Reviewer: Jacob Toman
ESRB Rating: E (Everyone)
Platforms: Xbox One, PS4, PC [reviewed]
This week I was on a phone call with a pastor looking to use gaming as a platform for ministry in his local congregation, both as a form of inreach to his current church attenders, and as a means of outreach to those curious about who Jesus is and why He matters. He was looking for a game that wasn’t violent, but was competitive, and could be played quickly before a meal, a youth gathering, or a worship service. He cited his early days as a pastor when Halo was big on college campuses and how easy it was to build gospel-oriented relationships through simply playing Halo with fellow students. I encouraged him that the game he was looking for was called “Rocket League”.
I must admit, I’m confused...
Rocket League is a combustible combination of soccer and cars. The goal is simple: knock a ball into the opposing team's net more times than they do. The craziness of Rocket League is found when fast paced racing cars crash into a competitive coliseum to compare skills. This isn’t your run of the mill soccer game; this game is the love child of finely tuned physics and a game engine that births ultra-rapid gameplay.
Rocket League is much like a good road trip, enjoyable both in the journey and the destination. The fun of Rocket League made it a rather difficult game to review. During my time in Rocket League I felt like I was caught somewhere between a family friendly Nintendo Wii product and a hyper competitive online ranked eSport.
Even as I was laughing this week in playing Rocket League for this review I was stuck on this question: what makes this simple idea -- Cars + Soccer -- such a successful game?
K.I.S.S. Keep It Simple Stupid!
One of the widely recognized beauties of soccer is its simplicity. The entry barrier to soccer is possessing a ball, and then having opposite goals. In other traditional sports, the entry barrier is a bit more than ball + goals. As soccer has mass appeal across the globe due to its simplicity, so too does Rocket League.
Rocket League isn’t overly complex with strategies, formations, set pieces or plays; it’s non stop driving action, only giving players a chance to catch their breath when a goal is scored (an instant replay is shown that lasts about 4-6 seconds). It’s this incessant pace of play that drives the arcade style action to greatness. Rocket League wasn’t released by a recognizable figure within the industry. Growing up with the likes of Madden and Fifa it may be expected that the best sports game of the year would come from a studio like 2K Games or EA Sports. Psyonix released Rocket League with a monumental success grossing over $70 Million on PS4 and PC alone (not counting the subsequent success on Xbox One).
The controls of the game are also simple and intuitive, allowing even the most casual of gamers to jump in with ease. The PC version supports gaming controllers as well as keyboard + mouse (controllers are the only option on console), and while each car in the game has its own unique feel, none of the cars are so unique that they are difficult to pilot. Nolan Bushnell, one of the fathers of the game industry, once said that “All the best games are easy to learn and difficult to master. They should reward the first quarter and the hundredth” (a phrase that has come to be known as Bushnell’s Law), which is an accurate summary of the simple appeal of Rocket League.
A Masterpiece of Choices
While the basic gameplay is simple and straightforward, players have a number of ways to tailor the game to their liking. Matches consist of 2-8 players, so you can choose whether you want to square off a single opponent 1v1, jump into the 4v4 Chaos Mode, or go somewhere in between. Psyonix has also experimented with other game types, including Hoops mode (released to celebrate March Madness 2016) and Hockey mode.
Rocket League’s beautiful options extend beyond the gameplay and into the business model of the product. It’s quite affordable compared to most top tier sports games; at $29.99, it’s half the price of EA’s Madden and FIFA titles, or 2K Games’ NBA and NHL franchises.
Rocket League is one of the few major online games to support cross platform play between PC users and PlayStation 4 users, and the first to support cross platform play between PC and Xbox One (Microsoft also made waves when they recently signaled a willingness to support play with other console platforms like PlayStation, but nothing has come of that so far). The ability to play a game across multiple platforms ends the social dilemma that occurs with every new console generation. Gamers, up until only recently, have had to choose a sub group to align themselves with: the PC subculture or the Console subculture (which itself is split between Xbox, PlayStation, and Nintendo consoles).*
*Thanks to the rapid pace of mobile technology development over the last decade, there is now a third major subculture of gamers that play mainly via their mobile device.
With Rocket League, gamers can choose to play this game on any platform they like and can still happily play against or alongside an opponent or friend on a completely different style of gaming machine. This increases the total population of available players for Rocket League matches every moment the game servers are live. Typical online gaming companies will have to first release a product, and then establish itself as a service based brand providing for the needs of the users who first brought into the release of the product. Another layer of complexity is added when the choice of gaming platform is presented.
Accolades of greatness
Rocket League has quickly risen to the top of the popularity charts in almost every tangible category – sales, live viewership, critical awards, multiplayer events and concurrent players. Across the spectrum of critics, Rocket League has been praised from major industry contributors like Playstation Universe’s “Best Sports Game of E3” and The Game Awards 2015 winner as “Best Independent Game” and “Best Sports/Racing Game”. At the 19th Annual D.I.C.E. awards in February of 2016 Rocket League won the “Sprite Award” alongside with notables Undertale and Kerbal Space Program and “Best Design” at the 2016 Game Developers Choice Awards.
The next Halo?
Through a mixture of my own experience in Rocket League and in chatting with fellow players online (both using voice communication in game, and text based chat) I’ve come to hold the opinion that Rocket League has the potential to be the next “Halo”. In the early 2000’s, dorm rooms were packed with students gathering around television sets, grabbing a controller, and sharing a caffeinated meal of greasy pizza and Mountain Dew. These students may not have known each other the night before, but someone posted on the dorm message boards that there would be a Halo tournament open to all who could attend. This style of event swept through colleges, high school lock-ins, youth groups, and with the proliferation of high speed home internet, the digitalized globe. Regardless of skill level, Halo endeared itself both as a game for the hardcore gamer, as well as fun and intuitive enough for the casual new player.
The above paragraph could be written again to describe the gathering game of this current mixed casual/hardcore generation of gamers. Those who are into sports will be drawn into Rocket League due to the high skill cap, similarly to the early eSports heroes of the Halo tournament scene. Those who are a bit more casually interested in a fast-paced, arcade style, hot seat experience will find it through Rocket League’s availability to play online, at home, alone, or with a friend or spouse next to them.
Easy to pick up and hard to put down, Rocket League has found a combination of intuitive gameplay and pleasing aesthetics that has wrought it nothing but spectacular success since its release in July 2015. Perhaps this is exactly what makes Rocket League so good: the simplicity of its core game mechanics allow for a spectrum of engagement that encompasses both casual hot-seat gamers, to hardcore eSports enthusiasts.
Whether you are someone who enjoys a party game with friends on the couch, or a hardcore competitive eSports expert, Rocket League is a game you will definitely want in your repertoire.
OVERALL SCORE: A+