Before the days of ubiquitous broadband many of us would have to wait until the monthly LAN event to get our fix of multiplayer gaming. Of course this was also the time when the vast majority of games didn’t include some form of multiplayer so the long time between drinks was easy enough to handle. However since then the inclusion of some form of multiplayer in many games has diluted experiences that used to be specifically crafted for that purpose. Indeed the most rare of rare kind of multiplayer game, the one where you and bunch of mates would crowd around a TV to play, have shrunk down into a very specific niche. However there are still titles that come out every once in a while that exemplify that multiplayer-first experience of years gone by and Rocket League is one of them.
Rocket League is the sequel to the 2008 game Supersonic Acrobatic Rocket-Powered Battle Cars which was met with a rather lukewarm reception upon its release. Being a PlayStation3 only game, one with niche appeal at best, it’s easy to see why. Rocket League takes the same basic idea, rocket powered cars playing soccer, and modernizes the idea slightly, packaging it up for today’s gaming market. The reception this time around has been far more welcoming but looking back through videos of game play from its predecessor it’s hard to see the differences that make Rocket League that much more appealing. Still the buzz was more than enough to convince me that it was worth a look in.
On first glance you’d be forgiven for thinking that Rocket League runs on something other than the Unreal 3 engine as it does manage to do a lot with so little. Psyonix, the developer of Rocket League and its predecessor, does have something of a history with the engine having co-developed Unreal Tournament 2004. That experience has definitely come in handy as Rocket League looks great and runs fabulously, admittedly on my incredibly over-speced PC. One thing I did note however is that it doesn’t look anywhere near as good on the PlayStation4 as it does on the PC, even when running at the same resolution. That’s just my anecdotal experience however and I’m sure it’d look great on a much larger screen (I run my PlayStation4 through a HDMI capture card to my main PC monitor)
At a basic level Rocket League is a simple game: get the ball into the opposing team’s goal. However instead of human players you’re driving around in what looks like an overgrown remote control car, one outfitted with a rocket boost system that allows you to reach incredible speeds and heights. You’ll start out by driving around on the ground, attempting to crash and bash your way through your opponents in order to score a goal. After a while though you’ll start to get a little trickier, flying through the air to intercept the ball and bringing it crashing back down to earth with incredible speed. Of course no multiplayer game is complete without a treasure trove of cosmetics behind it, allowing you to customize the look of your little racer however you see fit. For the ultra-competitive amongst us there’s ranked matchmaking and an inbuilt league system, allowing you to set up tournaments for your friends and foes alike. Taken as a whole it’s got the makings of a game with aspirations to be an eSports contender, although whether it will become one is up to the community at large.
All matches have a 5 minute timer on them meaning that, for the most part, a full game won’t take you much longer than that to complete. Of course if you or your opposing team is dominating you, and the entire team doesn’t skip the goal replays (which seems to happen all the time), it’ll take a lot longer than that as you watch every goal repeated for 30 seconds. Still it’s not the kind of game where you’ll start a game an hour before you have to do something and then find yourself running short on time. For the most part you’ll spend most of this fervently chasing the ball around the court, trying to pry it off your opponents and ramming everyone enthusiastically. You’ll get points (which are just used to determine who the MVP of the game is) for doing things like scoring and stopping goals which are a good way to encourage you to actually play properly rather than just playing like a ball obsessed puppy.
At the start the matches are chaotic and fun, with everyone racing around everywhere trying their best to wrangle their car to hit the ball in the right direction. However it didn’t take long for the matchmaking system to breakdown somewhat, often paring me with opponents who far exceeded my (and my team-mates’) own abilities. This is partially due to me being a little late to the party, coming into it almost 3 weeks after its initial release, however a good matchmaking system would ensure that, for any given match, we had a 50/50 chance of winning. So now, with the initial wave of players starting to dwindle, the people that are left behind are the ones who are more than a couple steps above rookies like myself. It’s a challenge that faces any multiplayer game that has aspirations of running for years past its original release date and unfortunately one that doesn’t have a great solution. Rocket League will still be a blast with friends, you can pick up the core mechanics in 10 minutes, but the online may end up being just as difficult to crack as other long term multiplayer games.
Whilst I didn’t get enough time on the PlayStation4 version to comment on how stable it is (although tales of PlayStation4s overheating while playing it don’t bode particularly well in my book) Rocket League on PC is stable during regular play. However I had numerous, inexplicable crashes to desktop that seemed to occur randomly during the game. Sometimes it was during the initial part of the game where I was revving my engine, others whilst a bunch of us crashed into each other. Looking through the Steam folder I can’t seem to locate any crash dumps or debug logs so I can’t comment as to what’s causing it but it’s definitely an issue that I’ve yet to see a resolution for.
Rocket League demonstrates that sequels can outshine their predecessors as it took an idea that was met with lukewarm reception and turned it into the game everyone is talking about. The core game play is fun and frantic, made even better when you throw a few friends into the mix. The online multiplayer works well for the most part however newcomers might be greeted by a wall of players who are far more skilled than they are. Still that doesn’t detract from the fact that playing this game with a bunch of mates is tons of fun, something that will keep it alive for many years to come.
Rocket League is available on PlayStation 4 and PC right now for $19.99 (currently free for PlayStationPlus subscribers). Game was played on both platforms with a combined playtime of approximately 3 hours with 31% of the achievements unlocked on the PC.