As someone who thinks deeply about these kinds of things, I often have to sit back and ponder on the state of the games industry when one of the most popular games of the year comes around with absolutely no expectation that it would ever amount to anything.
Rocket League, a physics-based vehicular soccer game from indie developers Psyonix, has blasted off from out of the blue and has, as of writing, been downloaded over 5 million times over both PS4 (boosted by it being free for PS+ members) and PC (where I had to fork out $24 for it, because #pcmasterrace). This is the true definition of a sleeper hit, and the only way that games become one is by being a big load of fun.
Football with cars is not exactly a new idea; I can recall the Top Gear lads doing at least one segment based on it and even doing something similar at their live shows. The idea is so not unique that Rocket League is, in fact, a sequel. Psyonix had released the original version of the game back in 2008, titled Supersonic Acrobatic Rocket-Powered Battle-Cars, to a pretty much unanimous cry of “meh”. Shitty title aside, the fact that they can work on the concept and come back seven years later to have it be such a massive success is quite astonishing, producing a game that, much like other indie games of its ilk, attempts to carve its own niche.
What makes Rocket League such a great game is that it ties together and exaggerates the best elements of sports games in a unique package, yet remain appealing to those who totally loathe sports games. So many of my mates love EA FIFA games to death because of the camaraderie that comes with playing against or with each other (in spite of them being the same every bloody year), something which Rocket League tries to capture. Everyone has a story to tell of an epic last-minute goal, a desperate rush to defend their end, a well-timed tackle; in Rocket League, it’s go big or go home, with epic moments in almost every match. Fast cars and explosions go hand-in-hand, and they’ve never been more at home than in Rocket League; your reward for scoring is a huge explosion that blasts your car back across the field.
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The true test of any sports game, however, is simplicity—is it enjoyable for a wide audience; can you just pick it up and play? Rocket League’s controls are simple enough for pretty much anyone to figure out, but there is enough depth to the mechanics to make a number of playstyles possible. The total freedom of movement that the game gives to you means the best players must essentially play “total football”, being able to adapt to any situation. It is just as much fun, however, to just chase after the ball and give it all you’ve got with the power of your rocket booster behind you. Being in an enclosed arena with slightly unrealistic physics, you can even drive up the walls to try and gain an advantage—try doing that at Wednesday indoor football.
The in-game progression system allows you to monitor your progress as you play more matches and acquire cool little trinkets and skins for your car, but this is largely cosmetic—nothing much really changes other than your increased personal skill, which cannot be easily measured in what is essentially a chaotic environment during matches. The cars are essentially all the same, and while this does make the playing field in multiplayer relatively level, it would be nice to see some variations in performance between different car types to make it more reflective of the different skills needed to succeed in actual football. That, though, is a minor bugbear in what is otherwise a well-balanced game.
Rocket League is a simple idea executed strongly enough to warrant the massive attention it has been getting, and is almost guaranteed to be an addictive experience that will make you hungry for more. “One more match” is never going to be enough, and the banter will be off the charts. Or not, because banter is fucking silly.