Wot I Think: Rocket League

Cars wot play football. Rocket League [official site] is daft concept treated with incredible care. The result is one of the most beautifully balanced, tense, exciting and skill-driven multiplayer games released in recent years. It’s absolutely brilliant.

When I tell people that I’ve fallen in love with a game about cars playing football, they’re not particularly surprised. It’s precisely the kind of thing I would obsess over, unable to understand why everyone can’t understand how much sense the concept makes. In the case of Rocket League, I’m not alone. The game launched last week, on Playstation and PC (with cross-platform play), and it seems to have charmed a fairly large portion of the world. A large enough portion that I never struggle to find a game, day or night, even when my Rocket League crew are at work or in bed.

I realised Rocket League was one of my favourite multiplayer games when I scored a goal by performing the equivalent of a bicycle kick. It’s important to remember that every player is a car. Not a person driving a car, I don’t think – they’re either sentient cars or controlled remotely. There are no drivers, just cars. Cars that can perform a bicycle kick. A car that can double-jump, redirecting itself in mid-air, spinning, piroutetting and throwing its body on the line to block attempts on goal.

In a regular match, there are three cars per team, which seems like the perfect number for five minutes of barely controlled chaos. When I play with my regular teammates rather than strangers, one player is assigned to goalkeeping. A good wallop will send the ball from one end of the pitch to the other in a couple of seconds so goalkeepers are rarely excluded from play for long. If the action is contained within the other half, usually during a violent scrabble for control, the goalkeeper often surges down the pitch, like a bullet from a gun, either slamming into an opponent or aiming at the ball, hoping to use the unexpected interruption and momentum to score a goal.

When not guarding their own goal, players are either attempting to break up the play of the opposing team or set up a goalshot of their own. Just as the size of the pitch allows for three players to comfortably play as a team, much of the game’s rhythm is determined by the SHAPE of the arena.

There are tutorials in Rocket League but I didn’t know that until I’d already become so damn good at being a car that tutorials were unnecessary. The tutorials probably tell you that knocking the ball into either of the corners in your opponents’ half is the best way to set up a goal. Large as it is, the ball tends to bounce around the arena, you see, and because the arenas are like bowls with curved edges, pushing the ball toward the corner tends to send it rolling across the front of the goal. When that happens, the opposing team will try to block it and your teammates will scramble around the goalmouth attempting to flick the ball over the line.

When that happens, the ball explodes, propelling every car in the vicinity across the pitch in slow motion.

It’s perfect, that explosion. If you’re on the defending team, it might knock your car backwards into the goal area, or send it spinning helplessly into the distance. It’s a punishing blow.

If you just scored, though, the explosion is a celebration. It makes your car dance, spiralling up into the air, PUNCHING the sky.

Whatever the case, it isn’t a violent explosion. Nothing in Rocket League is violent, even the initially surprising (temporary) annihilation of cars that collide when their engines have reached mega-ultra-boost speed and have become trembling machines of white hot fury. I’ve thought of futuresports as gunmetal gray, satirical slaughtergrounds on which referees and linesmen mop up the entrails at the end of every match. Blame Speedball and Rollerball.

Rocket League is a game of blue skies, vibrant colours and sheer joy. Not only will you want to play football with cars, you’ll understand why the people in this fictional world go to massive arenas to watch the sport live. It looks brilliant and the arenas have stands of spectators that curve around them, packed with flags and a festival atmosphere. In the final seconds of a match, the crowd chant the countdown to victory or loss. They gasp and groan when there’s a near miss and the whole ground shakes with the sound of their appreciation when somebody scores a spectacular goal.

All of that is important. That the crowd are worked into the visual and audio appeal of the matches makes Rocket League feel as authentic as it is daft. More importantly, the beauty of those bright arenas, which shine even during rainstorms, is as carefully crafted as the nuts and bolts beneath the surface. The short matches and simplicity of the singleplayer season mode (a solid but linear progression of fixtures with no sense of progression other than a wins-losses column and league table) might lead you to believe that Rocket League is a slight thing – a trifling diversion – but it’s an incredibly finely tuned machine of a game.

I mentioned how the size and shape of the arenas is integral to the flow of the matches and, in fact, the tactical heart of the sport. That’s true of everything in the game. Rather than being slight, it’s lean, with no wasted mass, a prizefighter right at the limits of its weight class. At first, I was slightly disappointed by the arenas, hoping for variety in the shape and maybe an obstacle or two thrown in, but Rocket League doesn’t need bloat. When additions come, I hope they’ll be as thoroughly playtested and measured as the current content.

Everything feels just right, from the double jumps and flips to the burn of the boost. The rules are simple, the controls are simple, and the tactics and inspired individual moments of improvisation that emerge are delightful. I’ve sworn at strangers on my own team (they can’t hear me) when they bump me aside as we both race toward a loose ball, and I’ve wasted precious seconds showboating on the rare occasions when I’m clearly in pole position to be named Car of the Match.

I love Rocket League. I love it because it’s a near-perfect example of game design; an invented sport that understands how to create feelings of triumph and tension, sometimes flipping the script in a few seconds of controlled chaos. That’s rare enough for me to recommend the game strongly to anyone who isn’t allergic to online play but there’s more: Rocket League takes place in a world I want to be a part of. It’s a place where sport is carnival, the playing field is level (no paid-for boosts or buffs here, just cosmetic unlocks), and competition doesn’t require blood, sweat or tears.

Oh, and I haven’t had any problems with lag or finding a game since the first few days, when the servers were shaky.

Rocket League is available now.

40 Comments

  1. geisler says:

    Servers are still shakey in my experience (EU servers), yesterday evening it was very hard to find games again. Apart from that, and the fact that the game sometimes really is nothing more than a random no-skill clusterfuck (especially 4v4), it’s been pretty fun. Pumped about 10 enjoyable hours into it so far.

  2. Xzi says:

    I had heard a lot of recommendations for this prior, but here I was sitting on my hands and thinking that it was a PS4 exclusive. Now I have to spend $20. Thanks Obama. I mean, RPS.

  3. Graeme says:

    Is this an updated remake of Wild Wheels? link to youtube.com

    • geisler says:

      Not a remake, but obviously inspired. It’s actually a remake or sequel to “Supersonic Acrobatic Rocket-Powered Battle-Cars” (same devs): link to youtube.com

  4. Matt_W says:

    Worth noting that this game is free this month on PS4 for Playstation Plus subscribers.

  5. donkeyspaceman says:

    I’ve been having a blast with this on PS4 the last few days. Here’s a gif of my favorite goal so far:

  6. Sp4rkR4t says:

    Servers are under a real strain since this game has proved so popular but the devs are very communicative on twitter and the game is just bloody marvelous.

  7. ikehaiku says:

    “Rocket League doesn’t need bloat” – I think you nailed it. That, I think is the greatest achievement of RL, and what makes its success. Everything is streamlined, there’s no gimmick things. And so they were able to balance everything so perfectly.

  8. int says:

    Hats on cars?!

  9. Cardinal says:

    Does anyone know if this plays well with mouse and keyboard?

    • Schaulustiger says:

      I play with M+KB and manage to do just fine.

      • lanelor says:

        Mouse & Keyboard are more then fine. Looking with mouse, while driving with KB gives better precision for me.

    • Xzi says:

      I’ve only had the chance to play against bots since I show 0 players online (server problems), but I’d say it plays better with a controller. Which is almost always going to be the case with driving/racing games, anyway. That said, it is manageable with KB/M, it just doesn’t flow quite as well IMO.

      • Loimographia says:

        fwiw, I think the devs have said that the zero-players display is a deliberate work-around to lighten loads on the servers, so you might try queueing up anyway.

        • Xzi says:

          Well, it also says no servers online and that I should try again later. Per their Twitter account it seems this is true.

          • HothMonster says:

            They may be down again currently but as he said even when up the server and player count has read 0 for the last few days. You also get the scrolling, “you are not connected to the servers” message on the bottom but that can also be ignored.

            I just check the twitter when I am in the mood to play and see how the servers are doing at the time because they have been up and down constantly since release.

  10. csbear says:

    Nice to see Mr. Smith write this… My video game tastes are pretty much identical to his, it’s scary (RPGs, turn based strategy, rougelike, horror, and the occasional wrastlin’ game ,etc.), so not too surprised to see he loved the action-y sport Rocket League as much as I have.

  11. DeepFried says:

    aaaaaaaaaand the servers are down.

    • caff says:

      Ah well… just bought this on Mr. Smith’s recommendation. I guess 6 billion other PC gamers have done likewise (or in reality it’s PS4 players killing it with their free trial. Console scum.)

      • Norskov says:

        Seeing as there’s “only” 16k ingame through Steam right now, and they had more than 150k concurrent the other day, I’m guessing you’re right. But with crossplay that’s good for us as well.

        • caff says:

          Yeah was only being ironic with the PCMR console dig. I think it’s healthy, just hope to see the devs coping with the demand! Their twitter feed suggests “panic” :-)

          • Xzi says:

            Surely they didn’t expect much more than moderate indie-level success, so I can’t blame the devs. Hopefully the surge of purchases allows them to expand their server capacity in a relatively timely manner, although it may take a few days to sort out.

  12. XX says:

    Surprised and pleased they didn’t do micro-transactions. Nosgoth was/is fun, but locked classes and renting weapons/skills left a slightly bitter taste.

  13. rodan32 says:

    Better than Duck Game?

  14. Fry says:

    Games based on old Top Gear episodes?

    The apocalypse is nigh.

  15. Sin Vega says:

    How did I not know about this? It’s like a long lost relative of Rocket Jockey. More unrealistic sport games, please!

  16. DeepFried says:

    I’ve played a few hours of it this eve, and apart from the fact that the matchmaking is clearly bursting at the seams, its alright. Sport games have never really been my thing in any guise, I can see the attraction but the wonky matchmaking ensures its not as much fun as It could be. Plus I get the distinct impression that the skill ceiling is higher that it seems at first, I was playing against some reasonable players and they rekt my team like 12-1, then my teammates dropped out and were replaced by AI, the two AI pretty much rekt the other team by themselves with me sitting in goal twiddling my thumbs.

    I think this is one of those games that is very fun if you get a balance match… except you hardly ever get a balanced match.

  17. TheAngriestHobo says:

    “…because the arenas are like bowls with curved edges, pushing the ball toward the corner tends to send it rolling across the front of the goal”

    I don’t get this. In every screenshot I’ve seen, the field (pitch to you barmy Brits ) (I don’t get your slang, but no one can curse like you) (back to back brackets are awesome) is perfectly flat. Does the ball defy the laws of physics? Or am I somehow misinterpreting what I’m seeing?

    • ButteringSundays says:

      It’s not slang, it’s just a word. An English word, of the English language. Assuming you’re American it even pre-dates your country.

    • DeepFried says:

      I’ll never understand why Americans decided to change perfectly good words in the English language, I guess it was just insecurity… We’re independent! we can do things our own way! we don’t need you! see this pitch? well its a FIELD now! suck it Brits!

  18. Premium User Badge

    Phasma Felis says:

    The field is flat, but the edges are rounded, like a quarter-pipe.

    I’m still not clear on how pushing the ball to the corner makes it roll across the front of the goal, though.

    • Qazi says:

      The corner is curved too. So by pushing the ball along the side, it hits the curved corner and redirects the ball into a cross.

  19. Premium User Badge

    Phasma Felis says:

    Right now, there is no purchase link anywhere on the official site that I can find. This seems like an odd oversight.

    If you actually want to buy the game, it’s on Steam: link to store.steampowered.com

  20. yxxxx says:

    Servers have been up and down like a yoyo but as has been said the devs have kept people upto date. It now seems that they have some freebies coming to say sorry for the servers.

    Some other devs could learn alot on how to deal with the inevitable server fall overs. mentioning no names.

  21. Edgar the Peaceful says:

    Goalshot, GOALSHOT!!!?.

    Are you @usasocceguy?

    Shot on goal, surely.