July 7 2015
Rocket League hits home with punchy action, streamlined mechanics, and more polish than you’d expect from a game so humble
Nothing really prepared me for how much I would enjoy Rocket League. I remember watching the trailer for the game when it was announced as a free game for PS Plus subscribers back in July and thinking “that might be fun.” More than fifty hours in and I can now say that I definitely stand by that initial statement.
Rocket League does almost everything right when it comes to competitive online games: it has a system of suspiciously simple mechanics that can be pushed to the extreme to pull off stunts a beginner would have previously thought impossible. On top of that, the game is extremely polished and, despite providing a consistently even playing field, gives you character progression on top of that.
Rocket League is essentially soccer, played with cars, cars that have rockets jutting out from their rear-ends. While you can play a match with anywhere between one and four opponents, the rules are always the same: get the giant flashing ball into the opposing team’s net. Anyone familiar with the concept of “sports” will likely already have this goal internalized from simply being alive.
“I’ve seen little sports cars leap off a vertical wall, fly halfway across the field, then flip forward to slam the ball into my net”
The levels are simple, never consisting of more than a flat, rounded-at-the-corners rectangle with half-pipes that lead up the walls lining the arena. What this means is that you have line-of-sight on the ball at all times, even when it inevitably rolls up a wall and hits the ceiling after a big bounce.
Your tools are equally simple: you can accelerate, decelerate, e-brake (for those sick 180s), fire your rocket, and–maybe the most important verb in the game–you can jump. Not only that, you can DOUBLE jump. Double-jumping forwards or backwards will increase your speed in the given direction too so there’s definitely incentive to use it as often as possible.
After that description, it’s a little hard to imagine why the gameplay is as satisfying as it is. The truth is, it’s hard to describe. Something about the way the cars can turn on a dime, or maybe the way hitting max speed causes a miniature screen-pop and explosion sound effect to fire, or maybe it’s the feeling of scoring a goal by knocking the ball out of midair by blasting off a side-wall with your double jump. Whatever it is, Rocket League does a good job of turning an incredibly simple set of mechanics into something elegant and complex if handled by a professional.
lately I’ve started to get matched up with players that are pushing the simple “rocket make car go” mechanic to a new extreme: I’ve seen little sports cars leap off a vertical wall, fly halfway across the field, then flip forward to slam the ball into my net. I’ve seen rocket exhaust trailing behind someone who just flew in literal circles inside the crease to make a save.
What makes the game go from simple to complex has nothing to do with how many moves you unlock or how much you upgrade your wheels (neither of which you can do in Rocket League): it has everything to do with how you use the limited tools you’re given from the outset.
While Rocket League doesn’t offer up a million upgrades or perks for your car, you can definitely modify it. Everything from fezzes to Twitch flags to kitty decals to wood finishes to floating halos is available to you, not to mention the swath of actual car models available. What’s more, Psyonix has chosen to deliver all their DLC (so far) in the form of aesthetic upgrades so if you get bored of your matte red and orange cube van, why not try the Back to the Future Delorean to mix it up?
The stages themselves, while all shaped the same, have a lot to offer. The outer walls and ceiling are made of mesh and have beautiful vistas behind them. Whether it’s the reds and oranges of a setting sun or the cheering crowds that line the walls, there’s always something to pay attention to if you have a second to tear your eyes off the ball.
Unfortunately, hiding underneath all this glam and glitz is a sub-par matchmaking system with shaky servers. I have experienced matches going completely arwy because of lag or, more recently, players randomly quitting then joining then quitting then joining again all in the span of ten seconds.
Depending on the time of day, I’ve sat in the lobby for five minutes or more waiting to be matched despite the game telling me that there’s more than ten thousand people playing. What’s more, they have yet to provide a satisfying consequence for dropping out of a Ranked match and leaving your teammates high and dry (AI bots will fill empty spots in Casual play but not Ranked matches).
I should mention that there is a player progression system in Rocket League, and this may be what will cause late-game server issues. My theory is that the game is trying its best to pair you with players that match your skill level (represented by a simple leveling system) and, since the game’s player base may not be that large to begin with, you end up getting matched with Johnny Australia instead of players in your immediate vicinity. Whether this is the case or not, I can’t really consider Rocket League a perfect game until they’ve resolved these network issues.
But if you’re having trouble getting into a decent match, you can just play the campaign, right? Wrong. While the campaign–designed around the concept of playing a “season” against AI-controlled teams–does rely on the same solid gameplay, it is infinitely more boring. The AI leans largely on the three basic strategies to win and once you figure it out the challenge evaporates. Because of the lack of any engaging motivation/story beyond “beat these same guys over and over”, the single player mode really falls flat.
Still, even with the server issues and the bland campaign mode, Rocket League has knocked my socks off. As someone with no real affinity for sports games or online competitive games in general, I’m extremely pleased with the experience Psyonix is putting forward. The combination of variable gameplay and reliable audio/visual fidelity makes this game a keeper.
+ MAJOR: deep gameplay worth revisiting again and again
+ MAJOR: extremely polished audio/visual experience
+ MINOR: tons of extra goodies that don’t give unfair advantages
– MAJOR: server issues can ruin the online experience
– MINOR: campaign mode is laughable at best
Flipped Stomach is Mikael Raheem. He writes a lot of stuff, from fiction to game reviews to feature articles to bathroom stall phone numbers. You can find more of his work at flippedstomach.com or follow him on twitter: @flippedstomach.