Rocket League Review
Back in 2008, I reviewed this quirky little game called Supersonic Acrobatic Rocket-Powered Battle-Cars. It was a really creative version of soccer where the players were actually little race cars; they'd race around and smack into the ball, with the objective of knocking that ball across the opponent's goal line. It was a little digital-only 178MB title on the PlayStation Store and while certainly inventive and lots of fun, it also felt a little light (as you might expect, given the game's very small size). And no, it didn't sell very well. So, when I caught a glimpse of Rocket League earlier this year, I was confused; I didn't think the original warranted a sequel and yet, the review scores were shockingly high. What the heck is going on?
Well, let's start with the obvious: This new effort is a lot more advanced from both a technical and content standpoint. The graphics are extremely slick; they're colorful and appealing, the special effects are a great deal slicker and more diverse, and the arena design is exemplary. It's as if the team took all the elements of the first title and enhanced them to the nth degree, bringing out the very best of the inherently quirky yet attractive presentation. Even the blades of grass on the fields move independently, and the detail on each of the vehicles is eons better. Supersonic is now well over 7 years old and its age really shows when compared to its vastly improved successor.
The sound is in much the same boat, but I should note that while I played Rocket League with a top-tier headset, I only played the predecessor using regular ol' TV speakers. That does make a big difference, I'm sure. But I distinctly recall a lack of audio variety and quality in the first game and here, one notices a lot of different things. For instance, in the background you'll hear the crowd react enthusiastically to certain plays, and I don't remember that happening at all in the first game. The soundtrack is another big highlight in the new title, and I love how the effects and music work together to keep us immersed. As crazy as the concept is, the rock solid and even impressive technical aspects are often what keep us glued to the screen, and let's not forget that the addition of cosmetic customization further adds to the product's appeal.
At its core, Rocket League is simple: Knock a ball across a goal line using little speedy vehicles. Whoever scores the most goals wins. But beyond that simplicity is a hectic, no-holds-barred, ceaselessly entertaining - even addictive - game that gets into your bloodstream and won't let you stop. You don't even want to get up to go to the bathroom. Food becomes an annoyance. If your gaming sessions are frequently distracted by other people in the house, this is the one game that might make you throw something at those pesky invaders. You need razor-sharp reflexes and constant attention and diligence because without it, the action will simply pass you by. If you're up to the challenge, though, you'll be in for one hell of a madcap experience.
It's the split-second nature of the gameplay that is just so damn...exacting. It's also absolutely riveting. You don't want to look away and you're always planning out your next move; will you simply chase that ball all over the arena, throwing caution to the wind and constantly playing offense? Or will you start to use your team a little more and realize that opportunities often open up when the opposition makes a mistake? If you see an opening and pounce, it's the greatest feeling in the world. After all, just about any sports coach will tell you that so many times, the best defense will always beat the best offense. Of course, it can be lots more fun to chase the ball around like a chicken with its head cut off but therein lies the beauty of Rocket League: It's stupid simple but strangely, it has mesmerizing flow and, yes, even strategy.
The controls seem tighter and more responsive than they were before, and the ball physics also seem a great deal better. The greatly enhanced stadiums are immaculately designed and because the core gameplay is significantly improved, the fun factor goes through the roof. And it's really the overall design that makes the game because it just never stops. By that, I mean your momentum is absolutely everything and thanks to a whole lot of curved walls and edges, your car will never come to a jarring and disappointing halt. It's just a matter of controlling that speed and landing pinpoint-precision strikes on a ball that's a good deal bigger than your car. It sounds difficult and sometimes, it can be a challenge, but the level of satisfaction and intensity continues to rise with every passing minute.
You're not limited to the ground, either, as boosting can send you flying into the air. It's not exactly "verticality" in the strictest sense of the term but it opens things up, and means you can play offense and defense in mid-air. The only downside is a remnant of the first game, when it occasionally feels frustrating simply because you can't get into the flow of the match. It's like that sometimes; you just can't get a handle on the situation and you always feel like you're a step behind. But if you can get your nose in front, if you can start to control the tempo, everything tends to fall into place. However, I should mention that the AI isn't very good, so it's invariably better to hop online and play with other people. That's really the primary appeal of this game: Throwing down with someone else online and having a blast.
And while the concept is simple and the controls are tight and accessible, it'd be a mistake to assume the game itself is easy. In fact, it takes a lot of practice to properly handle that speedy little car; you can spin it forward, backward and even sideways, and it takes timing and finesse. Furthermore, you'll soon realize that it can help to target opposing cars instead of the ball... I wish the computer-controlled teammates were a little smarter because I would've liked to see them perform more advanced moves, so I'd trust them more in the open field. But even without that, you're so laser-focused on maintaining momentum and control that you rarely notice the flaws. And there aren't that many drawbacks, anyway. I do wish the single-player was a bit more fulfilling but I'm saying that a lot these days; it's probably just me.
Perhaps most interesting about this game is its obvious widespread appeal. That's one of the benefits of reviewing a game late, I suppose: You can see how the community has responded. And in point of fact, I have difficulty thinking of a title that is so highly regarded by so many. It obviously crosses boundaries and lines; it caters not to a specific group of fans, but simply to those who like fun games. Isn't it odd how few games these days actually manage to do that? In its stark simplicity is massive, almost universal appeal, and beneath that simplicity beats the heart of a surprisingly deep - and decidedly unique - sport. It's all about the timing and the reflexes and the flash and panache, yeah. But it has real spirit and it's not bogged down by any dead weight. It's not overdone or underdone. It just...is.
Rocket League is an extremely well designed and presented game, a veritable feast for the senses at times, and an undeniably addictive experience. It blends sports and styles but it also solidifies this bizarre hybrid into a streamlined, hugely appealing presentation. The AI falls a little shy and the single-player fun can't hold a candle to the multiplayer entertainment but besides that, it's hard to find fault. And why would you want to? This is not a game that's begging to be dissected or over-analyzed. It's not asking you to judge it from a distance or with a deeply probing piece-meal approach. It just asks you to try it. And if you do, don't be surprised at the whitened knuckles and the grins that keep exploding on your face; all of that is completely normal, I promise.
The Good: Excellent overall design and visual presentation. Tight, responsive controls. Simple and accessible but still surprisingly tactical. Continued sense of gleeful urgency. Fun factor is sky-high. Almost universally appealing. One of the better online multiplayer games of 2015.
The Bad: AI is lacking. Single-player not quite as addictive as multiplayer, unfortunately.
The Ugly: "If you can find ‘ugly' here, you're much too difficult to please."
12/21/2015 Ben Dutka