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…
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.