Rocket Arena Review
Some genres don't need big marketing campaigns or artsy cinematic trailers. Sometimes, all you want to do is jump into a game quick, get some action, and hop into the next match. That's the sort of experience that Rocket Arena hopes to deliver, a new game that was introduced at an Electronic Arts event a few weeks back. It pits two small teams of 3 players against each other with the hopes of knocking each other out of the arena. Its concept is simple and accessible, and some of the mechanics are unique, but a lack of content, some design issues, and so little to strive towards make the $30 asking price a bit of a tough hurdle to clear.
Rocket Arena pits two teams of three players against each other in small arenas. This is a hero shooter, so before each match begins you can pick what character you want to play as, and they are locked in for the entire duration of the match, which is usually fairly brief at 5 or so minutes. While you can coordinate with teammates to create a synergy of characters that best fit together, and fit the mode you're about to play, you cannot see what your opponents are selecting. As such, your strategy is limited and there's no "countering" of other heroes. Each of the characters has the same amount of health and attributes – at least, that's the assumption since the game doesn't specify. So instead each hero is differentiated by having three different attacks/abilities - Primary Fire, Secondary fire, and an Ability.
The lineup of heroes is fairly diverse in their function and attacks, letting players find the hero that suits them best. Interestingly enough, despite the name Rocket Arena, many of the heroes don't even shoot rockets or projectiles that behave as rockets. The Primary Fire for many heroes resembles cannon balls or other projectiles that actually have a downward curve, requiring you to adjust aim; some you can just keep clicking to shoot, others you need to hold the button to charge up. Heroes also have different ranges for their Primary Fire, thus needing to be closer to the enemy to actually be effective.
When things start to get interesting is using the Secondary Fire and Abilities. The alternate fire usually has some sort of effect or function to it. For example, Izell can pull opponents forward her, Plink can toss a ricocheting boomerang, and Rev launches sticky mines. The secondary attack usually focuses on offense, but there's Mysteen's shield and Kayi's forcefield for defensive options. Last but not least are the Abilities, which usually focus on providing positional advantage over damage dealing. Boone creates a wind blast to push enemies and himself away, and Blastbeard has a similar shockwave ability. Izell has a far reaching lunge attack, while Kayi has a grappling hook. It certainly takes a few matches to become comfortable with each character, and some feel more useful than others. In objective based modes, Boone and Blastbeard are key to keep enemies off the location, while Topnotch and Plink have area of effect abilities.
The hero selection will vary depending on the mode. Rocket Arena offers a Social playlist, where a variety of modes and maps are randomly offered when you matchmake. Knockout is the straightforward mode where your only goal is to get the opponents out of the Arena. Mega Rocket is a King of the Hill type, where players fight over control of certain spots of the map that moves around after one team claims it. Rocket Ball is a game of trying to get a ball into the opponent's base via passing and throwing it. Lastly, Treasure Hunt has teams fighting over a chest to try and hold it the longest, while intermittently also collecting coins that appear across the level. All of the modes can produce some entertaining moments, and are functional, if not particularly original. If you're feeling competitive, you can venture into Ranked play where only Knockout is possible. You can also choose to play only Knockout but in the Social playlist, or just practice against bots in Rocketbot attack.
The maps themselves are varied at least in terms of visual design – there's a desert canyon, a ship in the sky, a castle, and so on. There are 10 maps at launch, but in many hours of play, some of them have yet to appear even once in random matchmaking. There are 10 characters at launch, and the community seems to be using most of them during play. The developers promise more maps and heroes will be added over time for free to help provide variety.
Before getting into a real match, there is a tutorial the briefly explains the gameplay mechanics. Shooting foes with your primary/alt fire is straightforward, and using your Abilities effectively comes with practice. But the unique aspects of the game come in the form of movement and knockouts. Players can triple-jump, but also shoot at their feet or at an angle towards a wall in order to propel themselves upwards. You must also stay away from the edges and some pits of the maps, because touching the borders results in your getting knocked out and watching your hero float around to a new respawn point. Other than trying to push your enemies towards the edges or off the map, you can also knock them out by dealing enough damage, which makes them vulnerable. In this state, the next shot can send them flying out, helplessly. But if they sneak away and wait a while, the meter resets. The action can have a lot of pace to it when the two teams collide and all abilities get fired off, requiring some decently fast reflexes and precise aiming.
There's certainly some strong Smash Bros inspiration here, along with the movement options of TF2's Soldier. In practice, though, there are some issues. The extended movement abilities from rocket jumping are pretty much never needed because all of the maps are very small and have no verticality to speak of. Everything can be reached by regular jumps, or by taking a walking path. There might be a very rare case on maps that have pits you have to scramble out of, but most of the time it's easy to forget you can rocket boost.
And it's also maybe not even something you want to do – while the Smash Bros-like mechanics work and create an interesting twist on the combat, a major problem is the fact that most heroes have no way to come back down to the ground. Anytime you start getting hit, it's going to push you up and up, almost like a juggle. The game calls it getting stunned – as your hero helplessly pirouettes through the air while getting hit by enemy fire. Your only ability to get out of this is a dodge, but after that you're hopeless again – and dodging has a painful 6 second cooldown. If two enemies focus-fire you, there is not a single thing you can do about it, other than hang mid-air and take it, while they knock you out by either damage dealing or pushing you to the edge of arena. Other than a couple of heroes that have a movement option (like the grapple hook or teleport), it's over for most characters as soon as they get punted high into the air for all enemies to see and shoot at. So, it's probably safest to stay grounded and work with your team to eliminate enemies that are close to the knockout threshold. It's certainly not the high-flying combat experience that you might have expected; in fact the gameplay mechanics encourage the opposite.
To inject some more variety into the gameplay, the maps have random temporary pickups for your hero, such as a speed boost, a mine to place, a grenade to lob, or a magnet that catches all incoming rockets within an area. The pickups help to slightly tweak the engagements, but don't have a ton of impact, as there is crucially no ability to heal/reduce your knockout danger meter without simply hiding for a while. Another way to customize your gameplay is by equipping three artifacts. Each of the three artifacts offers a passive boost, whether it's reduced damage, increased dodge distance, bigger jumps, and so on. You can helpfully equip artifacts per hero, or apply the same loadout to all. The artifacts can also be leveled over time to increase their effectiveness, and you also unlock new ones to use.
In addition to the casual modes, there is an attempt to have a competitive ranked mode, but the nature of the game and its mechanics seem counterposed to it. The biggest issue is perhaps the respawns. When getting knocked out, as mentioned you then get randomly floated over to another part of the map, and re-enter the arena. Having a random respawn mechanic like this can easily cost you points and games, if the game decides to put you really far away from the objective. Sure, the artifacts are all at their max level so players are even that way, but again not seeing what heroes your opponents choose limits your strategy.
Unlocking of new artifacts and boosting their effectiveness is the only gameplay-impacting system to work towards. Otherwise, all of the heroes remain the same no matter their level and how long you've used them for. This keeps the gameplay more or less balanced between newcomers and those that have been around since launch. Instead, players work towards unlocking visual customization items in the form of new outfit colors for each hero, as well as the banner that appears behind you at the start and end of a match. It's a rather limited and dull visual customization system, and certainly not a reason why players might stick with Rocket Area.
Speaking of players, the game has had a rather quick announcement-to-launch timeline, and with a fairly generic name, the online populace isn't exactly huge. Over the launch weekend, matchmaking times for casual and competitive modes sometimes took over a minute, whether you're playing solo or in a pre-made team of 3. It's common to get matchmade with the same people over and over. And all of this happens even when cross-platform play is on, so you're getting matched with users from Origin, Steam, and consoles. It's not a strong start, but perhaps there is hope yet – developers promise new content at the end of the month.
While Rocket Arena has at least some original ideas under the hood, the same can't be said about its look. The highly generic and very kid-focused art style makes the game seem even more suited to younger audiences than Fortnite. There's just nothing memorable about the visuals or the levels, and the music is so soft that it may as well be taken directly from The Sims franchise. There is no edge or thrills to the action from the presentation perspective.
Rocket Arena arrives at a time when the shooter market is heavily contested, and offers only a couple of unique ideas under a layer of very generic presentation. The variety of heroes and their abilities can be fun to utilize, but the balance is a bit questionable, and the strategic options limited since respawns are random and you can’t see the other team until the match begins. There's not much to grind towards, other than artifact boosts and limited customization items. Perhaps most challenging of all is the $30 asking price, for which you don't get a whole ton of content. It doesn't even compare favorably to EA's own better designed and more varied PVZ Garden Warfare franchise. There's more content coming to Rocket Arena, but whether or not there will be a long lasting community to enjoy it is the question.