Rocket League is soccer. I could end the review there, more or less, and you would understand the fundamentals. Rocket League is soccer, but without penalties, without corner kicks or throw-ins or free kicks. It is soccer with rocket powered cars, trucks, and minivans and a ball that is huge and sparkly and leaves triple helix contrails in the air. The vehicles can double jump, barrel roll, and bicycle ‘kick’ the big spinning glowy ball around an enclosed space in a medley of wall racing, turbo boosting, and opponent destroying.
Rocket League is what soccer should be.
Developed as a sequel to the obscure PS3 exclusive Supersonic Acrobatic Rocket Powered Battle Cars (just call it SARP for short, because good lord), Rocket League was developed by San Diego independent studio Psyonix, which also recently released Nosgoth, a free-to-play third-person shooter. The features that make Rocket League great largely existed already in SARP – in fact, the argument could be made that Rocket League is a stripped down version of SARP, as it contains none of the weird arenas of the older title. Only three things have really improved from SARP to Rocket League: graphics, polish, and Playstation Plus. Those three things, however, make the difference between a forgettable buggy piece of software and a gut-clenching, visceral, exciting video game.
Visually, Rocket League is a stunningly palatable mix of vibrant colors and neon contrails. Neon is usually a sign of a bad time – neon ‘Bud Sold Here’, ‘Vacancy’, and ‘Food/Gas’ signs are typically an indicator that maybe you should just keep driving – but in Rocket League, neon means fast. A solid, speedy hit of the gigantic beach ball generates an explosion of twisting colors, while small touches, bumps, or brushes generate subtle redirections of movement unaccompanied by the bold strokes of neon.
Rocket League also features a fairly robust set of tutorials and practice modes, encouraging users to develop more advanced tricks than simply bunny hopping in front of their own goal. Aerial strikes, goaltending, and offensive play are all covered in practice mode. In addition, there is an offline ‘seasons’ mode in which you play the part of an individual on a team. This is one of the weaker spots of the game, though, as the AI is either the brain dead idiocy of Rookie difficulty or the HAL-like perfection of Pro difficulty, with nothing in-between. The lack of stats (as you might find in actual sports games) also serves to damage the playability of the offline season mode; without progression, single-player sports games are devoid of personal meaning.
It is in online multiplayer that Rocket League shines, and it’s possibly the best multiplayer game to hit the market so far this year. Multiplayer contains two sets of playlists: Ranked and Unranked. There is only one game mode, though, which is straightforward fútbol with rocket cars. It can be intimidating at first, particularly if you happen to be matched up with players of superior skill levels. For the first couple of hours, I struggled to hit the ball while other players conducted aerial assaults and epic saves left and right. I felt, to put it lightly, inadequate.
However, once your fingers develop the muscle memory and your brain catches on to the trigonometry required, Rocket League transforms from a font of self loathing to a bastion of pride and hubris. As I performed my first aerial strike goal (in other words, managed to leap off the wall of the arena and hit the ball out of mid air straight down into the opponent’s goal), a strange version of myself appeared. I thumped my chest and shouted “LOOK AT THAT SHIT,” startling my children and disgusting my wife – and I didn’t care a lick. I had done the unimaginable – the perfect goal – and no one could stop me. I became a monster in the best way possible.
Luckily, most chat in Rocket League (for the PS4, at least) is conducted by a preset series of statements accessible via the directional pad. “Nice Shot,” “What a Save,” and “Great Pass!” are all presets that you can trigger to show appreciation. There are also some that are intended to be useful and not merely congratulatory, terms like ‘Centering’ or ‘Take the Shot’ or ‘Defending’ – but these aren’t really used, as everyone is far too focused on the game at hand to muck about with the directional pad.
It is due to this lack of communication, though, that I achieved the greatest sense of accomplishment. The unspoken accord between teammates that can occur, if you are lucky enough to be placed into a team with decent players, is deeply satisfying. Without speaking a word to these strangers, I often found myself synchronizing my actions with theirs. When a ball bounced over to the corner, I slowed in the center of the field, waiting for the opportunity to pounce as my teammate went into the corner and thrusted the ball in front of the goal. It is this developing knowledge of the game, an understanding of geography and team that is bred over time, that produces some of the most rousing moments in Rocket League.
There are, of course, a few problems with Rocket League. While it is not beset by the plague of bugs that helped prevent SARP from ever achieving stardom on the PS3, Rocket League struggles with the load of players its success has generated. Rocket League regularly hovers around 100,000 concurrent players searching for their fix of rocket soccer, a number built by the parents of video game stardom in 2015: a place in the Instant Games Collection on Playstation Plus, popularity with YouTube critics and players, and Top 10 placement in games played on Twitch.tv.
Psyonix stated that over 5 million unique players have taken part in Rocket League since release. Perhaps, then, the independent San Diego studio can be forgiven for the inability of their dedicated server infrastructure to keep up with demand. While lag can absolutely destroy all enjoyment of the game, it remains one of the only problem areas with Rocket League. There are a few others – for instance, when playing in a ranked game there are no AI replacements for players who drop out (unranked has this feature), meaning you can be left 1 on 2 or 3 in a game that is nearly impossible to effectively solo. There is also the concern over progression; without stats, levels are by and large meaningless, taking away any sense of real progression.
AMAZING! More than 5 MILLION downloads since we launched on July 7! Your continued support for our game is truly humbling. Thank you.
— Rocket League (@RocketLeague) July 29, 2015
However, these are minor quibbles, quibbles that mean absolutely nothing while actually playing Rocket League. On the field of rocket-powered automotive soccer, all that truly matters is hitting the ball, destroying your opponents, and executing maneuvers with fine-tuned precision. Luckily, these are all things that Rocket League is superbly designed to do. While the year is young yet in terms of video game releases, Rocket League is easily one of the best games to come out in 2015.