Rocket League: Learning to Fly

After countless games of ground-based Rocket League [official site], Rich Stanton decided to master the art of flight. Let his story be your guide to greatness.

It’s easy to like a game, but those I love tend to share one ingredient: the basic movement and controls prove, over time, to be irresistibly nuanced. The core appeal of playing is being in control, and it follows that a deep control scheme – and of course there are exceptions – is a good thing. When you can feel yourself getting better over time, the game itself becomes even greater.

Think about the alternative, the adequate blockbusters that hit the limits of possibility almost immediately. The Assassin’s Creed or Arkham games are good examples, where the avatar’s feats are increasingly incredible but your own involvement is soon capped. These games are at their best in the first few hours, where the thrill of the fantasy overrides everything else. But the impact of classic games, and I put Rocket League in that bracket, grows bigger over time.

At its most basic, and certainly for my first dozen hours, Rocket League is car football where two teams batter a ball around an enclosed arena. When you’ve just started the combination of sheer speed and trying to make contact with the ball is all that matters – and so the game is generally played on the ground, with cars jumping and flipping but rarely taking off. The next level of Rocket League comes when you want to take to the skies.

The boost mechanic is why that word ‘Rocket’ is in the title. Boost is gathered from various points on the pitch, and has the basic utility of speeding up your car – providing the oomph for a piledriver shot, or extra speed to get back and defend. But while in the air your car’s orientation can be controlled with the left analogue stick and, when the boost shoots out of the back, it propels the car’s body forwards. After countless games of Rocket League played almost entirely from the ground I forced myself to the training pitch, jumped and tilted up – then slammed on the boost, shot upwards, flipped over backwards and came crashing down.

Thus did the journey towards mastery begin. The way that the boost affects your car is obvious in theory, but in practice you’re trying to execute on this at 100kph while in the air. Flying is not just about gaining height but doing so while retaining momentum and hitting the ball at a specific angle. And in this, Rocket League itself has changed – you begin on the pitch, but as soon as things go airborne there’s a new world of angles and approaches to consider. You don’t just need to judge where a ball is going to land, but where its arc will place it in a few seconds’ time. Then you need to be able to hit that spot at exactly the right angle and speed.

This is what makes flying so difficult, and so rewarding. Rocket League already has a lot of similarities to five-a-side and football in general, such that if you’ve ever played in real life you find a certain part of the brain is transferable. I was never an amazing football player but I know how to kick a ball, how to use a wall for angled passes, and when to let the momentum do the work. Lining up the angles for air hits in Rocket League, and judging your arrival perfectly, somehow slots right into the same mental category – I knew exactly what to do before I could ever do it.

The first few hours of flying, and to be honest much of it thereafter, is little more than b-roll for blooper videos, as again and again you go gracefully sailing straight past the ball without making contact. That’s due to both the speed and how tiny adjustments in the car’s orientation produce huge results. You go back to the basic controls, realising how much subtlety there is to the handling of the car’s body and figuring out how to tweak it mid-flight to correct mistakes. The realisation you can toggle boost, rather than holding down the button and hoping for the kerosene-soaked best, adds another layer of subtlety – then it’s possible to taper an approach without wild swings in direction, and hang a little longer for a looping ball.

Hitting the ball is an achievement to begin with and, even when you do, you’ve often taken such a tortured flightpath to get there that the contact is pathetic. Rush for a tempting ball but tilt your car’s nose too far upwards, for example, and it gains height but loses forward momentum, rising like a salmon only to lamely slap at the ball and leave it hanging. That’s the other side to learning, of course, which is that mistakes are often costly – if you miss a ball on the ground, you can swing around and get chasing. If you miss one in the air there are some long, long seconds on the way down to think about what you’ve done.

Every embarrassing miss is worthwhile when the air-game starts to click. A delicate touch from high on halfway flies into the top corner, a zooming first-time tap bounces it into the danger area at speed, and so dependable are your top-corner saves that teammates start to whisper about ‘the cat’ in reverent tones. Forget scoring, what about zooming back as the ball loops towards your goal, jumping and tilting and boosting straight up to nudge it over at the last second, then basking in the bleeps of ‘What a save!’ from chat.

There is infinite room for error but, as you experiment with flying, further possibilities open up. The standard takeoff will see you boost on the ground, jump then tilt while still boosting, and hopefully slam into an aerial ball soon thereafter. But you can take off without boosting and build that momentum in-air instead, or wait right under a descending ball and take-off vertically. Every situation calls for something slightly different and, as situations become familiar, they feed more often into general play. Not just in the sense of hitting a ball that you would never have considered going for a few days previously, but in how the little tricks for balancing a high-speed car in midair come to inform things like judging ground shot angles and making crosses that beg for an Air Jordan tap-in.

Learning to fly forces you to sort out other bad habits. Take boost fuel, which becomes crucial. You start with 34 and the tank caps out at 100, which can be burned through in a few seconds. Six main pads at the four corners and halfway line fill the tank all the way, while many more smaller pads top you up with smaller amounts. Without boost you can’t fly, so the six main pads soon become an object of obsession, sought-after whenever there’s a spare second, and so after countless hours I started camera-switching to make this easier – something that’s now a part of my play in general rather than a flying aid.

Doubtless many will scoff at the fact I wasn’t using camera-switching, or even flying, from the off in Rocket League. But this gradual learning curve is a great example of how the flight mechanic, which is probably the most skill-intensive ability in the game, is relying on and tying together many of Rocket League’s other features.

The true beauty of Rocket League’s flying is that it elevates every part of the game. This isn’t some elaborate way of saying git gud scrub, because at any level this is fun, but as your skill increases so does the ceiling rise. The time between touches decreases, the accuracy with which you’re hitting the ball increases, the number of ways you can interrupt opponents increases, and obviously everything works both ways. The community is rich in great players and, as you progress up the matchmaking tiers, having a good aerial game is simply par for the course – leading to great midair tangles, epic saves, and some of the finest goals you’ll ever score.

More than anything it’s the speed at which matches now take place, the fact that every loose ball – no matter its position – is a possible target, and that lost causes don’t exist. To fly in Rocket League is to transform your dinky car into a showplane and win games with showboating, cruising underneath the ball before flipping it into a pinpoint lobs or dropping onto a flubbed clearance like an eagle.

It is to soar and, even then, you can always go further – like the maddeningly precise skill of using boost to go down as well as up, speeding your recovery from crashes or bad leaps and stealing the extra millisecond which makes all the difference. Jumping off walls and boosting sideways into space to nick a ball that’s floated off the surface, or even flying backwards in a desperate flail after being lobbed. When we call controls ‘deep’ it’s not just because of the precision and variance that they allow, but because layer upon layer of utility – the very heart of the game – is gradually revealed through them.

You’re never in the air for long in Rocket League. Perhaps it’s not strictly accurate to call boost-propelled jumps ‘flying’ when these beautiful moments are always so brief. Falling with style? Whatever it’s called, it takes Rocket League into the stratosphere.

Rocket League was our 2015 game of the year.

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27 Comments

  1. Weed says:

    All good stuff here.

    Another reason to take to the air is that if you don’t, many times while you are waiting for the ball to hit the ground, someone else will have gotten to it first while it is in the air.

    Thus begins the air duels.

    I’ve introduced a few people to Rocket League and after a couple of weeks they don’t know if they should thank me or curse me. It’s all they’ve been doing.

  2. airtekh says:

    Scoring your first aerial goal in RL feels awesome. It is appropriate that the game has an achievement for doing it, one of the few times an achievement actually means something.

    I can’t/don’t want to seem to play anything else at the moment. I’ve been playing almost nothing else but RL for the last six weeks or so. It’s so addictive.

    • Flit says:

      I got the achievement via a random pinch while wall-riding…felt like I was cheating. And of course, my first *actual* aerial goal was into my own net.

    • Marcus says:

      My first (and only) aerial goal was via walljumping. It felt awesome anyway, though I wish I could fly :(

  3. Viral Frog says:

    I had just begun to start learning to fly when my internet connection was temporarily disconnected. I don’t find playing/practicing with bots to be any fun, so it’s basically on the backburner until my internet situation is resolved.

    I don’t understand that whole camera switching thing. In my first 20 hours I tried and tried and tried to learn to play between the two cameras. I gave up and almost exclusively use ball cam, and I’ve done nothing but improve my game since. Maybe switching between cameras only really makes a difference when flight becomes factor?

    I dunno. People say I’ll play better when I switch between the cameras, but those first 20 hours sure didn’t reflect that at all.

    • ironman Tetsuo says:

      Camera switching has many uses, a nice and easy one to start with is;
      Switch to “ahead-cam”
      Line yourself up with a 100%,boost power-up
      Switch back to “ball-cam”

      As long as you don’t alter your course you’ll pick up the boost but you’ll also be keeping an eye on the action

    • Tacroy says:

      IMO ball cam is generally your default camera mode, I only switch off when the ball is over me or I’m scoping out the rest of the field.

      • Viral Frog says:

        That’s about all I use camera switching for anymore. The way it was explained to me, which was probably not quite accurate, is that you should spend an equal amount of time in each camera. That’s how I approached it, and it did not do any good.

        But if you guys just lightly tap it here and there to get a better view, that makes me feel quite a bit better. I thought I was doing something drastically wrong by primarily using ball cam. :P

        • Kitsunin says:

          In my experience, 50/50 is about right, but it’s not just randomly keeping it at each 50% of the time. Car-cam is for when you’re you’re grabbing boost, when you know where the ball is for sure, and when it’s in front of you. Ball-cam is for briefly reminding you where the ball is, for driving away from or around the ball, and for lateral goalkeeping.

          At least, that’s the gist of it.

      • Imbecile says:

        Flying is hard dammit. I also use ball cam as default, but cant persuade my mates that its the cam of choice.

        • Aggressive_Tendencies says:

          To be fair its more a lack of ability than a conscious decision!

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      DelrueOfDetroit says:

      I’ve found that going into the settings and changing the angle of your camera helps a lot.

      Upping the sensitivity of the right-stick so you can do quick shoulder checks to find your teammates can be helpful.

    • Kitsunin says:

      All ball-cam is way better than no ball-cam, but it’s a lot easier to figure out and maneuver to exactly where you need to be with car-cam. In particular aerial shots are very difficult in ball-cam, it’s just too difficult to judge your own trajectory from an off-center angle.

      The big thing to remember when getting used to car-cam is that as long as nobody touches it, you can always rely on the ball to go exactly where you expect it to go (once you’re familiar with the physics), so you don’t need to have constant vision of it. Also, find player-recommended camera settings if you haven’t changed from the default, it helps a ton.

      • Xzi says:

        I might be alone in this but I feel like turning the camera with right stick when necessary is far better than turning off ball cam. It’s also very helpful to go in to options, set your FoV to max, set camera distance to max, and reduce camera stiffness. I’d recommend tinkering with all those options when you first begin playing to find your preferred settings. I didn’t do it until later, but it made it a lot easier to hit angled shots on the ground and in the air.

        • Kitsunin says:

          I agree with your camera settings advice, but not your in-game advice. Once you start getting aerial, figuring your own trajectory out is more important than the ball’s (because the ball’s trajectory is very simple, and doesn’t change based on slight differences in angle and input). Sure, you have the greatest amount of situational awareness by tilting the ball-cam camera, but you lose a lot of control over yourself.

  4. ironman Tetsuo says:

    I seem to have a problem with double jumping, sometimes when flying I can activate the second jump but other times it stops working. Maybe there is a time limit between the 1st and 2nd jumps? I don’t know, but it’s inconsistency has really started to annoy me :(

    P.s. Great read!

    • mcnostril says:

      It’s on a 2 second timer the moment you’re airborne.

      • Tinotoin says:

        I’m so glad you’ve confirmed this – I thought I was miscounting up to 2! :)

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      DelrueOfDetroit says:

      I have a problem with trying to do a straight boost-jump but end up doing a slightly to the left or right boost-jump.

  5. Conundrummer says:

    The wonderful control is the meat of the game, as stated, but what I get extremely frustrated at is the following situation: I’m driving, tracking the ball, turning to my left. The ball’s coming hard to my left, outside my reach!

    I jump, and try to dodge left to block/strike the ball, and my car hops up, and then gracefully BARREL-ROLLS TO THE RIGHT. I look like a moron to my team… but I absolutely KNOW that I was holding left on my stick since there was never any reason to have touched right.

    I trust everything about the game too much to have it be anything more than a frustrating annoyance, but when I KNOW I have the save, or the shot, and the car twists it away from me with 15 seconds left in the game, I make up some very unique cuss-words.

    • Kitsunin says:

      I’ve never had that happen to me, aside from as a result of panicked mistakes (which happens plenty). Are you sure ball-cam isn’t confusing the direction you’re facing? That’s all I can think of as a cause…

  6. oversoul says:

    I remember when I was first learning the art of aerials every replay with a midair goal or save was saved for future showboating.

    Now I make midair plays so often its not even worth remembering them after the game much less tomorrow onward. I still keep those previous saved replays though. They consistently give me a good laugh at how awful I was…

  7. wondermoth says:

    Nice to see some quality coverage of The Greatest Video Game Ever Made. Thanks, Rich!

  8. elnicky says:

    Great article. Unfortunately 40 hours in I still can’t really navigate accurately when I try and fly. Fortunately holding down jump and then pressing a second time is enough often to get the ball above people using their fuel to fly. Also often people miss it when they’re flying (at my level at least), so I still get it.

    • comadose says:

      Try not to worry too much about it, it will come more naturally the more you play. I have about 180 hours put in and I’m still not great at aerials. As with anything else, the only way to get better at them is to practice.

      It’s important to come into this KNOWING you’re going to be missing a lot. Start saving your boost, hitting the 100% orbs as much as possible, use forward flip for speed if you need it. Use your boost to go up for everything. If it’s in the air you’re in the air after it. It takes a lot of flight time to get a feel for how your car moves in the air, let alone predicting where the ball will be in its arc. Go for everything. Try not to think about it, as soon as you see the ball in the air just go up for it. Doing this will help a little to break you of your hesitation when going up in general. Since you’re purposely going up for as much as you can there’s no decision to be made, you just go because fuck you, I said so. When playing regularly the hesitation to make that decision will probably miss the shot for you. Oh, it’s probably important to let your friend(s)/teammate(s) know that you’re going to be missing a lot too. Don’t do this in ranked.

      Also, after someone scores, use up the rest of your boost to fly around real quick. See where you can get to, how far you can make it, spin around, etc. The more you familiarize yourself with it the better.

      I didn’t mention the training stuff because I assume you’re aware of them. Should give them a try though. If you start practicing this stuff at 40 hours you’ll be pulling some sick shit easy before you know it.

  9. blinky_b says:

    I know what you’re saying Rich, but Arkham’s arguably a bad example. The combat’s simple to pick up, but gittin gud takes many, many hours.

    It’s not the deepest game in the world, but there’s plenty hidden beneath the surface that you’ll only discover by trying to get high rankings in the challenge maps. There’s a level of play that isn’t needed to complete the main story, but that allows you to do so with much more style and satisfaction.

    The combat challenges teach you how to use everything in your arsenal without taking a hit, and the predator challenges show you not just how to speedily stealth through sections, but also teach you about a few mechanics that are otherwise never formally tutorialized.