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Rocket League: Learning to Fly

How 2015's greatest game really takes off

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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