Platforms: PS4, PC
Reviewed On: PC
Frantic. Chaos. Intense. Exciting. Fun. These are just some of the words that I could use to adequately describe Rocket League, a brilliant game where two teams of up to four players each compete to score goals using their rocket-powered cars that are capable of performing physics defying leaps and driving up walls. It’s stupid, crazy hilarious fun, and to spoil my own review you should already be in the process of buying it or you should already own it. Really. It’s that much fun.
But the truth is writing really can’t do the game justice, nor can the static images adorning this page. Rocket League is the kind of game you need to see in action, so head on to Youtube and go find some gameplay footage. There are loads of it available. Don’t worry, I’ll still be here when you get back, assuming you don’t forget about me and leave me for some other reviewer, you two-timing son of a…sorry, I got carried away, there. Now that you’ve done that, let’s see if I can fill in the gaps a bit, although really all you need to know about the game can be gleaned from just watching a single match.
Your little car boasts some impressive responsive handling and has such superb grip that it can not only turn tightly but also drive straight up and along the curved outer walls of the pitch that serve to keep every player in constant motion. The combination of these things ensures that a deft player can always be exactly where he or she wants to be. There’s never a question of failing because of the controls, only because you weren’t fast enough, or didn’t time the use of your collected boost right, or weren’t in the right place, or hit the ball at the wrong angle, or didn’t notice the opponent’s car coming barreling towards you at hair-raising speeds. With a gentle tap of A (assuming you’re playing with a controller on the PC version, which I highly advise) you can make the car hop lightly into the air. By holding the button you can make it jump higher, and by pressing A again you can perform a secondary jump for even more height and/or distance. On top of that by holding the directional stick either sideways, forwards or backwards you can double tap A to perform frontflips, which also provide a quick spurt of extra speed, backflips and sideflips. You can even do things like leap forwards and then use a backflip to bring you to a halt in mid-air. Once you’ve mastered this simple leaps, though, there’s some more mechanics to add to your repertoire, such as angling your car mid jump so that you can use your boost – which is gathered from numerous pads scattered around the pitch – to gain extra height and distance, even letting you get up to the roof if you get it just right.
I’m glad to report there’s no unlockable speed upgrades, weapons, power-ups or anything of the sort here undermining the simple, elegant mechanics, so the playing field is always level in terms of the vehicle each player has moving at the same speed, responding alike and being able to perform the same basic moves, ensuring each match is about the skills of the player. That’s not to say there’s nothing to work toward, though, as new bodywork for your car, tyres, boost effects and even hats can be unlocked as you play, and hopefully even more will be added in future updates as right now the selection is nice but limited. You can modify the paint to a lesser degree as you’ll always be playing as either the red team or the blue team, so any paintjob has to be a shade of either color.
Without performance upgrades or powerups or anything else of the sort Rocket League boasts a brilliant simplicity which hides a game with a high skill ceiling for those willing to sink enough time into it. It’s the perfect example of a game that’s incredibly easy to just pick up and play, yet takes time and patience to truly master. It’s also a prime example of why accessibility isn’t a dirty word; it’s an amazingly accessible game thanks to private matches that can be played AI opponents and an easy to understand set of mechanics. Anybody can pick up the controller and have a blast playing it, and probably even get a couple of goals in, too. That accessibility slowly gives way to a game chock full of depth, and that’s really what something being accessible is about – drawing a player in through easy-to-understand systems, and then trusting that they’ll become addicted and want to learn everything there is to know about the mechanics.
And by Hades’ luscious beard is it worth learning. Matches are hectic affairs, especially with a full roster of eight players duking it out for control of the ball, whooping and hollering as they watch a replay of the last goal scored. The pitch is a mess of flying cars crashing into each other, nail-biting moments where somebody blocks a shot at the last possible second and plans being developed and ditched every single second. As you play more and more matches you’ll learn to resist the temptation to simply chase the ball around and come to understand that timing and positioning are key to scoring. It’s tempting to simply gun the throttle and enter the scrum, and fun, too, but hanging back and anticipating where the ball is heading rather than mindlessly chasing it is usually the better answer, letting be in the right place to take a shot at the goal or to help block or set up a team-mate. Either way it’s an absolutely blast, though, as Rocket League caters to competitive players, casual players, skilled players and terrible players alike. No matter which one you are the game is incredibly good fun. There’s a breakneck, frantic pace to every match that’s intoxicating, and the five-minute time limit makes it the perfect game to fire up and play a few rounds, or to lose several hours in. In every match I played there was always at least one moment that had me on the edge of my seat, grinning like a little kid again because I’d just nailed a shot or my mess of a team had somehow managed to come together in a moment of co-operation amidst the chaos, or loudly groaning as the opposing team nailed a perfect goal from across the entire pitch.
The lack of complications in the core mechanics means this is also a game with a focus on steady skill progression. You’ll start off just banging the ball around, and then progress to more accurate moves. You’ll develop finer control of the car and therefore the ball, learning how to bounce it off the wall for better passes and exactly when to use a flip as opposed to just a light jump. And then eventually you’ll be doing stupid stuff like using boost to rocket into the air to block a shot before turning perfectly to land on the wall, scoot along 30ft off the ground and then leap off to land back in the fray, or doing simpler things like getting up enough speed to power into the opponent’s defender and blow ’em up (known as a Demolition), taking them out the game for a few seconds and opening up a perfect shot for a team-mate. You’ll figure out how to use the curved walls to open up new avenues of attack, something which the special ball-following camera can help with, although personally I found it was best to use the regular view as it often meant staring at a ball in mid-air, unable to see the other cars in relation to you. Or maybe you’ll learn none of this stuff and spend forever just madly dashing about. Either way you’re going to have heaps of fun.
There are of course inherent frustrations with the concept, like the simple fact that it’s kind of hard to be truly precise when hitting a ball with a rocket-powered car in mid-air, resulting in plenty of moments where you send the ball gently rolling towards your own goal while trying to stop it, or miss the opponent’s goal by mere inches when you could swear blind you hit it just right. But this adds to the sense of chaos and is something you come to embrace rather than loathe, although some really competitive players may find this element of luck irritating. Other occasional problems also include the game not registering a save or even a shot at the goal.
A game like this where the action is frenetic needs to run smoothly, which I’m glad to say Rocket League absolutely does, at least on my own setup, the details of which you can find HERE. Aside from the anti-aliasing options I had everything maxed out at 1080p and was able to hold 65fps with almost no fluctuation and absolutely zero major dips, ensuring lovely, smooth gameplay. It doesn’t come at the cost of graphics, either, as Rocket League looks pretty damn nice with a lush color palette to boot. Obviously it’s not at the forefront of technical capability, but I found myself slightly hypnotised by the individual blades of grass that sway in the wind and loving the vibrant art-style. The audio is just as impressive as the different arenas are filled with the roars and chants of the crowd which serve to get you even more into the match. All the raw performance in the world won’t help if you can’t actually find a match or keep getting disconnected. The launch was a little rough as Rocket League soared to the top of the Steam charts and the flood of players left the servers struggling to handle it all, but now all seems well and I never experienced any problems finding a match nor ever got disconnected to one. There was a couple of examples of connection issues mid-game, though, that left us all struggling to hit a teleporting ball, but they were resolved pretty quickly.
Offline play includes the ability to the set up matches with AI opponents who actually do a relatively solid job of replacing real players, although they are prone to making blatant mistakes, like driving the ball straight into your team’s goal. Overall, though, they act as a nice training ground for new players and even experienced ones just looking to hone their skills a little in a less competitive environment. Speaking of which, though, this really is a game that needs to be played with friends and other people. Offline is fun, but it doesn’t capture the same level of intensity as online play. There’s also an offline season mode, which is a nice touch, too. In the season mode you can pick out how many teams will be competing, how many weeks the season will last for an even a name and logo for your own team. The online play lets you opt for 1v1, 2v2, 3v3 and 4v4 matches in both ranked and non-ranked flavors. It’ll be interesting to see if the developers introduce any new game mode variants in the future, or instead choose to keep it simple with the existing. If they do choose to add more then I’d throw in a vote for an online season mode.
Having come out of pretty much nowhere Rocket League is hands down the most pure, unadulterated fun I’ve had this year, managing to get me jumping up and down, grinning like a fool and gripping the controller like a man possessed and yelling loudly at every near score or awesome move. It’s a simple game that takes a while to master, and I can see myself coming back to it time and time again for a quick match or three, only to once again be sucked into the mayhem and emerge several hours later wondering why it’s suddenly daylight again.
It’s not the developer’s first attempt at this wheeled-insanity, though, as Psyonix previously released the insanely named Supersonic Acrobatic Rocket-Powered Battle-Cars. Released back in 2008/2009 for the PS3 the game also featured teams trying to score goals against each other using rocket-powered cars, but received fairly middling reviews. Although most players probably won’t even realise it Rocket League is in fact a sequel, a much improved one at that. It’s just a shame that some of the mini-games from the SARPBC didn’t get kept. But as we’ve talked about briefly, maybe the developers will opt to update the game with some new modes in the future.
So yes, Rocket League is a bit short on game modes and the like, but it’s hard to care when the core gameplay is this much fun, and I’m struggling to think of anything else that I could actually consider a genuine problem or flaw. Hell, I’m even finding it difficult to nit-pick here. Ultimately Rocket League isn’t a piece of art or an example of how videogames can be so much more than the stereotypical view of them. It doesn’t have a deeper meaning and it doesn’t even have hugely deep gameplay mechanics, although I maintain that there’s more for a skilled player to find that most gamers will ever realise. It doesn’t make us question our existence or debate morals. No, it’s just really, really fun, and that’s fine by me.