Rocket to me, baby!
Rocket League is one of those rare games that defies expectations and delivers a knuckle-bracing, sweat-inducing, expletive-erupting ‘sports’ experience that will leave you panting, “just one more” after every defeat and victory. Its fast and fluid gameplay are wonderfully tripled with a great soundtrack and bright, colorful visuals – and it is capital D-A-M-N fun. With a plethora of unlockables, experience points that determine your rank and opponent, and enough anxiety-producing gameplay that will leave you reaching for your Xanax bottle after every 5 minute match, Rocket League is an arcade sports game in a League Of Its Own (oof, that was cheap). Anyway, it’s pretty good.
The main concept in Rocket League, like many other sports, is simple: You’re a car, there’s a ball, and you want that ball in the goal…GO! However, the premise belies the incredible amount of depth, skill, and strategy that transpire in five minutes (the length of each match). Should I push up and play the aggressor, leaving myself open to possibility of a counter attack? Should I stay back and play Italian (turtle) style? Should I let my more skilled teammate do everything while I stay out of his/her way (answer: yes)? While these are some of the more obvious stylings of play found in pretty much any sports video game, Rocket League nails them and the resulting consequences with panache. Impressively, what keeps hitting me every time I kick up Steam and launch into a game is that every match is wildly different. And that’s a very good thing.
When you first start Rocket League, you’re presented with a pretty standard selection of choices: online, offline, exhibition, blah blah blah. There isn’t really anything to blow you away right from the gate, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing, since there isn’t anything that gets in the way either. Menu choices make noises, there’s obligatory electronic/dubstep playing in the background, there are colors, yada yada yada. There isn’t some sort of meta-game or card trading system that newer sports games seem to be leaning on, and there doesn’t need to be. The menu system, much like other arcade sports titles, is nothing more than a shell to wrap the game, as it should be.
However, there are some nice little touches. When you are waiting for an online match to start, for example, you can start Training mode and work on your skillzzz. Then, when your match starts it will take you straight from training mode into the game. If you are in a party, all of your party members’ cars will show lined up together in the main menu, and when someone modifies the look/make of their car, it will change in real time. Also, with a recent update that came out, when your car explodes it makes a little ‘BOOM’ text appear. Aww, so cute.
The real crux of Rocket League is its gameplay. There is a good number of different gameplay modes that you can choose from: online, 1v1, 2v2, 3v3, 4v4, ranked, private, season, exhibition, and training mode. They are all pretty much the same thing though, which means the longevity of the game rests solely on the laurels of its core gameplay. Which just happens to be dynamite.
The game pits two teams of rocket-powered cars against each other, each trying to score a giant, floaty ball into the other team’s goal. At the end of five minutes, the team with the most goals wins. To score a goal, players drive, smash, jump, pass, shoot, and boost their way around an oval shaped arena, with rocket boost refills scattered across the map. It’s a really dorky concept, but there’s an undeniable sense of YES when you play it. The game just works! It’s fast and explosive, thoughtful and strategic, dynamic and organic. Each match unfolds into a completely different experience than the last. Whether you are playing a “cat and mouse” one vs one, or a “throw-in-the-kitchen-sink” four vs four, every match has its own personality and feel.
The game is bright and colorful, and light enough that pretty much any PC rig can handle it with ease. You can customize your car layout in a variety of different ways, such as primary and secondary color, decals, external peripherals, country flags, and more. For the most part, the accessories and colors you add are just cosmetic, but the car models you choose seem to have different attributes, although this is just speculation, since there isn’t any actual confirmation in game.
In game, the visuals are smooth and polished, with different effects that sprinkle when you make contact with the ball, depending on the speed, power, and area of your car that you contact the ball with. Using your boost will create a motion blur effect when you reach top speed, and scoring a goal results in an explosion that sends any car nearby flying.
Additionally, there aren’t really any graphical artifacts or bugs that stick out, although there have been a couple times in the 60 plus hours I’ve played where I experienced slow down with matches online, although this could have been due to server issues, not visual fidelity. And yes, like every other recent game launch, it seems, the multiplayer servers have been having issues. Online play was hit hard and fast on day one, to the point where players couldn’t even join games. Luckily, the developers have been quick to address the issue by providing updates on twitter and upgrading server stability, and while there are still some hiccups here and there, for the most part online play is smooth and reliable.
So what can you expect from your purchase of Rocket League (or free download for PlayStation Plus members)? Do you get some bang for your 20 bucks? Absolutely. In the past decade, there hasn’t been a game that has enslaved my dreams, inspired more water-cooler gossip, or dominated my PC time like Rocket League. Why? When games like Fifa or Madden also offer competitive sports experiences, in arguably bigger, more well-funded packages, what does Rocket League do better?
It’s almost undefinable, but there is a different sort of exultation when you make that perfect pass to a friend who slams it home into the net, or the despair when you juuust mistime your jump to block a shot and it rockets home with no time to spare. It’s always on you.
Games like FIFA and Madden create simulation based, algorithmic passing and shooting, tackling and blocking, where you are as much at the mercy of the game’s physics calculations and AI intelligence as you are at your own skill. In Rocket League, you are never attached to the ball, and you can never fall prey to wonky gameplay that breaks the same rules it creates. Every shot, pass, dribble, and block is always on you. And that’s magic.
You make your own decisions, and every consequence or reward is of your own design. When you’re fist pumping an unbelievable goal, you’ve earned it. When your buddies are yelling at you because you totally botched an easy block, you’ve earned that too (although don’t yell at each other y’all, come on now).
The game is not only worth your money because it costs a third of what most other games cost, it’s worth your money because you can’t get the same kind of experience anywhere else.