Written for Continue Play, recreated with permission.
Rocket League is bright, fast, loud, and hard, and one of the most enthralling games I’ve played all year.
Developed by Psyonix, Rocket League is the follow up to the little-known Supersonic Acrobatic Rocket-Powered Battle-Cars, a game which was originally released on PS3 back in 2008. Rocket League shares the same basic design principles as its predecessor, but Psyonix has taken everything a step further, dialing up the chaos – and the fun – several notches.
As a game, Rocket League can best as can be described as football (soccer for Americans) populated by rocket-powered cars. Teams of cars boost, spin, and smash into one another as they attempt to get a comically oversized ball into the opposing team’s goal. It’s equal parts physics sandbox and sports game, injected with nitrous oxide and set against a neon-infused aesthetic reminiscent of Tron.
Players are plopped in a semi-squared arena on colored sides, with a ball in the middle, and a countdown. From 0, players’ rocket-powered cars zip toward the ball, and merry chaos takes over. Scoring is accomplished by passing the ball through a barrier stretched across the front of the players’ respective goals. Play lasts for five minutes, and the team with the highest number of goals wins. In the event of a tie, the match goes into overtime, where the next score decides the match.
That’s really all there is to Rocket League. There is a season mode which creates a bracket of AI-controlled teams for the player to face off with for singleplayer, while online play comes in ranked and unranked flavors. There are also exhibition modes for single AI matches for you to hone your skills. There’s no narrative, no grandiose preamble, or any overwrought and pointless excuse for the cars to be in a sci-fi arena to begin with. There’s just you, other players, and some of the best in-game physics since Half Life 2.
Rocket League doesn’t busy itself with the details, and nor does it need to: its main focus is on knocking the ball about a giant pitch, and providing stupid amounts of fun in the process.
Rocket League‘s online modes are separated into Ranked and Unranked variants, which see you paired with players and teams of a similar skill level. These ranks mean that wading into the waters for the first time won’t find you pitted against others who are able to rocket through the air untethered by gravity; and advanced players won’t find themselves going 9-0 against unprepared and underskilled opponents. Ranked matches are available in teams of one, two, or three cars per side, while unranked matches also include a 4-a-side option – a mode aptly named “Chaos”.
Once a match has started, Rocket League goes off the rails almost immediately – and does so in exactly the right way. Players control forward and reverse, turn left and right, jump, and boost. That’s it. There aren’t any arcane sequences to learn, or frame-perfect inputs to master, players can even be dropped in without a tutorial and be playing within seconds. Although there are a few advanced techniques – which are laid out very effectively in the game’s tutorial – but play is largely built around teams coordinating to get the ball through the opponent’s goal, and to keep the ball out of a favorable shooting position for opponents.
Intelligent play comes from deciding when to rush, when to hold, when to gauge the field looking for an opening, and when to put pressure on the opposition to try to poke holes in their defense. The game is equally suited to fast-reaction play as it is to thoughtful, patient defense. The system doesn’t really prioritize either strategy, and the simple controls enable spectacular options for both styles.
Triumphant saves and hard-fought goals feel like the stuff of legend, and eking out a last-second victory carries the same adrenaline high that keeps sports fans packed into stadiums and screaming victory in the streets.
Any player, if given enough time, will have a Hail Mary goal or a monumental, game-saving block. Skill in Rocket League is rewarded with consistent opportunities and successes, but there’s no real barrier preventing you from achieving a goal-scoring punt, or rushing just in time to divert what would’ve been a game-changing goal.
Rocket League is also incredibly pretty, its lush arenas varying between the relative calm of quiet practice fields and the explosive energy of packed stadiums.
The cars themselves are beautifully rendered, enhanced by some gorgeous lighting and detailed modelling work. Rocket League requires a keen strategic mind in order to master navigating its inner workings, but feels natural from the very first play, avoiding the pitfalls of other sports games which go so far in their pursuit to add depth that they sacrifice accessibility. Cars explode in massive fireballs when players collide at high speeds, boosts announce their activation with distinctive visual trails and audio cues, and the ball pulses with different colors depending on where it is in the arena.
But while a match of Rocket League is certainly action-packed, the visual display is never so heavy-handed that it threatens to obscure the details, allowing you to appreciate the mayhem occupying your peripheral vision whilst still focusing on the goal at hand.
Unfortunately, the game’s soundtrack is a little lacking. There’s a small array of electronica tracks which play between matches, but once play starts, background music disappears and all that remains is the sounds of engine noise, player boosts, jump mechanisms, and metal-warping collisions. Audio doesn’t meet the same standard of quality as the wonderful, well-realized arenas.
The arenas are populated with the right kinds of sounds – boosts igniting, the chaos of crashes, the cheers of the audience – the lack of background music doesn’t round out the soundscape as much as it should. The sounds that are there sound amazing; but the music that isn’t makes it all feel a little absent.
Without music, the on-screen action occasionally lacks impact; the dizzying highs and crushing lows feel somewhat neutered without accompaniment. It’s a small point, but one that lingers longer than it should. A minor flaw that grates in an otherwise remarkable experience.
Likewise, though Steam and PlayStation Network integration are both seamless, there isn’t much in the menu to show that players are in a party, or much indication that party play is available. While Rocket League is perfect for party play, but it doesn’t feel the part at first.
This is thankfully mitigated by the inclusion of up to four player split-screen co-op, which is otherwise becoming all too rare in modern gaming. Many potential fans are likely to decide that the game isn’t for them without ever having experienced the triumphs and catastrophes Rocket League is built around.
Outside of couch co-op, there’s also cross-play between PS4 and PC copies of the game, which means players are never hard pressed to find someone to play with, thanks to a twice-as-large player base. And with Psyonix proudly declaring that the game has breached the 5 million download mark earlier this week, it’s unlikely that the population will ever decline.
On paper, Rocket League doesn’t seem like a game that should be terribly compelling. The straightforward mechanics aren’t really complex, and it doesn’t seem like mastery should be all that elusive. However, it’s a game that continues to have spectacular moments, for all players.
That kind of accessibility in games is practically unheard of, and in a game that enables high level play as well as chaotic luck, is practically a superpower in itself. Psyonix has crafted a fantastic game that’s just short of near perfection, but remains an essential purchase.