By Scott Southard. This is Load File, where we discover passions for sports, cars, and sportscars we never knew we had. Scott buckles his seatbelt, plants his hands at 10 and 2, and uses turn signals vigilantly in Rocket League, the new breakout hit from Psyonix, Inc. on PS4 and PC.
I’ve lamented the last few months of releases on Playstation Plus (Sony’s online service that tosses users a handful of free games each month in exchange for a yearly fee). It’s been a dismal showing of last generation games, second-rate indie games, second-rate last-gen indie games, etc. A constant cycle of enthusiastic excitement turned to straight up grief. PS Plus was becoming something of a purgatorial space for the games that no one gave a shit about. It had been the slow decline of something once great. That is until this week, when something so small, so simple, squeaked its way into the free games line up and blew up the marketplace in a way that hadn’t been seen before. Rocket League came along, and now I can care once more.
The fact that developer, Psyonix, doesn’t have a storied history of paradigm-shifting properties has made this little explosion all that more unexpected. They’ve put out their share of multiplayer games (Unreal Tournament 2004 being the most notable), but the release day success of Rocket League clearly took them by surprise. (As I type this, the online servers are overloaded and down, but I assume within the span of finishing the review, they’ll come back up and then crash again.) Spend a minute on Twitter to revel in the charm of a small team of developers trying to keep their ultra-popular (they hit #1 on Steam’s Top Seller list) game up and running, while also keeping their newly-formed fanbase happy and sated. The whole ordeal came out of nowhere and has been a blast to follow over the past few days.
THE REST OF THE WORLD CALLS IT ‘CAR FOOTBALL’
The vocabulary for what makes Rocket League different than the usual small pile of throwaways and has-beens might not exist (and I’m not sure I could use that vocabulary to explain why if it did). The game is terribly low-brow and simple: Soccer with cars. To needlessly expound, each player customizes their own version of a Hot Wheels-esque car and plops down onto a large, fenced-in field with a goal on either end and a ball in the middle. Things move fast as players drive, crash, flip, and soar in attempts to knock the ball into the opposing team’s goal. That’s it. But the game is also sparingly smart. Matches last five minutes, which makes them long enough to sink into, but short enough to play another (and another and another). It’s insane how quickly the formula jams its claws in and suddenly you’ve played through an 18 game season by yourself while waiting for the multiplayer servers to come back online.
GET ONTO MY TEAM AND INTO MY CAR
But a key component to Rocket League is the ability to play with others. This game is meant for competition with friends (or enemies, as it’s just been officially named an eSport), and technical server-side issues aside, the multiplayer component is a delight. A very straightforward matchmaking system allows a small amount of choice (team size, ranked or unranked), and otherwise plops players into games with others of a similar ranking, keeping things balanced and fun. The infrastructure is no Call of Duty or even Madden, but it doesn’t need to be. The beauty of Rocket League is its knowledge of itself and the economical implementation of features and gameplay elements. There is nothing superfluous and it only offers what it needs to.
IT’S A PITCH, NOT A FIELD
The majority of the fun comes in the high-intensity moments that play out throughout each match. Happenstantial goals from across the field, or a diving (as much as a car can be said to dive), save in the waning seconds of the clock add up to an experience I haven’t had since playing videogames for the first time. A friend compared it to first playing Mario and physically jumping in real life while pressing the jump button. The visceral immersion in this big dumb car soccer game is really that powerful. I can’t quite quantify what is the actual draw of the game, but as with most instances of such lightning in a bottle, it seems to be a stack of factors. The gameplay is tight and balanced, the upgrade progression is consistently rewarding (wizard hats? flame decals?), the “one more match” factor is huge, and it’s satisfying as hell when things go your way.
The Playstation Plus drought is over, and the flood is roaring in. Rocket League is a well-made product, through and through. What it lacks in size and scope, it makes up for in twitchy blasts of joy and the fact that I cannot crash these hot rods into this big, bouncing ball.