We’re pretty cynical about “major league” sports video games at Ars Technica. Mostly, their annual team roster updates rub us the wrong way, and that tradition makes even less sense in an always-online, easily patchable gaming world. But that doesn’t mean we hate sports games. Here’s the thing: virtual versions of baseball, basketball, or hockey don’t always need to be bleedin’ authentic.
We’d go so far as to say the most lasting sports video games of our time have reduced their major-league counterparts to simpler abstractions. One of the earliest examples, 1983’s One On One, won out by stripping basketball down to its barest bits (perhaps because the Apple II couldn’t handle more than two richly animated characters at once). 1988’s Tecmo Bowl was a rock-paper-scissors classic, yet it contained so little of American football’s defining characteristics that it might have been laughed out of the NES generation had it not contained “real-life” players like Bo Jackson.
Similar praise goes to the NES’s one-two hockey punch of Blades of Steel and Ice Hockey, along with the rise of ’90s sports-arcade games like Virtua Tennis, NBA Jam, NFL Blitz, and Wayne Gretzky’s 3D Hockey. The genre slowed down somewhat after American arcades crashed in the late ’90s, but the genre has recently resurfaced thanks to an indie renaissance, fueled both by weird, indie “digital sports” (particularly the 2014 Sportsfriends bundle) and by non-licensed, semi-authentic fare like Super Mega Baseball.
So this is the perfect time for a video game to walk the line between authentic and zany sports action, and Rocket League is quite possibly the most satisfyingly skill-based game we’ve ever seen in the genre. The elevator pitch is pretty great—”soccer with cars“—but the real winning point, and the reason we’re overlooking the game’s early hiccups, is that we’ve never played such a comfortable and controllable action-driving game.
Is it a “bicycle” kick if it’s by a car?
Rocket League doesn’t come with any semblance of plot; there’s no explanation as to why giant, glass-walled arenas have been built to support three-on-three contests of automotive footie, let alone why these arenas lack ventilation systems to relieve the fields of so much exhaust. No matter. You’re in a car, there’s a giant ball, and you and your teammates have to get it in the opposing team’s goal while keeping it out of your own. Cars don’t come with any gizmos, items, or weapons that they can use to handle or control the ball; all they can do is drive into it.
Your car comes with a few tricks, and the most important is a jump. Hop with a tap, then trigger a single, mid-air boost by “jumping” again. This can work as a double-jump if you want to get some air, but players can also do a rapid, forward flip by pressing forward on the joystick, which both offers a speed boost and can be used to “kick” the ball. Should players want to quickly veer to the left or right, or pull off a more angled kick, they can also air-boost to the left or right to rotate in those directions.
This simple air-boost system goes a long way toward making the cars feel more controllable and precise, especially in terms of lining up kicks. Those little, last-second boosts make a big difference when you only have a millisecond to slam a ball into a goal, lob a “center” kick toward a teammate, or clear the ball out of your zone when an attacker slams the pedal to the metal.
Drivers can hold down a “drift” button for quicker turns and 180-degree spins, which they’ll need to use a lot, especially when a scrum of cars collides and a ball slams the opposite direction of what you might expect. A nitro button offers speed boosts, but nitro depletes quickly and must be recharged by driving over little yellow pods on the field; each depletes when touched and refills about five seconds later. Nitro also powers the game’s sole “attack,” which is to slam directly into an opposing player when you’ve held down nitro for a full 1.5 seconds. That’ll blow the opposing player up, and they must wait about two seconds to respawn—pretty quick, but in a heated scramble to kick a goal, that time span can make all the difference on either side of the ball.
Though the third-person camera always hangs a little above your car, you can toggle it to “chase” the ball, which dramatically helps players to keep up with the action. The chase camera moves gently even during frantic action, so it’s very comfortable to enable.
In our earliest tests of the game, we wondered where the heck the items, power-ups, and weapons were. Just driving into a ball? That’s it? But the more we’ve played Rocket League, the more we came to appreciate just how smooth and accessible its control scheme really is and how removing all other distractions and options forces players to become very, very talented ball-kicking drivers.
Really, there’s nothing quite like jumping and nitro-ing in mid-air (yes, you can aim your car to essentially fly a short distance) to block an on-target kick, or blowing up an attacker before it can pull off a game-tying kick, or setting up a perfect wall-bounce center pass to a teammate’s bicycle kick. (You’ll want to hit the “save replay” option after many of your matches, and the replay viewer here is quite robust.) The air-boost feature makes lining up accurate shots and passes simple and fun on the fly. Plus, most soccer games more-or-less attach the ball to the player’s feet. Here, how you connect with the ball while dribbling down the field is actually a core part of the gameplay, and it’s incredibly satisfying to pull off.
Having played on both PlayStation 4 and a quad-core PC, we found play looked smooth and beautiful on both platforms. The aesthetics err on the side of bright simplicity, with individual blades of grass, easily discernible cars on the field, cool customization options, and some decent weather and particle effects, to boot. But should players want the best Rocket League experience, they’ll want to pony up for the PC version, which maxes out at a 60 frames-per-second refresh, even in four-player split-screen, that the PS4 edition’s stable 30 FPS can’t match.
The major catch, for now, is that the game launched with some unbearably bad servers—and players can’t matchmake directly with each other, so the game has mostly left hopeful online players stranded since its Tuesday launch. Whenever the developers at Psyonix get their systems in order, those servers will support cross-play between PlayStation and PC owners. When we did manage to play online, and we were connected to a local server, online gameplay was incredibly smooth, and we rarely ran into circumstances where we missed an apparent shot due to lag.
The game also includes a local “season” mode, but unless you have two other friends join you, you’ll be matched with—and against—AI drivers, and their intelligence scales on both sides of the ball based on difficulty level. That means a “rookie” season will include teammates who have been paid off by the mob to play badly and sabotage their own team. Still, it’s a good mode for learning the ropes, beyond the game’s copious training options, and it, like every other mode in the game, randomly unlocks more cars, paint designs, hats, and other aesthetic options the more you play.
Rocket League’s major caveat—a frozen-for-days online mode—is about as big as they come in 2015, and until that issue is resolved, you’ll want to be aware that you’re buying a local-multiplayer game in the short term. But man, is it good. It’s not necessarily better than the other major arcade-soccer game of our time, 2007’s Mario Strikers Charged, but it goes in such a compelling direction that both titles deserve to share that narrow genre’s crown.
More importantly, it crushes the car-action competition. Rocket League draws inspiration from over a decade of games like Twisted Metal, Vigilante 8, and Mario Kart‘s battle modes, and it spit-shines the pure driving and maneuvering parts to make its core gameplay loop feel like no driving game ever made before it.
- The fast, high-jumping cars feel incredible to drive and maneuver.
- Core cars-on-soccer gameplay shines even without weapons or power-ups.
- Clean, crisp, bright aesthetics make it easy to pick out teammates and shot opportunities in hectic matches.
- Split-screen play runs smoothly on all platforms.
- AI teammates leave a lot to be desired in solo “season” mode.
- The game doesn’t offer any other weird challenges or danger-filled arenas; you are only getting basic soccer-styled contests here.
- The game launched with criminally broken online servers, and even without those in effect, players can’t directly connect with friends to matchmake in the meantime.
Verdict: Buy it if you have four controllers for one of the best couch games of the year; wait for working online modes if you don’t.
Listing image by Psyonix