Rocket League review: fever pitch

Game Info
Box Art N/A
Platform Win, PS4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch
Publisher Psyonix
Developer Psyonix
Release Date Jul 8, 2015

Rocket League has all the hallmarks of a great pop song. It’s simple, easy to understand and it gets stuck in your brain like a fishing hook can get stuck on your thumb. It goes in easy, but is nearly impossible to remove.

The concept is easy to grasp: You have to use futuristic cars to knock a ball into a goal. You can jump into the air to hit the ball with your car, you can use a finite amount of boost to speed up, and there’s a handbrake to allow for tighter turns. That’s it. You can see everything the game has to offer in minutes.

The amount of complexity that comes from those simple commands and rules may be infinite, however. It’s not just a matter of learning how to hit the ball with you car, but understanding how to angle your car to aim the ball, while controlling your momentum to make sure you’re in position to help your team. This is the genius of Rocket League’s design: It introduces a well-known concept and then adds a complication.

as I practiced and improved I learned to turn it into a scalpel

Soccer, or football for our international readers, is a sport played by human beings who can stop on a dime and turn in any direction; our bipedal design allows us to deal with the sport in a very efficient manner. Rocket League forces you to deal with the turning radius of your car, and that changes everything.

You have to know how to get in front of the moving ball, while pointed in the right direction with the proper amount of momentum to take a shot at the goal or to knock the ball away from your own goal. What seems like a fun, arcade-style sport game quickly ascends into a world of angles, throttle and reversals, a realm where every action must be carefully planned. When I first picked up the game, I felt as if I was driving a monster truck; as I practiced and improved I learned to turn it into a scalpel.

rocket league

It’s the mixture of chaos and precision that makes Rocket League so much fun. Some rounds consist of well-tuned teams with a good variety of defense and offense players working together, only going airborne when they need to hit the ball. Other rounds turn into a brawl, with the ball and cars flying this way and that, without much regard for accuracy.

There are two gambles you can make in Rocket League: You can either bet on your own skills, or the other team’s incompetence. I often found myself leaving the goal completely unattended with the opposing team being given what amounts to a free shot, only to find them unable to execute with the proper power, speed or direction.

game modes are as pared down yet essential as the controls

Rocket League offers a wide variety of options for camera placement and movement, including a toggle that either focuses on your car or the ball. You can even adjust the field of view via a slider, a rarity in console games. It may seem like a trivial thing, but so much of the game depends on how you see the field and acting quickly on that information. I was able to spend about 20 minutes tweaking options to get a view that felt a bit more comfortable than the default, and it’s great to be given that option.

Rocket League’s game modes are as pared down yet essential as its controls. You can duel with another player in one-on-one matches or play team games with up to four players per side. The complexity and intensity ramps up as you add players, and larger games demand more thought and effort behind each point scored. You can set up bot matches to try any of the games modes, but you’ll actually learn almost nothing about winning that way. This option is really only good for practicing up on basic skills.

rocket league

Bonus points

Rocket League has a persistent scoring and leveling system, like most modern online games. You gain points for scoring on the opposing team, protecting your own goal and for things like assists. The player with the highest score is award the MVP designation after every match.

The refreshing thing is that these points and levels are only good for cosmetic options. You unlock new car bodies, paint jobs and accessories but they don’t impact the actual play in the slightest. A player with 100 hours of practice is going to be better due to the skills they picked up, not the gear they’ve earned.

This is not to say that Rocket League’s bots are terrible. They’re efficient and capable, and they tend to dominate in an annoying way if a human player drops out of an online match. The bots are rarely confused about what’s going on, nor do they ever completely bungle their shots, whereas human players can be found out of position, suffering from communication issues or messing up their own teammates’ shots.

That near-perfection is why playing against bots never really feels like the real thing. Again, banking on the errors of the other team can be just as helpful as betting on your own competence. Bots are machines, and they act like it.

playing against bots never really feels like the real thing

Rocket League’s combination of skill-based gameplay, the chaos of live competition and the internally consistent physics creates a game that’s almost overwhelming emotionally. My muscles tensed with every close shot. It was hard to keep from shouting in joy when a shot went in, especially as each goal is celebrated with an in-game explosion that knocks all nearby cars into the air.

Rocket League is a joyful game that’s fun to play when you’re starting, fun to learn and even more enjoyable once you begin to build the abilities necessary to dominate a match. I learned how to double-jump at just the right moment to send the ball flying toward the goal. I figured out the precise way to land on my wheels after being knocked into the air. I discovered how to send my car careening up the arena wall to allow it to jump at the ball horizontally.

Wrap Up:

Rocket League is so easy to pick up it's hard to put down

Within a few hours of playing Rocket League, I had amassed plenty of “holy shit, did you see that?!” moments, both accidental and intentional. It’s easy to see why the game’s popularity has spread like wildfire despite little to no pre-release buzz. It’s easy to pick up, nearly impossible to put down, and tuned to perfection. All the fat, all the bullshit that may have overcomplicated the game’s design has been sliced off, and what’s left is a pure, thrilling competitive experience.

Rocket League was reviewed for PlayStation 4 via a PlayStation Plus download. The PC version was reviewed with a Steam press account. You can find additional information about Polygon's ethics policy here.

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