Rocket League Review (PS4)
Submitted on: Jul 13, 2015 by Glenn Wigmore
It’s very rare these days to see an indie developer get the resources, platform and timing they need to make their game a success. We’ve seen some zeitgeist around titles like Super Mega Baseball last year, and the Trials franchise has received some additional development and support that enabled it to reach a wider audience. But with Rocket League, developer Psyonix has been able to take its singular rocket-car soccer idea -- which originated with Supersonic Acrobatic Rocket-Powered Battle-Cars -- and turn it into something with a high degree of polish and a lot potential users.
By releasing the game in mid-July and giving it a free slot on the PS Plus offerings, Sony and Psyonix have smartly taken the long-game approach, losing some potential money up front but then gaining a huge pool of players that will dive into the game’s ecosystem. On top of that, there are dedicated servers -- who the hell gets those for indie games these days? -- that allow online play to operate smoothly. Add in PC-to-PS4 crossplay, leaderboards, stat tracking, customization, season mode, AI bots and some robust training options, and you’ve got a game that has as many features as many AAA releases.
Of course, none of this would mean anything if the game didn’t provide gameplay worth playing. Luckily, Rocket League is a real treat when you hit the pitch. The basic idea is that two teams are playing soccer, but that game of soccer is taking place with cars instead of human players. These cars can flip, jump, fly and even drive up the side of the stadium walls. By collecting boost power-ups on the ground, the cars can execute even crazier tricks and get way bigger air time. The team that scores the most goals, by directing the ball towards a giant net, will win the game.
The joy of Rocket League comes from watching all of the creativity and teamwork that human players will display during matches. Since there is support for 1v1, 2v2, 3v3 and 4v4, there is a nice variety of gameplay scenarios that are possible. At first, most players will just start with the basics, attempting to bop the ball down the field and into the net. This can be its own adventure, though, as the ball has some very subtle physics on it that can make some shot attempts go agonizingly wide. As things progress, players will eventually start to discover the ways they can flip and jump the cars, allowing for glancing side shots, bicycle kicks and end-over-end goals.
I’ve enjoyed Rocket League so much already because there are just so many ways to play the game and be involved, even when not directly on the ball. Some teams already have players dedicating their time to goalkeeping; other teams have players who rove the midfield, looking for loose-ball opportunities. What’s great is that there are sequences that are analogous to real soccer as well, with the curved structure of the stadium creating corner kicks, if you will, where the ball is directed perilously in front of the net. Players will then jump their cars up in the air, looking to either clear the ball away or knock it in with a "header."
Some of the advanced play gets downright magical, with cars able to actually fly if you time your boost jumps correctly. Some friends and I were having all sorts of fun flying in the air towards the net, trying to knock a ball out of the air and into the goal. The developers have really nailed the tension when a ball is in the air, too, with a sense of possibility as it slowly -- very slowly -- floats back to the pitch surface. All the planning and timing in the world can’t save you from other players flipping in at the last minute or, better yet, a stray car actually exploding your vehicle via full-on turbo burst.
When goals are scored, there is a satisfying explosion in the net, throwing all of the nearby cars away. It’s a fun little detail that remains amusing even after many games. After goals, replays are available, and you can save these later for a full-on director mode, where you can view the action from any angle. Rocket League is filled with smart design decisions like that, just like when a human player drops out and they are quickly replaced by an AI.
I won’t say the bots are perfect, but they do have a nose for the net (a bit too much, I’d say), and they can usually fit the bill. It’s a good substitute when you’ve got nobody around to play with, but the action will be a little less dynamic in terms of setups and aerial goals, of course. You can play against these bots in exhibition and season mode, and they have three different skill levels. The training mode is also fully featured, with basic and advanced tutorials, position-specific training and a free play mode.
The star of Rocket League is, not surprisingly, the online play, where up to eight players can duke it out in various playlists. With unlockable customization options, stat tracking, leaderboards, ranked/unranked playlists, a party system and crossplay between PS4 and PC, the developers have left no stone unturned. The fact that the game has dedicated servers is also kind of incredible to me, as it helps the action play smoothly and prevents the dreaded "migrating host" scenario when people drop out.
The issue right now is that the servers have been going up and down since launch, with some players struggling to get in on the exciting online action. I’ve been able to play quite often, with several protracted game sessions. I’ve only experienced lag one time, and that seemed like kind of a one-off. There has been the odd time where I've gone online and found the servers down, but the developers and Sony are spinning up new servers and working on some things for an upcoming patch. This is clearly an issue, but I have been able to play quite a bit already. I’m confident this will only get better as things go forward. I’ve got to say that it is really cool seeing 80,000-plus people online, as it shows that Rocket League has a lot of heart.
Good for Psyonix. They are supporting their game in the right way, and they’ve created a gameplay loop that’s super addictive and full of ridiculous moments and co-operative hijinks. Like everyone else, I want to see the server issues stabilized, but Rocket League has already shown itself to be a winner.