Recently I got some hands on time with Knockout City, a newly announced EA title developed by Velan Studios. It's a cartoony yet competitive dodgeball multiplayer game - sort of like if Fortnite's Tilted Towers was expanded into a bustling metropolis, and its legions of teenage flossers took to the streets to be a bit naughty before dinner time.
It's pretty easy to understand, because it's a big game of souped up dodgeball - but with some twists. And as much as I enjoyed flinging and catching balls, there was one aspect of Knockout City I was drawn to more than any other: becoming the ball.
Apparently havng nothing better to do, youths roam Knockout City in dodgeball gangs of three or four, and throw balls at one another. It's pretty reminiscent of Rocket Arena, another EA team-based shooter game, but it trades rocket-propelled grenades for rubber balls. And that's all you need to know, really. There isn't a roster of unique heroes with compelling backstories here, though; it's simply a bright and colourful arena in which to throw down.
I asked Karthik Bala, founder and CEO of Valen Studios, why they opted for dodgeball in the first place. "Everybody knows dodgeball, and it's just something that's intuitive, that you understand just in terms of picking up a ball, and throwing and catching," he said. "And it was like, can we do something with that?"
I'd say they did. In many ways, Knockout City doesn't need a storyline running in the background, since it's main concern is whether it can deliver a good time. I think it does.
"Velan have worked some magic here, in translating the simple act of throwing and catching to a game and giving it heft and weight."
Across a handful of industrial maps, you and your squadmates welly balls at the enemy, in the hopes you'll tag them and earn points for you team. There's an expected assortment of modes: classic team deathmatch, one where you collect diamonds after netting eliminations, and another where you can only use your teammates as a ball (my clear fave). Just like the seminal film Dodgeball, and the real life game of dodgeball (which the film clearly inspired), you dodge, duck, dip, dive, and dodge your way to victory.
I discovered that one of the most satisfying moves doesn't begin with a D, but a C, because you can catch balls which are tossed at you. In real life that eliminates an opposing player and brings one of yours back to the game, but it's been adapted well for a video game. With the right timing, you can hurl a caught ball back at your enemy with increased force. It's less the feeling of outdoing your opponent that gets me revved up, and more the feel of, er, cushioning someone else's ball. Velan have worked some magic here, in translating the simple act of throwing and catching to a video game and giving it a real sense of heft and weight.
I also need to give a shout out to the fake throw. It's another super simple act, but I got flashes of evil glee as I feigned a fling and watched my opponent instinctively clap the air in a panic, trying to catch a ball that did not come. There are other tricks too, like the ability to curve balls like haymakers, or do an up-and-over lob to bypass obstacles.
Knockout City is set apart from competitive shooters, where you point crosshairs and click people to death. Accuracy and a reliance on blazingly fast reaction speeds can put people off these games, but the focus here isn't on precision at all.
You automatically lock onto opponents when readying yourself for a fling, and I liked that matches weren't determined by which players could click pixellated heads faster than everyone else. I had to think more about where I was positioned, where my teammates were at, and how I was going to chuck the ball, above all else.
The type of ball I picked up also mattered. One was a ticking time bomb, which added an element of hot potato to matches. You'd see people flinging it back and forth in a desperate bid not to get toasted. I grew most fond of the Moon ball, which imbued me with a zero gravity effect whenever I jumped in the air. This let soar above my enemies and scope out any juicy targets for my team.
But really, my favourite type of ball...was myself. In Knockout City you can curl yourself into a sphere and become a hand-propelled meatball. Press and hold Alt, and you'll roll around the map like a droideka hunting Obi-Wan, or a Malteser that's escaped its packet. A teammate can then scoop you up, and hurl you at unsuspecting enemies.
The real fun lies in your teammates ability to transform you from a ball, into the dodgeball equivalent of a mortar strike. They can charge you up until you're glowing, then toss you into the air - at which point the controls are handed back over to you, as you guide your explosive self towards some poor unsuspecting bastards down below.
I think I found it so fun because it felt devious every single time, like I'd scanned the fineprint of dodgeball's rulebook before a gold medal match and discovered a game-changing loophole. "Ah, but there's nothing in here that says I can't score a point by turning myself into a ball is there?", I said to the ref, and proceeded to hop into the arms of my nearest ally during the tiebreaker: "Chuck me, Danny. DO IT!".
There's also the detail that, if teammates pass you between one another, you'll reach this bomb state even faster. I asked Bala if anything took him by surprise during development, and he quoted this strategy as something that no-one on the team saw coming, even though they'd put it in the system.
"There was this moment in development where we had three players on a team. Player one rolled up into the arms of player two, and player two passed that teammate to the third player. And they were already in the ultimate bomb state, immediately," he said. "And we were like, what the hell just happened, is this is a bug?! And actually it wasn't a bug at all... we didn't explicity program that, that just happened, because that's what it's supposed to do as a system."
Knockout City took me by surprise too, as I hadn't expected to enjoy it quite as much as I did. Conceptually, it sounds silly. But I think the fun I had mimics that of dodgeball in real life, in a way. I can see myself enjoying this in short bursts, you know? The odd session here and there to wind down in the evening. Perhaps as a brief, cartoony respite from my one true love, Call Of Duty: Warzone. That may ultimately be the problem: the thing that makes Knockout City different is what may prevent it finding an audience in a market of predominantly shooter games. Only time will tell if the gun-toting war boys are ready to embrace balls.