Developer: Psyonix Studios
Publisher: Psyonix Studios
Platforms: PC (Version Reviewed), PlayStation 4 (Free with PS Plus in July 2015)
Release Date: July 7, 2015
The first time I laid eyes on Psyonix Studios’ Rocket League was back in April. At that point, the game was undergoing its first public beta test on the PlayStation 4. My first reaction was one of excited curiosity. Apparently, plenty of other people felt the same way, as word-of-mouth began to spread and, subsequently, a great deal of anticipation surrounded the games’ forthcoming release. As it turns out, Rocket League is actually a sequel to 2008’s Supersonic Acrobatic Rocket-Powered Battle-Cars (try saying that three times in a row), which was an exclusive on the PlayStation 3, and developed a cult following in the years that followed.
Seven years later, with a wealth of knowledge and experience behind them, Psyonix Studios are back to show us what they’ve learned with Rocket League, a game which mixes the core mechanics and tactics of soccer with high-speed automobiles, with the goal of directing an over-sized ball into the opposing team’s goal.
Matches are contested between two teams, and each team is populated with 1-4 players, depending on the chosen game mode. Scoring is based on the amount of goals scored within a time limit of five minutes, with the possibility of overtime if the scores are still level. Cars aren’t just restricted to the arena floor. They can jump, drive across walls, perform special moves such as front/back flips and, perhaps most importantly, boost. Your boost meter sits in the corner of the screen and once depleted, the only way to power it back up again is to drive over one of the many power-up stations scattered across the arena. In the hands of a skilled player, boosts are an invaluable tool which allows the player to speed across the arena, destroy other opponents, and perform incredible aerial maneuvers which are almost unstoppable if timed correctly, but difficult to pull off.
The metallic game ball is the largest object inside the arena, so it takes a while to get used to the weight of the ball and the way in which it reacts to your car and the environment that surrounds it. It’s entirely based on physics, so it will react exactly as you’d expect in a real life situation, with the only exception being that it floats around the air a bit more than you might expect. It’s not a bad thing, and you learn to anticipate how the ball will react as you sink more time into the game.
After a while, you start to get an idea of how to force the ball to act in the way that you want it to, although it’s never an easy feat to pull off, especially in the face of opposition. It’s at this point that Rocket League becomes a whole different ball game. Much like real life soccer, the game’s depth is within the skill and tactics that are required to succeed. Players who chase after the ball like headless chickens will get nowhere in Rocket League, leaving their goal wide open for the opposition to unleash a barrage of shots on an empty net. Clever teamwork, copious amounts of skill, and strategic positioning are required for any successful team. Each charge for the ball becomes a high-risk battle which could either result an opportune chance for the team, or put it in jeopardy. Mistakes are plentiful at first, and they gradually disappear over time as you learn how to react to situations.
This system is enhanced even further by the fact that every car has identical attributes (with some minor hitbox differences), and this cannot be altered. It’s a refreshing change of pace in a time when so many multiplayer games appear to be reliant on trying to reward the player with unfair advantages to keep their interest, especially when that includes the ability to pay real money for them. Psyonix have confirmed that Rocket League will never allow players to gain an advantage through paid DLC.
Even after multiple hours of play, Rocket League never begins to feel old. Each 5 minute contest flies by in a haze of high speed gameplay and intense concentration, and it’s difficult to tear yourself away from the screen as you tell yourself that you’ll just play one more game, before realizing that you’re now single and jobless because you can’t drag yourself away from it. OK, a bit excessive, but you see what I’m getting at.
I was also impressed with Rocket League’s graphical features. It’s a colorful game by design, and this is prominent within the games’ maps, cars, and various details scattered throughout the arena. There are four maps in total, with alternative versions available for weather and night-time varieties. Some of these contain rainfall which is a fun change of pace, but it’s purely a cosmetic effect.
Each map’s arena dimensions are identical to each other, so the major differences between them are in the form of graphical backdrops. These can range from small indoor venues to giant outdoor stadiums which are crammed full of spectators, although there’s no detailed crowd design here – the spectators are represented via a series of colored blocks. Although that might not sound impressive, I actually had to stop and focus on the crowd for the purpose of this review, as you barely notice them by the time each match has begun. There will be more maps added to the game in the future in the form of free DLC, and it appears as though we may see some variations to the actual dimensions and layouts of future maps, which would be a nice addition for those who want it.
The frantic gameplay is complemented by a soundtrack of engine noises, and there’s a satisfying thud when you get full contact on the ball. The game has specific soundbites for launching your boost and driving over power-ups, and it all blends together nicely. Arena noise is entirely dependent on your map choice. For the indoor Urban map, each goal is celebrated with a blast of music over the PA system. Realistic crowd noise fills the speakers for the large, outdoor arenas. It’s a nice way of making each map feel unique.
Possibly the only downside to all this is that the excellent soundtrack to the game (featuring Mike Ault & Hollywood Principle) is only featured within Rocket League’s menu screens. It feels as though the in-game action would benefit from a pulsating, up-tempo soundtrack to complement the mayhem on screen. Admittedly, Rocket League’s soundtrack is probably a little too laid back for this requirement, but it’d be nice to at least have the option to incorporate it throughout the game as a backdrop.