The RPS Verdict: Rocket League
The new football season
Rocket League [official site] is our Game of the Month for August, so Adam, Alec and Graham gathered to kick the tyres - and steer the balls - of the surprisingly nuanced cars-wot-play-football multiplayer game.
Graham: Rocket League might be my favourite multiplayer game in years.
Adam: It’s my favourite competitive multiplayer game since my FPS phase, which petered out sometime around Quake 3. I’m enjoying it more than any FIFA or racing game I’ve ever played competitively, and I’m absolutely in awe of how carefully balanced it is. I hate the term ‘balance’ at times because I tend to enjoy games that simulate a space and the things in it, placing the accuracy of the simulation above catering to the players. Rocket League somehow manages to be a wholly convincing futuresport that seems to have sprung fully-formed into being.
That last statement gives away the fact that I wasn’t even aware of Supersonic Acrobatic Rocket-Powered Battle-Cars, Psyonix’s original stab at the concept, until Rocket League was on my hard drive. Did either of you play that, or anything similar?
Graham: I didn't play that and would haven't had I known that it existed. I wouldn't have played Rocket League either, were it not for the strenuous urging of some friends. I looked at the screenshots and thought, "This looks like an Unreal Tournament mod from 2003" and took it for a novelty. From the name of the predecessor, I half suspect its creators thought the same.
But it's not! Every distinct part of its design is wonderfully considered and polished and it's-too-soon-to-say-perfected but I want to say, after playing around 70 matches online, perfected. Its appearance as a novelty is the result of its simplicity - cars go fast, hit ball into net with car - which can make it a difficult game to explain the nuance and brilliance of. But I feel like we could pick any part of it and go deep on why it helps produce a wonderful multiplayer game. Like: the ramped edges, the ball which explodes when a goal is scored, the sharpness of the handbrake turn, the ability for air control using boost, that unlocks are randomly given rather than tied to linear progression, etc. etc.
In fact, what one thing would you pick?
Adam: I’d go with my realisation that it’s a tactical game rather than a knockabout game. And then the realisation that came straight afterwards, which was that it’s actually both of those things. Teamwork pays off and understanding how balls are centred and how blocks and tackles work can really help - but sometimes you see the most outrageously (un)fortunate bounce and just have to accept that the Rocket League is, like a real sport, punctuated with unlikely moments and desperate gambits that pay off.
All of that goes back to the brilliantly simple design of the arenas, which it must have been so tempting to clutter with bumpers or powerups, and the physics, which always feel spot on, the occasional bit of lag aside. What say you, Alec?
Alec: For me the genius is that there’s no downtime. There’s not even any thinking time. The cars move so fast and, at least at the level I’m playing it at, there’s almost never any second-guessing where the ball’s going to be. It’s all go, all the time, always a hair’s breadth from a possible goal. Unlike a football game, where you’ve got to factor in taking a while to cross the pitch or which player to switch to or even exactly where you need to be, second to second you’re busy, and moving, and screaming during a match in Rocket League. It’s not possible to get bored, it’s not possible to get confused. Essentially, it’s the impossible football game that telly adverts for Match of the Day or a World Cup show - where every single moment is the height of drama, and there’s none of the bits where 22 tired men slowly pass a ball to each other and wait for the whistle to blow.
This constant frenzy means that when I’m playing Rocket League, I’m primarily being instinctive rather than tactical. Clearly super-players will be doing the latter, but I will never be one of those, and the fact I’m always in HIGH ALERT mode means something at the back of my brain is in control, rather than the measured, anxious bit at the front - and I think that instinctive bit at the back is much better at games than the annoying bit at the front which tries to think about them. All this means Rocket League is GO GO GO - it is drama all the time.
Graham: I love FIFA as a multiplayer game. When you're sat alongside someone, playing it on the same machine, there's little better. But it's pretty bad over the internet against friends or strangers. The netcode is shaky, in part because it's got 23 moving objects to track. It's predominantly one vs. one which means you're at the whim of an opponent who can disconnect at any moment or simply put the controller down and walk away if they don't want the demerit of disconnecting.
Rocket League is, unlike any sport games and most competitive multiplayer games, great even when played against strangers. About 60 of the 70 matches I've played were sans friends, and it's always been i) near instant to get into a match with others ii) with no problems with lag or netcode iii) with a friendly community who are about my level (or at least not grossly better) iv) and if ever anyone should disconnect, they're instantly replaced by either another human or a decent bot. When it's that slick, I could just sit there for hours hitting the button again and again to play another game. And I have.
(From Pip's post of excellent Rocket League screenshots)
Adam: What if somebody were disinclined to play because they didn’t like either football OR cars. I know it’s hard to imagine any RPS reader who doesn’t have posters of John Terry and Jeremy Clarkson adorning their parlour, but if such a person existed, could the possibly enjoy Rocket League?
Alec: I mean, that’s me. Admittedly I’ve got a picture of Richard Hammond’s tiny bearded vole-face printed on my y-fronts, but that’s nothing to do with cars. I only follow football during world cups and get bored the second England get knocked out (i.e. after one and a half matches), but like I say, Rocket League is actual fantasy football - essentially the boundlessly thrilling game of constant heroism that pub gonks describe, on an emotional level, rather than the stilted, cyclic thing it often is in reality. It’s pure competition, and I really do think it’s instinctive even if you have no interest in competition.
Graham: I think even people who don't care about cars - and I don't - like speed and movement. I think even people who don't care about football - and I do - enjoy predicting the arc of a moving object and striking it firmly with a second moving object. As Alec says, Rocket League feels like it captures the essence of those things, such that it appeals to the primal pleasures that lie at their core. I'd recommend it to people who play badminton or tennis as much as those who play football. I'd recommend it to anyone who ever tried to throw something in the bin from distance - and I think it recommends itself, actually, after having seen car-and-ball-dismissing spectators stare at it in rapt attention for a few minutes and then ask for a go themselves. Fuck Dota - if this were an esport, I'd watch.
Adam: Spectator mode is coming! And I agree that it’s a great game to watch. When we were playing earlier, I was slightly embarrassed by how many times I bellowed “IT’S GOING IN” - as you say, part of it is this really simple joy of seeing an object arc through the air toward a target. Throw in cars that are trying to block that thing or nudge it or whatever else seems like a good idea at the time, and there’s a combination of predictable elements that becomes extremely difficult to predict.
The size of the arenas is just right, that’s something that I’ve been thinking about. And it’s something that is so much a part of the game that there’s no need to think about it at all. After a while though, I noticed that with a full tank of boost, it’s possible to travel the length of the pitch, from goal to goal, as a ball arcs across the far-end. You arrive just in time to knock it into or away from the net, and need absolutely perfect timing to get it right. But that’s deliberate and it’s one example of how tight the design of every element is.
Graham: It's difficult sometimes to talk about sports games in terms of design, because they're most often aping the rules of a real, centuries-old physical sport. I imagine that if people are reading this who haven't seen the game in motion, the description of "football with cars" probably conjures a different experience to the one the game delivers. It's so clearly exactly that description, but as you say, then there's things like the ability to move from one end of the pitch to the other in a flash. There's the ball, which is giant and floaty, almost like a beach ball, which makes that possible. There's the fact that cars can jump. We haven't even mentioned the jumping! Jump and then double-jump in such a way that they change direction mid-air, to performing heroic saves, diving headers, or otherwise mimic the form of a metallic, wheel-possessing foot.
Adam: It’s a bit like Air Hockey with a z-axis. And six players. And a ball instead of a puck. But, really, it IS a bit like Air Hockey!
Alec: It also struck me as a superhero game. You don’t often get this much freedom, and power, of movement, outside of man-in-external-pants titles. Even first-person shooters starring supermen would balk at the unfair advantage a building-height doublejump and rocket-propelled flight would give you, let alone TOTAL INVULNERABILITY. This could be a game about a legion of Supermen playing football and it would be uncannily similar in feel, I suspect. I think I’d still prefer it with cars in hats, of course.
Graham: It is all games. It's a pinball game, but with cars as the paddles. It's a racing game without corners. It is the alpha and omega of all things.
Adam: It MUST be a fucking roguelike because everything is.
Do you both want to be good at Rocket League? Do you want to be at the top of the league? Do you want some kind of trophy? Or does that not really matter? Because, I’m telling you now, I want to be the best.
Graham: I want to be the Hurricanes. Storm time is coming to you today.
I am already history's greatest goalkeeper:
That was a fluke.
I'd like to be good at it. I've seen the GIFs and the videos of the absurd skill some people already possess at it and I know I will never get there, but I find it gratifying enough when I'm shit at it to know that it would be amazing if I could, for example, routinely hit the ball when I try instead of so often sailing straight by.
But I think it is important that you don't need to be good at it to have fun. There is a good set of tutorials that breaks you in gently to the controls, the concepts, and matches against successively larger teams of bots - but I didn't play any of that. I went straight to multiplayer against humans and picked it up well enough to get by within a couple of minutes.
Alec: I don’t want to be good at it, because that goes hand in hand with the game’s playerbase getting better and better too, and the average online experience becoming harder. As I am a time-starved person, that means in no short order I’d be too outclassed to enjoy Rocket League as the random knockabout it is for me at the moment. Clearly I don’t want to be bad at it, but I don’t like the idea of it becoming a race to the top where anyone casual is doomed to have a humiliating time. That said, the generalised mayhem of it almost guarantees anyone can play some sort of useful role. But I want it to be there as thing I can drop into and have a good time whenever I have the time, rather than anything with pressure to practice attached.
Graham: To wrap up, do either of you see yourselves still playing Rocket League six months or a year from now? The risk with these kinds of games is that even when they're great and they've got this kind of high skill ceiling, reaching those upper echelons is unlikely for mere mortals and, without progress or variety, the enjoyment fades. I don't think that will happen to me in this instance because it's so easy and instantly enjoyable to play, but... I always think that.
Alec: I suspect it’s going to suffer (arguably) what Team Fortress 2 did, which is to try and counteract fatigue about vanilla modes by embracing over-complexity. In TF2, that stole the game’s heart somewhat. I worry about that. Rocket League is a giant amazing brillo good time, but unless you’re invested in simply endless self-betterment I can imagine it wearing thin, and the stuff they may have to do to keep it alive is almost certainly going to wind up addressing the most fervent community members rather than folk like me who’ll come and go.
Adam: The first DLC package, which was just announced, is a good start. Lots of cosmetic items, free stuff in a patch alongside (including a new arena that is “regulation” and only has visual differences to the existing ones - and oh god how pretty are the arenas?) and ranked matches for 3v3 play. I’d love to join a league and I think the extraordinarily large playerbase could support a few knock-out tournaments and league systems aimed at different regions/skillsets/time-commitments.
It’d be great to have a regular playing slot and a regular team to play with. Basically, I want this to be like the weekly five-a-side match I gave up on a couple of years back, and maybe I’ll jog on the spot while I play and pretend it’s For Health. That would keep me playing for ages but I think some kind of structure - even if it’s one I make for myself, with chums - is probably necessary at some point.
Graham: Confirmed: Rocket Paper Shotgun League.
Alec: I am down with that if we can guarantee it’ll be during the working day. As good as carfootball is I can’t quite choose it over looking after my child.
(that would be a rubbish ending, quick, someone say something funny)