Rocket League Review: Driven By Simplicity and Character
In almost every match of Rocket League, there is a moment. A player will hit the ball perfectly and it soars.
You're on the orange team. It's overtime 1-1, 4v4. Everyone is frantically chasing the ball as it flies through the air, bouncing off the sides. The ball spins into the middle in the final third. You're at the halfway line with 100 boost. This is your moment, you charge towards the ball, you jump up. This is it, this is going in.
You get closer and closer, jump. You collide with your own teammate in mid-air and the blue team take the chance and punt it out from their own goal. This is the perfect hit. You've no keeper, and the ball soars into your goal. Blue team wins.
It’s rare for me to find a game that I keep going back to as my go-to game. Yet, I find myself doing this with Rocket League. Which has finally taken over Ark: Survival Evolved in the top sellers list on Steam. With Rocket League, developer Psyonix has created a mechanically simple game that has you play football, with cars. That is the game's instant selling point. Football with cars.
What makes Rocket League approachable for anyone is its simplicity. Learning the basics and the controls for Rocket League is easy: Forward, reverse, steer, boost, jump. At face value, the game is in no way hard to understand or get the essentials of - anyone can play it.
You can start with some training to understand the way the ball moves, get some practice in, and then get straight into online games. It’s just 1v1 - 4v4, two goals, one ball and off you go. You’d think simplicity would be a crux, but when accomplished as expertly as it is in Rocket League, it's marvelous.
Though simple, Rocket League is quite challenging. It's one of those games that is easy to learn but hard to master. You can work your way up the AI ladder for a single player experience (though “Rookie” difficulty is beyond dopey). Each AI difficulty is progressively harder than the last. Learning to conserve your boost and jumping at the right time become essential as you work your way up.
Online, you start as a rookie at level 1 and level up like you would in an online shooter. You get points for certain tasks such as scoring or clearing the ball. Those points help you level up. Doing so unlocks more ways to customize your vehicle with a variety of cosmetics. Some are quite unique, like your rocket trail shooting money or bubbles from your exhaust while boosting.
You get the sense that you get better with every game you play. The challenge comes mostly in knowing exactly when to jump, when not to jump when to get back and defend etc. The matchmaking working the way it does means you'll always be playing with people at the same skill level as you - rounding off what is already a very well-balanced game.
But what about single player?
The online experience is the game's main selling point, there's no doubting that. But there is a single player experience in Rocket League. It is rather limited with the standard exhibitions versus AI. But it mainly comes in the form of Seasons.
Seasons pits 10 teams against each other in a football season style. You play against these teams (all AI-driven, as is the rest of your team). You're allowed to choose your AI teammates from the basic AI bunch (Merlin, Goose, Hollywood, Tex, etc.)
As you win or lose matches, your position in the league standings may change. If you're halfway through winning every game 10-0, top of the league by 5 wins then you can change the AI difficulty at any time. You can simply modify the season from the season menu in between matches.
Before you can start your season you get to do a bit of customizing. You get to customize: team logo, name, teammates, number of matches and number of teams competing in playoffs. Then you can begin your 9 to 36 match season in league style.
Honestly though, the single player aspect of the game never lives up to playing online. There's that added feeling of competition when playing with others. You're all making the same mistakes and working together as a team.
The customization in Rocket League is a pleasant surprise - there are many options for your vehicle. For me on PS4, there are 11 car variants (Sweet Tooth being a PS4 exclusive). Apart from Sweet Tooth, each vehicle has 7 unlockable decals. Though they're all same 7 designs, each vehicle unlocks them separately.
For each team, you can select your own primary and decal colours (Though you have to stay within team colour palettes). On top of that there are different types of paint: Corroded Metal, Glossy, Matte, Metallic and Semi-gloss. Metallic is my personal favourite. Then you have wheel customization, of which there are 25 different sets of wheels.
There are 36 different rocket trails you can apply to your vehicle. In addition to the aforementioned money or bubbles, there are sparkles, snowflakes and even grass. I’ve currently unlocked only 17 and look forward to seeing the rest of the trails.
The 18 unlockable hats are rather charming. There’s a fez, a pirate hat, a wizard hat, a top hat...I could go on. To top it all off, there are 34 - including all the country flags makes it 120 - antenna that can stick up from your vehicle. Again, you have stuff like a dollar sign, a lightning bolt and a snowman.
This variety of customization adds to Rocket League’s wonderful character. Between matches you find yourself customizing your vehicle's look once again. I can't help that so much of it looks appealing and cool.
There are 4 arena/stadiums in Rocket League. Each stadium has its own look and feel. There's the vast DFH Stadium, which makes you feel as if you're playing in a World Cup. Or you can play in the serene Beckwith Park or Urban Central. Urban Central reminds me of FIFA Street. That idea of getting a match wherever you could find a pitch.
Beckwith Park has 3 variants you can play in: normal sunny day, stormy day, or at midnight. Each variant brings its own distinct feel to the match. Mannfield - a smaller DFH Stadium - comes with a stormy variant as well. If you get to choose your stadium, choose it as stormy. It makes the game look that extra bit more beautiful because the rain effects are impressive. You can see the rain drops on the pitch, kicking up water from your tires, and the rain flying at you when at high speeds across the pitch.
More stadiums would be greatly appreciated for Rocket League. Four is a bit on the low side, but developer Psyonix has promised us more. Not only that, but that all new stadiums and arenas will be free - which is a great way to keep the game fresh throughout the monhts after release.
The moment when you boost at the right time, hit max speed, jump, and hit the ball dead on is always satisfying. When it glides into the goal and explodes, you're out of your chair cheering with a huge grin on your face. The in-game chat is now filled with "Nice Shot!". A moment like that is when you realize this game is a gem, and you can realize that in just one match.
Equally, saving the ball is just as satisfying as scoring a goal. Watching the ball come off the post and you just get your car on the right side of it to knock it out of the goal. This time the in-game chat spams "What A Save!" and you feel as if that save won the match. But there's also a lot of flying about and completely missing the ball, not just from you but from other players as well. When it's stuck in the corner, it's hilarious to watch the other 7 players fly in and all miss it.
Servers, where art thou?
Unfortunately, since its release, Rocket League's had constant server issues. Players reported the online barely worked for the first four days of the game's release. The servers are still consistently on the fritz. If you're following Rocket League on Twitter, you can see that they mostly tweet about server and matchmaking issues. Psyonix is trying its hardest to sort these server issues. When they do, the one frustration I have with Rocket League will be gone, and I can jump on with ease at any time.
There is still room to breathe for Rocket League, still a lot that Psyonix can do with it. Not just more and more cosmetics, but adding fun modes to the game, much like mods would do. Imagine games with more than one ball or matches where everyone has 100 boost all the time. The possibilities are endless, and I suspect Psyonix to do stuff like that.
Overall you can feel the passion Psyonix has for Rocket League. Because of this, the game is bursting with love and character, something which is rare in games these days. It's almost a treat to have a game like this come out, a game that just wants us to have fun in a really simple way.
If that other player hadn't gotten in my way though, we would have won that match.