As a kid I was never really into sports. Partly because I wasn’t any good at them (I lost my first tooth to an errant football planting itself in my face), but also because they all seemed pretty dull, especially when I could just turn on my Game Boy and see monsters killing each other without having to go through the laborious experiences of wearing shorts, or moving anything more strenuous than my eyes and thumbs.
But I did once write a list of things that would liven up football enough for me to watch it, and this included a number of healthy diversions spread across the field, including hidden pitfall traps, a ball that would give a taser shock at random points in the game, and at half time you do the only logical thing and release the panther.
But I wish I knew then what I know now, because I could’ve saved a lot of ink and just written three words: “rocket-powered cars.”
Yes, I’ve been playing Rocket League, the spicy, snacky, sporty little game that popped up on Steam one day and refused to pop back down, probably because it was being held aloft by a jet booster. Or perhaps it won’t leave the charts because Rocket League is just good, solid fun, in a very uncomplicated and accessible way.
The set-up is very simple. There is a field. There is a goal at each end of that field. There are two teams of supercars that can use rockets to boost and jump around like gymnasts trying to get noticed by a judging panel. And finally, in the middle, there is a ball. You can probably work out the rest.
No seriously, that’s it. Two teams of cars throw themselves at the giant sphere between them and hope that chaos theory will somehow end up spitting it in the enemy’s goal, because with very little communication going on and no time to type proper instructions beyond pre-programmed little phrases, the best chance you have is to try to shunt everybody else out of the way, teammates included, and punt the ball up the field before somebody else can ruin it for you.
What I like about Rocket League is that it knows how to keep the pace up. The cars can all get from one end of the pitch to the other in about half a millisecond, the ball bounces like a space hopper doing a charity bungee jump, the games only last five minutes and even though cars explode if rammed fast enough, the respawn time is so quick that you can be back in the game before your former vehicle has finished raining on the ground in red-hot pieces.
And all this means that Rocket League is a good game for adrenaline junkies, especially when you start doing epic tricks like driving up the side of the walls on the edge of the pitch, or activating your boost mid-jump to fly forward like you’re auditioning for Iron Man. The sheer pandemonium and intentionally unwieldy controls means that your tactics will probably fail, but considering you can barely get around without barrel-rolling through the air, sheer probability means that every goal made can’t help but look superb in the instant replay, as you soar forward, farting a trail of glowing red smoke behind you like a hawk crossbred with an emergency flare.
That said, I do have some issues with Rocket League, issues significant enough that we’re just going to have to stay friends rather than getting married. The camera is probably the biggest bugbear. I’ve no objection in being able to toggle between the regular front-facing angle and the camera turning to face the ball, but both of them have their faults. You either can’t see where you’re going or you can’t see where you’re supposed to be going. This might be nullified if the camera would pull back more, allowing a wider view of the field, but for some reason it stays so close to the car that I can practically see the seat stains left by the couple who were making out in the back earlier.
Oh, and I’m not big on Rocket League’s bots. When some joyless prat decides he’s had enough of losing and quits the game (which seems to happen a hell of a lot), he gets replaced by an AI that seems to have all the driving skill and prowess of a crippled Canadian goose. One time I saw a bot-controlled car perform a perfect dribble up the field, running the ball expertly into the net at the end. Just a shame it was his own teams’ goal.
I also wonder how long Rocket League can last for the average individual. After all, my biggest problem with multiplayer modes in general is that they feel like the inevitable decay of humanity personified. When you start playing them they’re brimming with life, unexplored territory and new challenges to overcome. Then you finish all the material and become a little more cynical, a little less fun to be around, using all the techniques that guarantee you to win without remembering why you enjoyed playing it in the first place. And finally, when you’ve squeezed every drop of enjoyment you’re likely to get from it, you toss it to one side and it’s never thought about again.
The big deciding factor is the length of that first stage, and that’s why this game worries me. Sure, there’s none of the multiplayer garbage I dislike, such as having to earn equipment or getting more powerful as you level up, but there’s nothing to replace it either. No map editor, no obstacle courses, no racetracks or proper campaigns beyond a series of context-free games and the ability to tweak the physics slightly. Admittedly they just released a few new arenas, but they’re all kind of rubbish and this was the first thing of significance from a game first sent out in July last year. The best thing you can do is just pick up and wait to get bored.
And to be fair, I haven’t reached that point yet. So far I’ve been playing for eleven hours, on and off, and there’s enough raw fun that I keep coming back to it. Perhaps that’s the joy to be had in collecting TF2-style cosmetics for my car, like customisable jet streams and helmets straight out of an Asterix book, or maybe it’s just the satisfaction of thundering around smashing into people who don’t see me coming until they’re fiery wreckage in my wake, but whatever that magical little quality is, Rocket League certainly has “it.” It’s fun and stupid and colourful, and though it’s rather unvaried in content it makes for a good game to play with friends. Especially considering it’s the first game I played in ages to have splitscreen local multiplayer; a rare feat in this day and age.
It’s funny I mentioned Team Fortress 2 earlier, because that’s what Rocket League reminds me of. A simple, fun little time-killer that’s best when experienced with friends, but perfectly serviceable on its own. The kind of game I play when I don’t have anything else I’m interested in. The only difference is that Valve’s odyssey of hats and gravel is free to play, and Rocket League will use up nearly fifteen pounds of your hard-earned income.
And is it worth it? Yeah, I think so. It’s energetic and exciting enough to allow for a good time, and the developers seem devoted enough to occasionally add new content or types of game mode. Maybe I’ll bore of it sooner or later, but my gut instinct tells me that it’ll probably be later – and that’s far better than most games manage these days.
Rocket League is a game that’ll be enjoyed by all, but probably doesn’t quite go far enough to earn genuine love, not without some more features added in or a sense of purpose. But there is a legitimately fun game at the core here, so pick it up if you feel you could use more backflips and explosions in your life