Has Rocket League been improved by its updates?

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Update Night is a fortnightly column in which Rich McCormick revisits games to find out whether they’ve been changed for better or worse.

Rocket League feels less like a game that was designed and more like something that was discovered. Like car football had always existed, floating around in the ether as a conceptual form that humans just get, and that developers Psyonix was simply the first to capture it in digital amber.

It’s that perfection of form that made Rocket League such a joy to play on its release in 2015. But it’s also that that initial perfection that makes the game difficult to mechanically improve with patches and updates. It’s car football — what else do you need to add?

Hats, as always, are the answer. Psyonix have spent the last two years jamming Rocket League with cosmetic items, and in addition to hats, you’ll get smoke trails, fancy explosions, new paint schemes, cars that tie into movie releases, special skull tyres, and even little balloon animals that sit on the tip of your vehicle’s aerial and bounce around pleasantly when you drive fast. They’re all earned by playing the game, by pulling them out of crates with real-money keys, or by buying them directly from the in-game marketplace.

The vast number of these cosmetic items and the happy regularity with which they drop mean that even brand new players can cook up a car that looks appreciably different to their team-mates’ vehicles after a few matches. That process starts with the chassis, and Rocket League hands over a reasonable selection of frames, running from sleek looking drop-top rollerskate sports cars to fancified vans. If you’re willing to spend actual money, a wider selection of cars can be bought from the Showroom, where two dollars will get you a sci-fi podmobile, a coffin car, or a Nissan Skyline straight from the modern cinema classic 2 Fast 2 Furious.

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Personally, I like to build around the bigger, boxier bodies, but there’s no functional difference between them — all of Rocket League’s cars go at the same speed and have the same capabilities, no matter how much money you’ve spent buying Batmobiles and bouncy antennae. This has ensured that the playing field has remained level in the two years since Rocket League’s launch, and means that a team of first timers can still put goals past seasoned veterans, assuming the ball bounces the right way for them.

I mean, theoretically they can. I certainly can’t, because unlike half of my opponents, I can’t launch myself into the air, travel the length of the map, and stop the ball from going over the line with an audacious bicycle kick backflip at will. As Alec noted earlier this year, the game itself hasn’t evolved beyond the understanding of occasional players; but people have got good at Rocket League in the years since its launch, and they’ll perform ludicrous stunts like that in both its casual and competitive playlists.

Fortunately, scrubs like us do have some recourse: Rocket League has a training mode that has been stuffed with an extensive database of player-created sessions. These help teach everything from basic blocking to fine air control, setting up the ball in difficult situations and allowing you to build up the muscle memory to nail an aerial clearance or wall juggle without the pressure of the game going on around you. Most of these training rooms skew towards top players, offering difficult challenges for people who already have the basics down, but Psyonix’s own practice spaces are also useful to pick up some advanced moves.

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It was in these spaces that I finally started to get a handle on the fine air control that Rocket League’s best players have already mastered. Expect to be playing against these people if you dip into the game’s competitive playlist — especially if you get placed in the upper echelons of its ranking system, which runs on a StarCraft-style scale, from bronze to grand champion, via multiple tiers of silver, gold, platinum, and diamond ranking. Psyonix has also promised an in-built tournament system, which will let players organise their own elimination cups, but it hasn’t arrived yet (a beta is slated to launch by the end of this year).

That hasn’t stopped Rocket League’s players from organising their own tournaments, turning the game into one of the more popular esports around today. Rocket League is a deeply silly game — it’s bouncy car football with hats — but Psyonix are serious about its balance. They call it a digital sport, and in addition to adding cosmetic and training features, have cut elements introduced in earlier updates in order to keep the game feeling sharp. That’s what happened to the game’s irregularly shaped maps, which were removed from rotation in its competitive and casual modes in August of this year after players expressed their preference for the standard maps.

Now the majority of Rocket League’s action takes place on the original rectangular pitch. That’s not a slight against the game at all: just as real football has worked just fine on the same grassy map for the past century, Rocket League’s pitch has space for endless tactical variation and boundless creativity. Those pitches look nice, too. The latest of Rocket League’s maps — Farmstead — has amber waves of grain and dappled autumn light, but my favourite is the cyberpunky Neo Tokyo, which is lit by neon lights and bedecked with kanji signage. Halloween has altered these maps further, the occasion serving the theme for Rocket League’s first timed event.

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If you get sick of car football, Rocket League still has a smattering of alternate modes, including Hoops (car basketball), Snow Day (car ice hockey), Rumble (car deathmatch), and Dropshot (car… smash… floor… ball?). Dropshot is interesting, tasking players with whacking the ball into floor panels that then drop away, but it lacks the purity of original Rocket League-ing. Of these ancillary modes, I had the easiest time getting a game of Hoops going: at the time of writing, the other modes have much smaller player counts, forcing me to wait multiple minutes at a time in the matchmaking screen.

Fortunately, it’s still pretty easy to find a regular Rocket League match, thanks to a player base that’s still heavily engaged even two years down the line. That engagement has a downside, too — opponents who have lived and breathed tiny car football since 2015 and will happily tonk you 11-0 — but the training and tier systems mean that new and returning players have the tools and time to get better on their own. Psyonix hit a home run with Rocket League (little football joke, there), and almost everything they have added since serves to make an experience that already felt innate run even smoother.

21 Comments

  1. ulix says:

    “all of Rocket League’s cars go at the same speed and have the same capabilities, no matter how much money you’ve spent buying Batmobiles and bouncy antennae.”

    This is not true. They all have the same top speed. However, there are differences in turning circle and hitbox shape.

    Generally speaking cars with bigger hitboxes turn more sluggishly.

    • shinkshank says:

      Hitboxes are a given, but I thought that the turn radius thing was debunked.

      • HothMonster says:

        They confirmed in a Reddit AMA that the cars do have slightly different handling and that is because it all comes from the physics engine. Individual cars don’t have a handling stat that can be adjusted but the different wheelbases and centers of mass affect their turn radius, acceleration, braking and air handling. They do their best to keep everything near even but their are slight variances that can’t be prevented without making all the models identical in size, width, height, and wheel placement.

        You can easily see this reflected in the small pool of cars most pros use. However the differences are negligible and largely come down to preferences and what you are use to.

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    • freedomispopular says:

      I’m still not really convinced that the differences are noticeable enough to make a difference to any non-professional player.

      • Guy Montag says:

        My friend drives the Merc 99% of the time, and he hits the ball in ways I can only dream of in the Dominus, but I can turn faster so I guess I have that going for me. There are some very noticeable differences between cars that are mostly based on wheel position while on the ground and hit box/car dimensions while in the air, and they really do matter. Psyonix simplified things a little bit a few patches back by paring down stats to a few ‘body types’ (like the Hotshot performs the same as the Dominus now, Takumi like Octane, etc.). No one I play with is a professional, but we still have different methods based on the cars we use.

    • PseudoKnight says:

      I came here to say this. In fact, they had to nerf the batmobile at one point (a paid car). It’s still one of the best, though, last I checked. You’d see it regularly in competitive matches because of its great hitbox.

      As much as I love Rocket League (the core game), this is not purely cosmetic monetization.

      • ludde says:

        That’s really bad. I thought all paid cars used already existing hitboxes from cars that came with the base game?

        • ulix says:

          To be fair, the differences are quite small, and I only realized there were any after playing over 100 hours in different cars.

          They even dialled back the differences since then.

        • PseudoKnight says:

          They have completely different dimensions and turning radius. Last I checked there’s not a single car that shares the same dimensions as another car. If you go from one extreme to the other in a certain spec, it’s very noticeable. According to the stats: up to 6-7% difference in turning speed, up to 12% difference in length or width, up to 27% difference in height.

  2. welverin says:

    Rich, you forgot to jump.

  3. freedomispopular says:

    I liked it better before the esports craze started. I appreciated the variety offered by the different maps, and everyone just played for fun. Now it gets taken way too seriously, and the community is constantly pushing for everything to be standardized.

    • Guy Montag says:

      I’m largely in agreement. I was really excited to see more non-standard maps and car types, not just for myself, but to see the neat stuff people would learn how to pull in competitive.

      Instead, no one wanted to learn anything, I guess, and now we’re on the steady march to ‘no rumble, octane only, final dfh-estination’.

  4. axiomatic says:

    I want competitive dropshot. :-) I play dropshot the most lately.

  5. caff says:

    I’ve played a hell of a lot of Rocket League – going on around 2000 hours now. It never gets old, the physics are solid, the fun is real, and I still shout at my PC when I screw up or score an amazing flying goal. The servers are generally very reliable.

    My only complaints are:
    1) The crate system is very much geared to spending. I’ve spent a lot (because I respect the devs) but it could do with more key bonuses for people who play a lot.
    2) As mentioned above, some players take it WAY too seriously and will start flaming as soon as you mess up.
    3) The competitive ranking system hasn’t really moved on since it was introduced. Once you hit a plateau, you’ll generally stay there. It could just be me being a noob though :)

    Altogether it’s been an amazing game I’ve sunk many happy hours into (despite not liking football or cars very much) purely because of it’s superb multiplayer physics.

    • Agnosticus says:

      To your 3rd point: Since I’ve started playing Rocket League more than one and a half years ago, I’ve been climbing the ranks one at a time each season. Gold->Plat->Diamond and I’m confident that I’ll crack Champ this season, sitting comfortably on Dia III right now.

      I agree 100% on your 1st argument though.

      The 2nd is a difficult one: This game is all about emotions and competitiveness (in ranked play mind you) and it can be very hard to keep the flaming in check when your team mate butchers every shot…But yeah, I’d like to see them dishing out bans more reliably for flaming!

      Or even implement a kind of cheer system, where you can give players that behaved well a cheer and they in turn will benefit by, e.g. getting more chests, item drops or decryptors.

    • Premium User Badge

      laiwm says:

      I’ve found that there are certain tiers where flaming is more common, and it tends to die down as you move up the rankings (although I appreciate that’s a deeply unhelpful bit of information). I’m not sure whether that’s down to a correlation between skill level and emotional maturity, or just that people have started disabling text chat in the higher ranks. I’m hovering around Plat 3 at the moment and flaming is rare, but I saw a lot of it during the ranking matches at the start of the season.

  6. CidL says:

    Such an absolutely wonderful, FUN game. And a good piece, thanks.

  7. liquidsoap89 says:

    Hoopz was added in an update; so yes, the game is absolutely better.

  8. Archangel says:

    Dropshot is volleyball, by the way. There’s no net, and the floor acts like a game of Breakout, but fundamentally it’s volleyball. Once I realized that, I instantly transformed from bewildered ineptness to perfectly attuned ineptness.

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