Whether it’s online casual or ranked matches, no-pressure exhibitions, split-screen local co-op with up to four players, or an intense 36-week season mode, Rocket League is all about getting into the next throttle-pounding match as fast as possible. Unfortunately, servers are still struggling, which means your mileage may vary day-to-day when it comes to online features. But the silver lining is the mostly formidable AI can make even offline matches interesting and tense. The execution of this simple idea is so strong and so engaging that it keeps bringing me back, time and time again, for just one more match.
The idea of rocket-powered cars flipping through the air in Thunderdome-esque matches of cage-soccer sounds like the incoherent ramblings of a madman, but it turns out to be just crazy enough to work. Psyonix’s Rocket League, the follow up to Supersonic Acrobatic Rocket-Powered Battle-Cars, finds dumb fun in pulling turbocharge-assisted front flips in an ice cream truck, and the white-knuckle strategy in working with your team to control the giant ball on offense and defense. The fast and fluid absurdity of Rocket League fuses into one hell of a good time – despite servers that rarely work perfectly. The main mode puts two teams of three in visually diverse but performance-identical vehicles (though 1v1, 2v2, and 4v4 variants exist) as they race up and down the pitch chasing the league’s oversized equivalent of a soccer ball. The great thing is, you don’t need to know anything about driving games or soccer to play. The rules are simple: drive really fast around bright, glossy, neon colored arenas and do fancy tricks while trying to smash an endlessly ricocheting ball into a deceptively tight space.
The heart of Rocket League lives in that feeling of unrestricted movement. It’s thanks in large part to the use of what I would call “physics plus,” where the laws of gravity and momentum get a colorful overhaul to allow for driving on the walls and ceiling, and ridiculous mid-air direction changes that would liquefy the driver in the real world. But its fantastic movement is so arcadey and satisfying that I often have to remind myself to pump the brakes or lay off the tricks when a simple nudge or bump will do.
And those tricks are the first surface-scratching glimpse at Rocket League’s layer of strategy under the ostensibly chaotic mashing of metal. Tapping your jump button puts you in the air, where tapping it again with a direction held performs a somersault, barrel roll, or bicycle kick. It might sound simple – and really, it is – but timing a strike to connect with a speeding ball, and controlling the direction you send it sailing, down to precise angles, takes some skill. There are real, potent levels of satisfaction to be tapped when you see a teammate lining up a shot from the corner and read the situation, slamming on the brakes to nudge the “pass” into the goal with a perfectly timed barrel roll. It’s electric.
Outside of the frenzied and intoxicating gameplay, Rocket League has scant few features to flesh out the experience. The player-progression system – where winning matches, performing in-game feats, or doing anything really, earns you experience – unlocks a small stable of goofy cars or cosmetic decals and accessories.
It’s fun to drive a truck wearing a sombrero, sure, but because there’s little or no mechanical difference between the dozen or so sportsters, trucks, exotics, a few concept models and at least one ice cream truck (exclusive to PS4 players), there’s no actual sense of progression that changes how you play a match. And while that’s all perfectly justifiable in the name of a level multiplayer playing field, I would have loved to see each car carry the strengths and weaknesses implied by their real-world counterparts: sport cars as speedy but hard-to-handle strikers, trucks and vans as slower but stronger defenders, and the balanced but all-purpose roamers somewhere in between. It seems like a missed opportunity to add a more meaningful connection to your cars in the garage, especially when making a squad to play through an entire season.But there is a separate progression arc found in learning to use the surprising mechanical depth of Rocket League’s many controls and flighty physics. Whether that arc takes you through online competitive or ranked matches, easy-going exhibitions, up to four-player local cooperative play on split-screen, or all 36 weeks of a fully expanded season mode, the Rocket League experience is always about getting into the next throttle-pumping match.
And while there are leaderboards to track your statistics and global prowess, Rocket League servers struggle to support the influx of PlayStation 4 and PC players hunting for same and cross-platform matchmaking bouts, rendering most of Rocket League’s online features – including the online party system – spotty at best. Fortunately, the AI is formidable on either difficulty setting above Rookie, both as teammates and opponents, so Rocket League doesn’t lose much in a completely offline existence, which is good, because its online suite is largely unreliable.