The RPS Advent Calendar, Dec 24th: Rocket League

What is the best game of 2015? The RPS Advent Calendar highlights our favourite games from throughout the year, and behind today’s door is…

Rocket League!

Graham: When Adam suggested we should review Rocket League, I didn’t disagree, but I did say that I thought “it looks like a novelty UT2003 mod.” Maybe I was tired, because I’m not sure why I thought that was a bad thing; I used to love novelty Unreal Tournament 2003 mods.

I wasn’t far wrong, either. Rocket League is partly designed and programmed by David Hagewood, who earlier in his career worked on the vehicle physics for Unreal Tournament 2004. But what elevates Rocket League beyond the novel silliness of its premise – it’s football but the players are cars and the ball is floaty and larger than you – is the finesse you can wring from its controls. It feels like a game that’s had at least 11 years of thought put into it.

For example, you can jump your car into the air and then, when airborne, angle yourself in a new direction. Then you can jump again before touching the ground, triggering the kind of tumbles and somersaults that allow for the vehicular equivalents of diving headers, overhead kicks, and Hollywood goal line saves. With enough practice, you can then start using your car’s boost ability to prolong your airtime. The internet is full of people using these abilities to perform miraculous maneuvers, leaping into the air at one end of the pitch, seeming to catch the ball in mid-air, and then balancing it atop themselves as they chaperon it into their opponent’s goal at the other end of the pitch.

I never get anywhere close to that level of skill, but every interaction with the game at the shallow end of its skill curve is equally as satisfying. Cars accelerate to their maximum speed almost instantly and brake just as fast, which makes simply moving around fun. When combined with the relatively small playing field, this also means you’re never far from the action, even if you’ve decided to hang back to defend. There are no hard edges or corners on that playing field either which means you don’t crash into walls but instead drive smoothly up them, and your car has enough grip that you can comfortably drive vertically or even on the ceiling if you’ve got a little boost.

Best of all, that big, floaty, bouncy beachball you’re trying to steer towards the goal is big, floaty and bouncy, which makes predicting its short-term path and positioning yourself underneath it easily possible, but predicting its long-term path extremely difficult. This means everyone, even the most inexperienced of players, has time to line up a punt as it drifts towards the ground, but it also means that the most experienced players can’t ever be ball-hogs.

Rocket League is a game with a high skill ceiling but one where you can have a great time being crap at it. Its physics are predictable where it counts, and it’s well defined to the extent that I can imagine the feeling of playing it as clearly as if I was playing it right now.

I will go play it right now. Rocket League is smartly designed, the culmination of years of refinement. Rocket League is fast, fun, care-free, and about footballing cars wearing wizard hats. Rocket League can be played at the highest levels by those who crave skill and progression. Rocket League can be played by people who are drunk and tired and looking for a laugh. Rocket League is a game for everyone.

Alec: The game that made me play a sports game. The game that made me feel like people do about sport. The game that stealthed an entire ethos of competition, skill, self-betterment and teamwork behind the lines of an audience that traditionally hates and fears those things, unless it involves pointing a pretend gun at someone.

It’s OK to be rubbish at Rocket League, that’s the thing. Its physics, its speed and the size of its arena is such that you always feel as though you’re contributing something useful even when you and your team are losing disastrously.

Simply hitting the ball is thrilling, partly because you’re doing so with a rocket-powered absurdo-car, and partly because hitting a ball is thrilling, at least when a whole bunch of other people are trying to stop you from doing so. But on top of that you get to hit buttons and crazy things happen: you’re flying, you’re driving up a wall, you’re making a goal explode, you just rebounded 30 feet because you ran into a car wearing a top hat at 90 miles per hour.

Any Rocket League match is the edited highlights of the football matches it’s based on: there’s no deadtime, no long stretches when tired men trot around waiting for a whistle to blow, no cynical defensive lockdowns or over-dramatised injuries, no waits for substitutes or tedious half-time analysis. It’s just gogogo, pure sport without the boring bits. A dream, a delight, a perfect construction, the most obvious game of all time, the most necessary game.

Pip: I am bad at Rocket League but it doesn’t seem to matter. To be more exact, there are situations where it matters a little bit or I wish I was better because goals are always nice to score, rocket-powered car or no BUT I don’t think skill has ever got in the way of me having fun.

Most of the multiplayer games I play are these big things that take upwards of half an hour and involve a lot of other people. Screw-ups are generally treated less kindly. There are a lot of reasons for that but I’d say the time investment plays a part, plus you might see a kind of one-upmanship when it comes to knowledge or skill. Frustrations amplify and it can be pretty easy to slide into having a bad game or leaving a match in a bad mood.

With Rocket League you are a cheery rocket-powered car zooming around a field and trying to score goals, often while wearing a snazzy hat of some kind and spitting glitter from your exhaust pipe. It’s simple to grasp and if you’re good at it you get to look great in the goal replays. If you aren’t you still get to be a rocket car. Maybe some people take it too seriously and are trying to become Rocket Car Ronaldo. I haven’t encountered them. Instead I charge around in my wizard-hatted racer giggling with my friends.

Adam: I am the person who is trying to become Rocket Car Ronaldo. It’s me. The Messi of Motors. The Kaká of…car-cars.

I am in full agreement with everything that has already been said – Rocket League is a game with a fascinating pedigree, as Graham points out, and a game that knows when and how to apply its rules and physics in order to create maximum silliness while rewarding skill all the time. It’s a game that can provide entertainment in short bursts and with minimal palaver and recriminations toward team-mates, as Pip rightly says. And its entire structure, from the size of the arena to the absurdity of the premise, is spectacularly machined, as Alec describes.

Although I’m still far from a world class competitor, I’ve put in the hours, playing with friends and strangers alike, and I’m mastering the art of Rocket League. The most surprising revelation is how much of a team game it is. People assume roles, quite naturally, and it’s entirely plausible to find you’re better in defense than attack, better at marshalling forces from the vantage point of your own goal-mouth than at bombing down the pitch looking for that one perfect deflection.

And yet it’s also a game in which everyone contributes at all times. The design of the sport itself – which is as much a combination of air hockey and tennis as it is association football – is superb and the arena is perfectly tuned. It’s a simple construct but in the marvelous way that a wheel or a bowl or a spoon is a simple construct; it does the job perfectly and you’d struggle to improve it.

There’s no faffing. That’s important. I don’t mind games that make me work as long as the reward is worthwhile but Rocket League is all reward and no labour. You don’t need to understand torque or offside or tournament regulations or substitutions or throttle or choke or engine heat – you just need to understand that cars go fast and balls bounce.

Rocket League is a game about cars playing football, and I’m not sure I’ve ever enjoyed a game about football or cars quite this much in the three decades I’ve been playing.

Go here for more of our picks for the best PC games of 2015.

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47 Comments

  1. Scott Constantine says:

    Excellent to see a multiplayer in the top spot.

    The RPS Community had an interesting experiment earlier in the year, when the Rocket Leagueness was at its peak; our own league. It was pretty successful, including the release of many pretty entertaining match commentaries. Would love to do something like it again during 2016:

    link to rockpapershotgun.com

  2. trashmyego says:

    I don’t know what makes me happier. That this wonderful game took the top spot, or that Fallout 4 wasn’t anywhere on the list. It’s a Christmas miracle!

  3. JonClaw says:

    Rocket League is on pace to be the quickest game I break the 100-hour mark on. Easily my GOTY.

    • geisler says:

      I’m well past the 200-mark myself, playing it daily since launch. Still playing pretty poor as i’m only ranked Silver through.

  4. thedosbox says:

    Thanks to all the RPS writers for this years write-ups – they’ve all been very entertaining.

    “Adam: I am the person who is trying to become Rocket Car Ronaldo. It’s me. The Messi of Motors. The Kaká of…car-cars.

    Kieron would be so proud.

  5. Premium User Badge

    Swordfishtrombone says:

    This is certainly me being extremely dense, but: what’s an ‘x game’?

    • Nereus says:

      It’s the campaign section of Activision’s new franchise, Call of Naughts and Crosses.

  6. Premium User Badge

    Thulsa Hex says:

    Rocket League is one of the gamiest games I’ve played in a long while, and I love it for it! I played it periodically to punctuate the bottomless depths of the Witcher 3 and MGSV, and it was like coming up for air each time. Reminds me of late-90s/early-2000s gaming in all the right ways — and not a 56k modem in sight. Glorious.

  7. Edgar the Peaceful says:

    I suspect that ‘x’ was meant to be replaced before publishing. Perhaps they couldn’t decide what to put there?

  8. draglikepull says:

    It’s not my personal GOTY (that honour goes to Metal Gear Solid 5), but Rocket League is definitely pretty high up there. It was absurdly fun when it was new, though I have petered out on it since then.

  9. Flavour Beans says:

    I’m entirely surprised, but not at all disappointed. Great choice.

  10. wondermoth says:

    The greatest sports game of all time.

  11. airtekh says:

    It’s not often I agree with RPS’s GOTY choice, but I absolutely do this year.

    It’s a wonderful little game Rocket League, and deserves every bit of success it gets. I’ve played it for 150 hours so far this year, and I’m sure I will be playing it well into the new year as well.

  12. Hmm-Hmm. says:

    Whether or not one has a different favourite, I doubt many will begrudge Rocket League the praise it’s received. Nice pick!

  13. Viral Frog says:

    I sat and wondered all month what would be the top pick. Then I bought Rocket League on the first day of the Steam winter sale, played my first online match, and instantly knew.

    I came in with the preconception that it was going to be a gimmicky sports game with fancy cars and not much else going for it. How wrong I was. I haven’t had that giddy feeling playing a game since the last time I played Super Smash Bros.

    I’m pretty sure my family and friends are already sick to death of hearing the words ‘Rocket’ and ‘League’ and ‘is awesome’ spewing from my mouth.

  14. daphne says:

    A fair choice. Thanks RPS for your picks this year — and some you didn’t pick.

  15. Sin Vega says:

    Still not played this, for boring reasons, but I definitely will. It feels like it’s long overdue, and I hope it inspires more distilled video game sports, not the dreary Real Sport simulators we’ve had for most of this millennium. It seems doubly weird considering the rise of (sigh) e-sport/pro gaming. Come on, games! Where are the other games like this? Where’s karate football? Where’s Interplanetary Golf? Where’s Jetpack Hockey? Where’s the Rocket Jockey remake?

    • DelrueOfDetroit says:

      This game does have hockey in it now too. I actually like it better than the core game. I am not sure if it is only a seasonal game mode, though.

      • Kitsunin says:

        The hockey mode definitely feels a lot more friendly to newbies since there’s very little aerial game, which is easily the toughest part to figure out.

  16. DelrueOfDetroit says:

    I think one of the reasons for this game’s success is the fact that it is so new and fresh. Everybody pretty much started out at the same level. It is not like buying the newest FPS game where most people playing have already put hundreds of hours into Counterstrike or Quake or Battlefield ect. and as such you are at a major disadvantage for a huge length of time because you lack a lot of the fundamental skills the game assumes you already have.

    Also, “What a save!” everytime after scoring a goal makes you a massive knob. Stop it.

  17. Servicemaster says:

    I have put almost 400 hours into this game. Over 2000 matches and even over 30 Bicycle goals. It fell under my radar but my brother and his friend kept playing it. I was super poor at the time and my bro bought it for me, now he doesn’t play it anymore because I put so much time and effort that I can aerial over him and save his goals in ways that other people can’t contemplate while they fumble over their buttons.

    My point is this isn’t just a new game: It’s a new sport. If you take into account the entire world’s obsession with football and combine it with goddamn rocket powered cars, you’re going to have a good time. And when it’s as finely-tuned as this beast, we’ll be seeing gifs of it for years to come.

    The best part is that it’s not some hyper-chess bullshit like Dota or LoL, it’s simple and looks fucking brilliant no matter what. I’m excited to try and get Platinum next season (Psyonix only fault was the fumbling of ranks which happened right when my Comcast internet decided to give me an entire month of hourly disconnects).

    GOTYAY. I’ll see you at the 2020 Rocket League World Cup.

  18. Napalm Sushi says:

    I think the biggest praise I can give this game is that, for all its utter absurdity, it so perfectly nails the feel of everything that I just totally suspend my disbelief at it. After my 25 years of gaming, so many other games that try so hard to feel real end up feeling like those old western sets where the buildings are all just frontages held up with struts, but that’s a result that Rocket League manages to dodge with the most casual grace.

    • DelrueOfDetroit says:

      If you go with the theory that the cars are all remote controlled then you can easily role-play yourself into a skybox above the stadium controlling a rocket car with your DS4.

      (The other being that this is a real sport and you are essentially playing the NBA Jam of that sport.)

  19. Imbecile says:

    A worthy winner. Took me completely by surprise. I don’t feel terrible at this, but I’m in the bronze categories which means I probably am.

  20. Prolar Bear says:

    I didn’t expect RL to be the top pick of 2015, but I got it the other day and now I fully agree. It’s simply a joy to play.

    Merry crimbo everyone!

  21. kud13 says:

    Does it have single player?

    If not, I doubt I’ll ever enjoy it, I’m just not a multiplayer type person.
    Won’t be begrudging any people that love it, though (and there seems to be lots).

    • The Velour Fog says:

      Yes, you can play a single-player league against bots

    • Phasma Felis says:

      If you like the idea of aerial car acrobatics but don’t like the multiplayer arena-sport setup, you should check out Nitronic Rush (free) and Distance (NR successor, in Early Access). They call themselves “survival racing,” and they’re basically parkour in a rocket car. No rival cars, because you’ll have your hands full trying not to die as you drive straight up a wall and jump to another wall at 300mph.

    • draglikepull says:

      I am not a multiplayer type person either, but I still played a lot of Rocket League multiplayer. There’s virtually no communication required (indeed, the game’s so frantic I’m not sure how much it’d help anyway), and team-work is so central to having any fun that I’ve almost never run into griefers. And games are only a few minutes long, so you don’t have to commit to a half hour or hour like with a lot of other online games.

    • Belsameth says:

      I generally despise playing with randoms but with Rocket League its ok. They don’t get in the way of fun at all. Hell, they add loads to it without being annoying like they are in every other game. Give it a go, its worth it!

  22. Schaulustiger says:

    It took me quite some time until I was sure: this is the only multiplayer game I have enjoyed since Quake 3. I would have *loved* to read Jim write about it, but alas, he seems to have faded away from the site. But I’m sure Rocket League would’ve been right up his alley.

    For me, it has given me the feelings back from the days of the arena shooters: fast-paced movement (Rocket League has the most satisfying air control since CPMA), unlimited skill ceiling, quick matches.

    Damn, this game is so good. In fact, I’m gonna play it right now. The family’s already asleep, but I can’t go to sleep without a quick fix of Rocket League.

  23. caff says:

    Great choice for Game of The Year!

    Even after 150 hours of play, my whole body tenses up with delight and anguish when I play. I swear and shout at my screen with such a force I surprise myself sometimes. Hooray for a game that provokes such excitement! Merry Christmas all.

  24. Antistar says:

    Really? Rocket League rather than Fallout 4, and Fallout 4 in fact not placing anywhere in the list?

    … Really?

    I’m really surprised, as you can probably guess. Given the deluge of articles on Fallout 4 from seemingly everyone at RPS, it seemed like you all loved it. As you can probably also guess, Fallout 4 is my pick for game of the year.

    In contrast, Rocket League wasn’t on my radar for the list at all, because I’ve never played it and don’t intend to. Since… well, to be frank, I loathe the concept of competitive sport (competitive anything, really), and especially competitive team sports.

    So yes… sort of blindsided here.

    • Imbecile says:

      You should play it. Its probably not exactly what you think it is.

    • ZippyLemon says:

      Fallout 4 articles drive site traffic.

      Rocket League articles drive people away, to Rocket League, because it’s so irresistibly good.

      It’s just smart games journo bro.

    • Fenix says:

      If you’d read this post, especially Alec’s bit, you’d save yourself the embarrassment of looking this ignorant.

      • Antistar says:

        Oh no, I read the article; including Alec’s bit about Rocket League making him feel the way other people do about sports.

        I think you just don’t realise quite how strongly I feel about competitive sports/things. (Which is okay; I mean how would you know?)

  25. TRS-80 says:

    Was about to buy this and get all my friends to buy it, but then I found it has no offline LAN play :(