Cars wot play football. Rocket League [official site] is daft concept treated with incredible care. The result is one of the most beautifully balanced, tense, exciting and skill-driven multiplayer games released in recent years. It's absolutely brilliant.
When I tell people that I've fallen in love with a game about cars playing football, they're not particularly surprised. It's precisely the kind of thing I would obsess over, unable to understand why everyone can't understand how much sense the concept makes. In the case of Rocket League, I'm not alone. The game launched last week, on Playstation and PC (with cross-platform play), and it seems to have charmed a fairly large portion of the world. A large enough portion that I never struggle to find a game, day or night, even when my Rocket League crew are at work or in bed.
I realised Rocket League was one of my favourite multiplayer games when I scored a goal by performing the equivalent of a bicycle kick. It's important to remember that every player is a car. Not a person driving a car, I don't think – they're either sentient cars or controlled remotely. There are no drivers, just cars. Cars that can perform a bicycle kick. A car that can double-jump, redirecting itself in mid-air, spinning, piroutetting and throwing its body on the line to block attempts on goal.
In a regular match, there are three cars per team, which seems like the perfect number for five minutes of barely controlled chaos. When I play with my regular teammates rather than strangers, one player is assigned to goalkeeping. A good wallop will send the ball from one end of the pitch to the other in a couple of seconds so goalkeepers are rarely excluded from play for long. If the action is contained within the other half, usually during a violent scrabble for control, the goalkeeper often surges down the pitch, like a bullet from a gun, either slamming into an opponent or aiming at the ball, hoping to use the unexpected interruption and momentum to score a goal.
When not guarding their own goal, players are either attempting to break up the play of the opposing team or set up a goalshot of their own. Just as the size of the pitch allows for three players to comfortably play as a team, much of the game's rhythm is determined by the SHAPE of the arena.
There are tutorials in Rocket League but I didn't know that until I'd already become so damn good at being a car that tutorials were unnecessary. The tutorials probably tell you that knocking the ball into either of the corners in your opponents' half is the best way to set up a goal. Large as it is, the ball tends to bounce around the arena, you see, and because the arenas are like bowls with curved edges, pushing the ball toward the corner tends to send it rolling across the front of the goal. When that happens, the opposing team will try to block it and your teammates will scramble around the goalmouth attempting to flick the ball over the line.
When that happens, the ball explodes, propelling every car in the vicinity across the pitch in slow motion.
It's perfect, that explosion. If you're on the defending team, it might knock your car backwards into the goal area, or send it spinning helplessly into the distance. It's a punishing blow.
If you just scored, though, the explosion is a celebration. It makes your car dance, spiralling up into the air, PUNCHING the sky.
Whatever the case, it isn't a violent explosion. Nothing in Rocket League is violent, even the initially surprising (temporary) annihilation of cars that collide when their engines have reached mega-ultra-boost speed and have become trembling machines of white hot fury. I've thought of futuresports as gunmetal gray, satirical slaughtergrounds on which referees and linesmen mop up the entrails at the end of every match. Blame Speedball and Rollerball.
Rocket League is a game of blue skies, vibrant colours and sheer joy. Not only will you want to play football with cars, you'll understand why the people in this fictional world go to massive arenas to watch the sport live. It looks brilliant and the arenas have stands of spectators that curve around them, packed with flags and a festival atmosphere. In the final seconds of a match, the crowd chant the countdown to victory or loss. They gasp and groan when there's a near miss and the whole ground shakes with the sound of their appreciation when somebody scores a spectacular goal.
All of that is important. That the crowd are worked into the visual and audio appeal of the matches makes Rocket League feel as authentic as it is daft. More importantly, the beauty of those bright arenas, which shine even during rainstorms, is as carefully crafted as the nuts and bolts beneath the surface. The short matches and simplicity of the singleplayer season mode (a solid but linear progression of fixtures with no sense of progression other than a wins-losses column and league table) might lead you to believe that Rocket League is a slight thing – a trifling diversion – but it's an incredibly finely tuned machine of a game.
I mentioned how the size and shape of the arenas is integral to the flow of the matches and, in fact, the tactical heart of the sport. That's true of everything in the game. Rather than being slight, it's lean, with no wasted mass, a prizefighter right at the limits of its weight class. At first, I was slightly disappointed by the arenas, hoping for variety in the shape and maybe an obstacle or two thrown in, but Rocket League doesn't need bloat. When additions come, I hope they'll be as thoroughly playtested and measured as the current content.
Everything feels just right, from the double jumps and flips to the burn of the boost. The rules are simple, the controls are simple, and the tactics and inspired individual moments of improvisation that emerge are delightful. I've sworn at strangers on my own team (they can't hear me) when they bump me aside as we both race toward a loose ball, and I've wasted precious seconds showboating on the rare occasions when I'm clearly in pole position to be named Car of the Match.
I love Rocket League. I love it because it's a near-perfect example of game design; an invented sport that understands how to create feelings of triumph and tension, sometimes flipping the script in a few seconds of controlled chaos. That's rare enough for me to recommend the game strongly to anyone who isn't allergic to online play but there's more: Rocket League takes place in a world I want to be a part of. It's a place where sport is carnival, the playing field is level (no paid-for boosts or buffs here, just cosmetic unlocks), and competition doesn't require blood, sweat or tears.
Oh, and I haven't had any problems with lag or finding a game since the first few days, when the servers were shaky.
Rocket League is available now.