-ear, and those moments start becoming more frequent as you begin to pull off ridiculous skillshots and assists like the strange mechanical offspring of Lewis Hamilton, Lionel Messi and Rory McIlroy (don’t ask me how that would work, I’m no scientist). Equally satisfying is escaping a mad scramble by launching your car at the goalbound ball and saving your team from conceding in style.
If Rocket League was just standard vehicles punting an oversized beachball around then it would get old really quickly. The way Psyonix approach it is to leave reality on the subs bench as often as possible to maximize the potential joy and hilarity of the already interesting concept. As I touched upon before, your car can do more than just drive about. With a press of the X button you can launch your metallic avatar into the air to contest high balls, block shots and hopefully score a few cracking goals. It veers on the slightly exaggerated side of physics, with your car and the ball getting a tad more hang-time in the air than a grounded physics model would allow and still giving a proper sense of momentum and impact on the ground as well. It is generally a well balanced setup that only really causes frustration in 4v4 bouts where everyone ends up huddling under the slow-descending ball for long periods.You can further modify the car’s aerial movement with the left analog stick and the square button, contorting the car into better positions in the same manner a human football player would in order to control the ball’s trajectory.
The cars are also fitted with smoke-trailing (or confetti in one case) Nitro boosters that you can top up at points around the pitch. This acts as your ‘sprint’ action, allowing you to get more lift on jumps, chase down loose balls faster and get in behind opposition players to shoot or save in suitably epic fashion. It also doubles as a form of vengeance that wouldn’t look out of place in Mad Max. Hold it down long enough and it pelts you around at a high-octane speed that causes any rival car to explode upon impact. The perfect middle finger to that one guy who kept knocking you off the ball with angry shunts, but also quite handy for disturbing your opponents passage of play by taking a player temporarily out of the picture. Something that could give you the few seconds you need to launch a devastating counter-attack or just give you time to compose and organise.
The base layer of control will be enough for most to enjoy Rocket League, and that would make it a decent enough game if that was all there was to it, but there is a surprising level of depth to the gameplay that gradually opens up more ways to approach each match. With time, you will gain such an understanding of the game’s nuances that you’ll likely utilize every inch of your car and the arenas in your playstyle. Using the arena walls,for example, to arc around a car-crushing tussle for possession and nip in just in front of the mess of metal to poke the ball home with a well-timed corkscrew jump is just one of the more advanced ways in which to gain the upper hand, but there are plenty more to discover and experiment with and this plays a large part in any potential longevity Rocket League will have. The other part is playing against people, and this is where the game moves closer to truly essential territory.
Yes, Rocket League contains the key materials that forged every fun, compelling and potentially friendship-destroying multiplayer title in gaming history. There’s an online side to the game which will begin full season championships in the coming weeks and months, but the bread-and-butter delight currently comes from tonking your mates in regular ranked online matches and -rather pleasingly- split-screen multiplayer. Brute force vengeance and the ability to show off causes as much hooting and hollering as the spectacle of netting wonder goals, agonizing near misses and own goal howlers that pile on the shame do. 3v3 and 4v4 matches are filled with gleefully chaotic moments as glory hogs vie for possession with those aforementioned crunching collisions. Dropping down to 1v1 or 2v2 tends to bring out more of Rocket League’s tactical side, having more time to manipulate the play and requiring a finer balance of defensive and offensive abilities. More players makes for more joy, but the smaller teams are a greater test of your skills.
Single player seasons that span 9-45 games provide a good learning experience for the basics, as well as a leg up in unlocking a large amount of the cosmetic parts, chassis’ and paint jobs for your car to give it a more individual feel. But enjoyment in this mode is sadly not quite up to the multiplayer standard. The A.I. has no middle ground difficulty. Either they stupidly and regularly punt the ball into their own net because they don’t understand anything but move forward or they leave you in their dust as they pick out inch-perfect pases and perform spectacular strikes – making you feel like the last kid picked for playground football. The bots will stick pretty rigidly to one of these formulas and as such, become increasingly dull/frustrating to play with and against. In fairness, it’ll take a couple of lengthy seasons for boredom to truly kick in, especially as there are rewards and xp to gain from it. Multiplayer is clearly the box-office draw here though, and ultimately that is why single player suffers far greater diminishing returns. Not that multiplayer is without any faults of its own.
Early on, the servers have been beset by problems from being completely offline to a drawn out waiting game for an actual connection, but every time I did eventually get a game it worked a treat, and the servers and matchmaking are already stabilising as I write this. It’s just a shame that yet another game launches with the same old issues. At least in this case I can see how demand may have outstripped the developers best estimates. As I write this a 1.9GB patch is available to download with should hopefully sort out any teething issues.
One other potential bug bear that you’d be right to question is the relatively small amount of variety for game modes. Fortunately Psyonix see this version of Rocket League as a proverbial starter pack for future additions, with free arenas, extras and paid for DLC being planned to add further longevity in the coming weeks and months. I say fortunately because while there is a slightly limited playset to begin with, it’s a playset that gives you more than enough value for money simply because it’s such raucous, chaotic fun delivered in perfectly-sized five minute chunks. In time, Rocket League could be considered a multiplayer great. It’s already up there with the very best in this generation as it is.
PlayStation needs games like Rocket League. Games that embrace the ever-fading wonder of local multiplayer and still keep touch with modern gaming by feeding the need to show off your skills to complete strangers. A feat made all the more impressive by not having to indulge in the murkier side of its chosen genre’s licensing politics. Now, I’m off to try driving a VW Golf into Wembley Stadium, see if I can pull off a backflip goal from the halfway line. Like those moaners say about all other sports titles, I did it in the game so it should be a piece of cake in real life. I’d just be a feckless couch potato otherwise.