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Mario Kart Live maker gets into ‘dodgebrawl’ with Knockout City

EA’s newest title launches in May; beta is this weekend

A very colorful “Dodgebrawl” contestant tries to deflect a charged up shot in Knockout City Image: Velan Studios/Electronic Arts

Knockout City is a lot to handle. In the playlists of the funky, futuristic, and over-the-top dodgeball game, few things are as simple as they sound. In a preview staged by maker Velan Studios and Electronic Arts on Tuesday, I often just found myself standing back and watching the action, trying to develop a sense of fundamental play.

Teamwork is as critical to winning (and fun) play as an understanding of Knockout City’s many unique rules and techniques. Good news for that: The first closed beta for the game starts on Feb. 20 on PC.

“Because dodgeball is the inspiration, we get to play with multiple balls in the scene,” said Guha Bala, Velan’s co-founder and president. Velan most recently developed October’s toys-to-life/mixed reality game Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit

“There are very few moves, but it’s enormously complex in terms of layers, which allows you to really go through that kind of cycle of introduction, practice, and mastery,” Bala said. I’ll disagree that there are few moves in here but I see his point about it being easy to learn and then difficult to master.

In one straight-forward free-for-all match, I was seeing novice users (like me) running at top speed once they saw a ball spawn point, winding up to fire away, only to have their element of surprise taken away by someone who was paying better attention when the tutorial showed how to intercept a ball. There’s a melee attack that’s also a good counter for separating a foe from their ball, so it really isn’t a matter of getting to the good weapons first.

Rolling up in a ball (one of the more wild-card aspects of Knockout City) means a teammate can pick them up and throw them. Just bumping into a rolled-up teammate picks them up; it was a little confusing the first few times that happened, but of course, that means that Knockout City can serve up team-based, knockout game variants where there are no balls.

As for the balls themselves, you’ve probably guessed that there’s more than just your standard, red kickball (which makes a satisfying “PROONT” noise whenever it hits someone in the face.) Throwing it means quickly flicking the right trigger (a faster, but less effective attack) or charging it up with an auto lock-on to whatever opponent is nearest.

An exploding Bomb Ball’s big area-of-effect detonation makes it something players want to find and get rid of fast; but it also means that intercepting a pinging Bomb Ball is no longer a way to turn the tables on a foe. (And a generous timing window for catching an incoming ball means I was sitting on the left trigger command for this, somewhat reflexively, but the game came up with a way to force me out of crutch moves and keep me on my toes.)

Because Knockout City is round-based, teams can go from getting killed pretty badly (and tanking the round, sort of like a tennis player in a losing early set) to a very dominant second or third round and a comeback victory. As Bala puts it: “I was getting killed in Diamond Dash [a team-based game where KO’d players drop a litter of diamonds, meaning sharp teammates can be there to make the save.] But I came out with the last determining point, getting the last diamond for our team that won the match. You had a surprising number of clutch moments like that in this game.”

The one area of concern I did have is what latency might do to a fast-paced game. Bala touted the engine that Velan developed specifically for Knockout City, which the studio calls called Viper. It’s of course very technical, but, “We added another super-high performance engine with a novel computation method to actually hold a physics simulation synchronized,” Bala said.

The aesthetics of Knockout City are very important to the game, only because rooftop maps mean pitfalls (in one case, a big swinging wrecking ball) but also bounce pads and perches to reach. It’s not a court-based sport, in other words. It also means endless, flashy customizables (there are 17 cosmetic slots and three characters to build up and swap around) which therefore means Velan plans seasonal content and the like, once the game launches on May 21, 2021.

And with cross-play, and cross progression among all platforms, it means Knockout City should have a large user base at launch so that people get into the action quickly. Knockout City is going to be available on everything: Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4 and PS5, Windows PC (via Steam and Origin) and Xbox One and Xbox Series X.

As for whether I’ll get good at Knockout City, Bala dispensed some protips but mostly said, yeah, watch a few rounds and I’ll get the hang of it — and if not, I’ll at least see a very entertaining game. “Just spend some time watching it,” he said. “I think it’s a pretty watchable game as well.”

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