Rocket League Review
Insane but fleeting fun that feels a bit too reliant on luck
Rocket League is not a complex game. At least, not on the surface. You and up to three team-mates charge around an arena in RC-cars, attempting to corral a large, floaty ball into the spacious net of the opposing team while also preventing them from scoring on yours. You can boost, jump, and barrel roll in a variety of ways in order to help, but random luck seems to play as large a role as player skill when it comes to goal scoring.
While this premise probably sounds too thin to prop up an entire game, the mechanics have been tuned such that performing fairly simple maneuvers is surprisingly satisfying. There is so much randomness and chaos in any given match that simply timing your movement and speed such that you hit the ever-mobile ball in a helpful way is no mean feat. More often than not, you will come charging in from across the map with boosters activated in order to beat out the competition, only to either miss the ball entirely or hit it in some random direction that doesn’t really help anyone, only spurring another crazy chase across the arena.
The mechanics themselves are fairly straightforward when broken down, but offer a good deal of nuance. You drive around with normal controls as the basis of movement, with the car handling being extremely responsive and exacting. If you need some extra speed, you can use some of your precious boost, which depletes quickly but really sends you flying. Tapping another button causes you to jump; double pressing this button lets you double jump. The real fun comes when you jump while pushing the analog stick in a specific direction, causing the car to flip, barrel roll or cartwheel. If you perform the correct maneuver at the correct time, you can usually hit the ball in just the direction you want. Performing these moves amid the anarchy of a multiplayer game is a rare thrill that you will seek to recreate.
All of these mechanics gel together quite well, with a camera that can be switched to track the ball at all times, or to a traditional third-person driving cam with an arrow pointing to the ball's location. When you first get a basic handle on the controls, Rocket League is hilarious, insane fun. However, there will come a time for most players when they will grow bored with simply messing around, and they must decide if it is worth learning the mechanics in-depth or abandoning the game. Due to the incredibly random, chaotic nature of most matches with the ball flying in all kinds of directions and players running into each other, I expect the former group of players will become the dominant ones, with most people losing interest after perhaps a dozen hours. Whether this is enough entertainment to justify the price tag will be up to the individual.
While Rocket League does have a good number of offline options, ranging from a decently customizable exhibition mode where you can play with and against A, and ‘season’ mode which lets you complete longer tournaments, the game was clearly made with multiplayer in mind. The AI performs with incredible inconsistency, making seemingly impossible shots and performing terribly stupid moves like scoring on their own goal with equal frequency. These modes are useful for raw beginners to play around and figure out the controls (probably more so than the easily ignorable tutorials) so they don’t feel completely useless.
The options for multiplayer and online play are more impressive, and are one of the biggest draws of Rocket League. You can create a party with up to three others in order to play in ranked and unranked matches against other people, play custom games against AI, and even play local multiplayer thanks to the split screen support - given you have enough controllers. Close games against human opponents are exciting and hilarious as both teams have similar moments of success and failure, as the endlessly moving ball eludes players and bounces is unexpected directions.
There is a good amount of customization in Rocket League, although it is mostly cosmetic. Different car models seem to handle slightly differently although all cars seem to go at the same speed. You can jazz up your ride with flags, hats, custom paint and even what comes out of your car when you boost. These items are unlocked randomly at the end of matches, although their purely cosmetic nature made me struggle to get excited about a new unlock.
This intentionally silly customization is part of the overall vibrant, colorful style that keeps the game’s mood light and fun, with the cheering crowds cementing the soccer match-like atmosphere. Even when losing I never really became frustrated, always eager to make a last-minute comeback or looking forward to the next match where the potential for redemption and revenge always lingers. While matches only last five minutes, there is a powerful ‘just one more round’ factor that will keep you playing for longer than you might expect for a game that seems designed with shorts bursts of play in mind.
The game runs on a recent build of Unreal Engine 3, and looks quite sharp overall with different arenas boasting unique visual styles. The colorful visuals are underlined by an energetic electronic soundtrack that works well enough with the subject matter. The game ran great for me on PC, although the controls feel decidedly better with a controller compared to a keyboard and mouse. I did experience a bug where a single car in some games would remain invisible for an entire match, and some minor lag on some servers, though overall the package is fairly polished.
If you and some friends are looking for something fun and light-weight to mess around with this summer while waiting for fall releases, Rocket League should prove a worthy candidate. Playing with random strangers or with AI provides a significantly less enjoyable experience as it is the camaraderie and “oh man, did you see that!” moments that elevate the game above its simple premise. The promise of free content updates and the highly active community are further incentives to join the fun, though the staying power of the game is something that will be revealed only with time.