Rocket League pits giant, remote-controlled cars against each other in games of football (or soccer, if you must). These are not your run-of-the-mill giant remote-controlled cars, either. These are acrobatic, rocket-fuelled gladiators that can jump, boost, perform bicycle kicks and drive upside down. And they’ve never once participated in drunken brawls outside of a nightclub.
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Obviously Rocket League is infinitely more exciting than real football, but is it good? Yes! It’s a hoot. But this is a hoot with more than a few caveats, not least of which is the fact that on PC, you’ll need to shell out £15 for it, while it’s completely free for the month for PS Plus subscribers. Grumble grumble.
I have played only one game of football in my life. I was 8 years old and like all the boys in my small class in our village primary school, I was drafted into our year’s football team. I deftly avoided touching the ball or standing too close to other players, but when it started to rain, enough was enough. I walked up to my mother, who was standing in the crowd of parents, and told her that I was done for the day. I walked off. I’d been playing for 15 minutes.
The reason I confess all of this – and my interest in “the beautiful game” has not grown with age – is to make you understand that one of the big reasons I like Rocket League is that it is not remotely like football. If you adore football and want to drive around while simultaneously worrying about the offside rule, free kicks, legitimate tackles and all that stuff, then you might be disappointed to find out that Rocket League has none of this.
And thank god.
With all the boring bits tossed out of the stadium, there’s a purity to Rocket League. It’s just two teams, an open arena, two nets and a giant, bouncing ball that seems to affected by moon physics – more on that last part in a bit. This leaves you to focus entirely on scoring goals while, of course, trying to stop the opposition from doing the same.
Each car is essentially identical. They all have the same stats, same abilities (boost and jump) and the only difference is in their size, their hitboxes, but the variety of shapes and sizes are quite minor and I’ve yet to notice a difference whenever I try out a new car. It’s mostly cosmetic. Ultimately, what separates players is skill and the ability to make the most out of the cars’ power to leap up into the air or rocket-boost across the pitch.
Driving over lit up nodes that dot the pitch confers a nitrous charge, which you can then spend to get into the action quicker or speed up for an almighty kick that sends the ball speeding across the stadium. A boost can also be used aggressively, demolishing enemy cars. If someone is charging towards your goal, or if it looks like they’re going to cut you off while you’re attempting to score, you can just unleash the nitrous and ram them into oblivion. They’ll only be out of action for a few seconds, and that’s more than enough time to score or stop them from scoring.
Rocket League is extremely generous with boosts, as each pitch is full of these nodes, and they recharge quickly. Even if your tank is empty, and there are no active nodes nearby, you can still get a wee boost jump from jumping and rolling in the air. If you want to get somewhere quickly, there’s always a way.
You’re still in full control of your vehicle when you’re in mid-air, which means you can use the jump to very quickly reposition the car and, more importantly, flip it to perform a bicycle kick, which launches the ball a lot further than if you just let it bounce off your lovely chrome hide.
Learning to time jumps perfectly is probably the biggest challenge in the game, but it’s invaluable. It’s tricky, at first, because you need to get used to Rocket League’s moon physics. The ball looks big and heavy, and when you hit it you’re going to feel like you’ve just booted a boulder, as the screen shakes with satisfying vigour, but when it’s up in the air, it’s going to be there for a while.
While it’s football that obviously inspires Rocket League, it actually feels more like a giant game of 3D pinball. The ball is always bouncing, off cars, walls, even the ceiling, and you’re just trying to make it bounce into that net. There’s a hint of pool or snooker there, too. It’s in the angles and the maths, in the trick shots and the kicks that see the ball bounce off the side of the stadium and right into the back of the goal.
I’ve witnessed some absolutely stunning goals, and even scored a few shockers myself, though much of that is down to luck and the unrelenting momentum of my crazy cars. Just before I started slapping words on this digital page, I was lucky enough to see an absolute miracle of goal. The ball was way up in the rafters, and we were all waiting for it to fall back to earth, when someone dropped down from the ceiling, flipped, and kicked it at just the right angle so that it bounced off the ground and into the undefended goal.
I fell off my chair.
Luck or skill, I don’t really care, it was an incredible goal. And I don’t even care that it was the winning goal that led to my team’s defeat. It’s those unexpected moments, where players are using the impossible physics to their advantage, that make Rocket League such a delight to play. And whether you win or lose a match, you always get something, whether it’s an amazing goal or some experience and a sense of progress in the unlocking of silly cosmetic items like sombreros or the ability to shit out rainbows.
The problem, right now, is that it might be too good. I don’t think Psyonix expected Rocket League to be as popular as it’s become, and this had made it very difficult to get an online match. The game launched on Wednesday, and it wasn’t until Friday that I actually got to play online. Then the servers went down again, not coming back online until midnight. It’s been more stable since then, but it’s still inconsistent and a lot of people are still reporting problems.
While I waited for Psyonix to get its house in order, I spent a fair amount of time on the single-player league and exhibition games, and the AI can’t take the place of a good human opponent, especially when it’s as unreliable as Rocket League’s. Unexpectedly, the most frustrating matches where on the rookie difficulty, which is the default, not because my AI opponents were challenging, but because my own AI teammates were actively working against me.
Own goals are an expected part of a game like this; the chaos, momentum, and wild bouncing ball ensures it. But in AI matches, it’s just ridiculous. I frequently end up ramming my own teammates because they go out of their way to punt the ball into the back of our net. I’ll see them speeding up the pitch, constantly pushing the ball forwards, into our goal.
Absent human opponents, Rocket League stops being a simple game with a lot of nuance, and transforms into quite a dull slog, full of repetition, even though the matches are only five minutes long. Without something extra to make the single-player modes a valuable option, without a compelling metagame or, indeed, a metagame of any kind, it’s just not fun. When the game’s offline, there is the option to play some local co-op games, but that requires a bit more organisation, and isn’t always possible on PC.
To Psyonix’s credit, they’ve been very forthcoming about the problems, and the devs have been keeping everyone abreast of problems and fixes on Twitter. It’s in stark contrast to, say, Batman: Arkham Knight and its army of PR reps, who have mostly just kept quiet throughout all of that games’ problems. Yet I’m still disappointed. Not planning for popularity while simultaneously making a deal with Sony to give the game to PS4 players for free (if they subscribe to PS Plus) is just absurd.
When the servers are active and you can get into a multiplayer match, then Rocket League is brilliant. This is a game where you can chase a ball while driving on the ceiling, as fans cheer from their seats in sleek futuristic stadiums. This is a game where a goal is accompanied by an explosion and an aftershock that sends every car hurtling backward. It’s fast, explosive and completely ridiculous, and it’s horribly frustrating when whole days go by without it working.