Whatever you think of video games as an entertainment medium, you’ve got to admit that replacing footballers with rocket-powered cars is an attractive idea.
And Rocket League hits like a rocket-powered train. From the first seconds, as the engine growls under your all-powerful trigger finger, this feels not just fresh but perfectly-formed.
Teams of rocket-propelled cars face each other in an enclosed arena, where the walls can be driven up and all corners are rounded for maximum bouncability. At either end is a large goal, and somewhere in the middle is a giant ball, around twice the height of the cars, which has what feels like its own low-gravity rules: it hangs in the air, moves begrudgingly after taps, and even when whacked will rarely outpace a rocket engine.
Then each team tries to score more goals than the other. The dynamics of hitting a ball with a small rocket-propelled vehicle obviously differ from those of the foot, but the same principles apply – anyone who’s ever played five-a-side will instantly be at home with the key role of ricochets, knocking the ball into walls for clever bounces or smashing it at angles for surprise shots. Even if hitting the thing head-on can be a little tricky at first.
One of the things that makes Rocket League really special is the depth of the controls, and the learning curve you go through while getting better with them. Simple things are enormous fun. Your early games will be full of flailing vehicles and mosh pits but it still feels great, and pulling off more complex moves feels even better. You soon learn the delicious kinks in acceleration, how long you can hang a jump in the air, and when to go all-in or back off. Soon you’re “flipping” the car to overtake parallel rivals, riding up walls to nose a ball ahead of the jumping mass, even hitting the juice mid-jump and taking to the skies.
The titular rocket engine is a double-edged sword, capable of blasting a car across the pitch to a loose ball (sometimes right through an unfortunate opponent) but just as easily leaving you hopelessly stranded after a misjudgement. The combination of such blistering precision with the ball’s more lazy, grounded momentum is irresistible.
It’s so good, in fact, that Rocket League can put the game front-and-centre. It doesn’t waste time with extraneous modes or gimmicky rule sets, but focuses everything on rocket car football with varying team sizes and the same simple rules. The austere, one-on-one duels teach you the skills, but it’s in the 2v2, 3v3 and 4v4 playlists that Rocket League takes off, serving up match after match of player-authored brilliance: end-to-end slugfests, delicate tactical exchanges and full-blown wars all fit into quicksilver five-minute sessions.
The match length, such a boring stat it almost passes unnoticed, is what gives Rocket League seriously addictive qualities. As it’s so quick to play, a swift game of Rocket League is always tempting and, after that, you’ve already got it up and running so why not have a few more? Rocket League steals hour after hour and sometimes entire evenings in these five-minute increments, each effervescent hit just making you want more.
The secret of such great design, in this case, is that it’s not a first try. Developer Psyonix released Supersonic Acrobatic Rocket-Powered Battle Cars for the Playstation 3 in 2009, a game more-or-less identical in concept but not quite as good in every respect. Rocket League’s visual style is brighter, its ball physics are that all-important touch heavier, and its matches are a slightly slower but much more substantial and chunky experience.
The difference is phenomenal. Few games can survive on one core loop repeated ad infinitum, but Rocket League is among them. What has made this game special is the extra layer of polish on an idea that was already refined, and the resistance to adding unnecessary extras: in this way, it feels like a Nintendo game. Rocket League is simply a joy to play, win or lose. And with friends? Wow. This is the most fun you’ll ever have behind the wheel of a rocket powered football playing car.
Psyonix; PC (version tested)/PS4; £16
This article was written by Rich Stanton, for theguardian.com on Friday 24th July 2015 09.52 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010