I’ve never really liked sports games.
Granted, I’ve never really liked sports either, but video games based on sports are plain mystifying. I had to review a bunch a couple years ago, and they puzzled me. By and large, sports games have you playing as a coach - or even worse, a manager or agent - rather than a player. I spent my time juggling stats and diagrams, or wrestling with unintuitive controls, rather than feeling part of a game.
Despite my physical ineptitude, I can at least acknowledge that playing sports is an intense, physical, adrenaline-pumping experience, with a magic camaraderie that few other activities can match. Sports video games don’t care about that stuff. From their awkward game mechanics to their impersonal camera angles to even their in-game advertising, they are designed to appeal to how sports fans know sports: as broadcast entertainment. And to be fair, that’s their audience. But I ask: why would you want to replicate the experience of watching a game on TV, when you could replicate the experience of actually playing that game?*
Enter Rocket League. The followup to Supersonic Acrobatic Rocket-Powered Battle-Cars, propelled to megahit status by equal parts brilliant design and a PlayStation Plus giveaway, is not just a great game. It’s a rebuttal, intentional or otherwise, to the well-crafted but stodgy sports sims EA stocks shelves with each holiday season. It accomplishes this task surprisingly simply: through blended genres, streamlined gameplay mechanics, and the perfect amount of video game ridiculousness.
Rocket League isn’t the first game to weld the basic setup of soccer to a video-gamey genre, but it is one of the best.** The elevator pitch - soccer, but with rocket-powered monster trucks - is easy to grasp, conjuring images of chaos, destruction, and speed. So simple is that core concept that its depth is surprising and delightful.
Control-wise, Rocket League plays like a driving game. You control a vehicle on a playing field, with controls familiar to veterans and intuitive even for newcomers. That neatly sidesteps one of the worst problems of sports games. Instead of using arcane button combinations to approximate organic, human movement, Rocket League has you controlling a mechanical object whose movement maps readily to a video game controller. Paradoxically, that makes the experience much closer to playing an actual sport than any sports game.
Despite the simple controls, Rocket League’s core mechanics lend it astonishing depth. There’s a dodge/flip move that can give you extra height and speed as you launch your car in any direction. Though it’s only one button, dodges can be deployed deftly, hitting the ball in mid-air, dodging incoming vehicles, or just hoofing down the field quicker. The arenas are built with rounded-off edges, making momentum easier to conserve and utilise in creative ways. And each arena has a series of boost pads that fill up your rocket fuel - useful when you need to hit supersonic speeds or clumsily fly through the air. Those pads quickly become a risk/reward compromise when manoeuvring around the field. This is all simple design, just finely-tuned to facilitate finesse in a way I’ve never seen in “real” sports games.
Another smart move by Psyonix is the way Rocket League remembers that it’s a video game. As you might guess, this game gets absolutely mental. Rocket League’s matches are fast, furious, and short - typically five to ten minutes. It’s the same pacing as multiplayer shooters, but applied to this weird, addictive, silly perversion of soccer. The "gaminess" extends to its visuals - new cars, rocket-trail effects, and even hats can be unlocked, bringing with them a colourfully goofy aesthetic.
The gameplay’s good - great, even - but where Rocket League really sings is in multiplayer. Its unexpected 5-million-download success has caused a few server issues, but when matches actually work, boy are they great. Playing with real people brings out teamwork, and the teams are small enough (up to four a side) that tight tactics can be employed. Scoring an assisted goal means all the more when you’re playing alongside friends instead of managing a whole team by yourself.
Rocket League is a fantastic game and a surefire contender for many end-of-year lists. But it’s not just how it plays that’s so great - it’s the way it redefines and bests an entire genre in exactly the way I’d always wanted. Unlike other sports games, it captures fun instead of frustration; immediacy instead of micromanagement. Its free month on PS+ has wrapped up, but at $20, Rocket League is still a bargain.
* If there weren’t still major issues surrounding player movement, I’d say VR could be a terrific solution to the sports-game problem. But there are, so I won't.
** One of my best gaming experiences ever was playing endless matches of low-gravity, hammers-only Grifball in Halo Reach. Damn, that was fun.