When it comes to surprise success stories, there are none more surprising in recent memory than Psyonix's Rocket League. 2008's downloadable PlayStation 3 title Supersonic Acrobatic Rocket-Powered Battle Cars which, while decent fun, was generally forgotten about or passed over by most, was hardly the most likely title to spawn a game that would be downloaded and played by well over 10 million people, picking up a multitude of awards and which would be scoring so highly when in the reviewer's crosshairs. But yet, that's what has occurred and now – at long last - Xbox One players can get involved.
The uninitiated may scoff at Rocket League's success, suggesting that it arrived as part of the PlayStation Plus Instant Game Collection (read: PS+ subscribers got it for no charge at launch) right when the console was in dire need of new titles and that as such, it would naturally get a massive boost. Technically, those people would be correct, but settle down to play the game for a short while and it's easy to see why things spread like wildfire beyond those free downloads. Within minutes of picking up the controller, most players will be hooked on the incredibly simple premise, which is to play football using rocket-propelled cars. Two teams of between one and four players aside face off against each other, with the aim being to score more goals than the opposition. Cars can jump more or less in any direction, double-jump if needed, drive up the walls of the arena and - provided you have some boost left and a lot of skill to hand - fly high into the air to attack high balls or make dramatic saves.
It's such a simple idea. The best ones usually are.
It isn't just the idea, though. It's the execution. Psyonix have polished and tweaked almost every single aspect of the game to the point that words such as "flawless" and "perfect" aren't so far out of reach when describing things. The visuals are sharp and despite all being of the same layout, the arenas are dressed up to the point of being incredibly picturesque. The vehicles themselves – of which there are many – can be modified by changing paintjobs and decals, changing wheel styles, adding toppers or flags, and switching out the effect that occurs when you activate your boost. No matter what you choose, your personalized vehicle will look absolutely fantastic on the pitch. When it comes to audio design, a soundtrack plays out in the menus that is both infectious and absolutely suitable while on the field, the gathered crowd gasp and cheer believably as the action unfolds, with ambient effects filling the room. Not that you'll notice when you're concentrating intently during a match, of course.
If you were able to strip all of that away, the game would still be incredibly fun and addictive. The control system strikes that balance of being easy to pick up but tough to master. You'll start out by having trouble finding the ball as you're driving around. An arrow above the car lets you know where it is, with a shadow helping you to locate it when it's up in the air. But, you're still barreling around in a huge arena while five or more other players all keep knocking and deflecting the thing up and down the park, which makes things tough. After two or three games, you'll find your feet, start to realise that you're pre-empting where the ball will go as it ricochets around and that you're focusing more on being economical with the routes that you're taking, aiming towards refilling your boost store by hitting the relevant pickups as you do so. A few matches later, you're trying audacious backflip strikes to see if you can push the limits a little and before you know it, you're on your way to falling in love, working out strategies for different scenarios, getting back to defend when you think an attack is on the way, crossing the ball in for your teammates to finish off and hanging around just beyond the halfway line to see if you can't pull off an opportunist's move and snipe one home as a careless defence lets the ball crash across the face of the goal.
Most of these early games will take place in Rocket League's offline "Season" mode, which provides a series of AI opponents that – on the higher difficulty settings - will prove to be a challenge even to the most battle-tested player. It's a good way of getting your feet wet in the game before taking your first tentative steps into online play. When you do make the jump, you'll find a matchmaking system that is as well-designed as the rest of the game, as well as the ability to play in pretty much any configuration you choose. If you want to play a casual game of 2-a-side without anything being on the line, you can do it. If you want to jump in to ranked league play in a full 4 vs 4 match, you can do that, too. If you and two friends want to form a team for 3 vs 3, that's on offer as well. Or, you can play a little mano-a-mano against a single opponent if that's what you fancy. You can even select multiple game types to search for at a time, so there's none of the back-and-forth that other multiplayer titles generally end up putting you through. Whatever you choose, a match is generally found for you pretty speedily and loading into that game is ferociously quick. Indeed, from the time you're told "Starting game in 3…2…1…" you'll be on the pitch within five seconds or so. Not just occasionally, but every single time.
Playing 10 ranked matches in any configuration (Solo, 2v2, 3v3, or Solo 3v3 which is for individuals only as opposed to allowing parties to join) will see you awarded a starting division based on your skill level, and matchmaking from that point means that you'll generally always meet a fair and challenging level of competition. Playing consistently well will see you move up, but having a few off games will bring you down, so keeping your eye on the prize is a must. What this system does is allow you to find a speciality. Some will find that they're better players in head-to-head play, while others will do better when a full field of cars are careening about the place.
On the face of it, no matter how many ways there are to play online, you're just playing match after match of the same game, with the same rules, in arenas that are pretty much all laid out the same way. Ask anyone who's played the game for more than five minutes if that's a fair description of what happens however, and they'll give you a very straightforward answer. There's depth here. Take the simple act of changing the number of players in a match. With the standard 3v3, you'll generally find two players will move forward on attacks while one stands off, just in case they need to get back quickly. Switch it up to 4v4 and you've suddenly got a defender, two roaming midfielders, and a striker. Change it down to 2v2 and you've got to be pretty sure which one of you is going to be keeping their eyes on the target goal and which one will be ready to hustle back at a moment's notice. In solo, all bets are off, with incredible goals (both lucky and intended) being scored from all over the park. No matter how you play, there's always something new to learn. You might be lighting up the scoreboards, pulling off epic saves, scoring goals, and playing some nice assists, but then you'll be matched up against someone who's truly mastered aerial play and is soaring across the field to "head" the ball down into the goal from an impossible angle, or who's backflipping across their own goal to prevent what would have been certain defeat had you been between the sticks. Failing that, you'll notice things such as if you smack the ball into the wall at your own end of the pitch, there's a chance that it'll go over the opposition's heads and create a breakaway chance. At that point, you realise that you want to learn how and when to do these things and that you need to practice, which leads you to settling in for a few matches, which leads to you powering your console off when the sun comes up seven hours later.
What makes Rocket League so appealing online, is how very beautifully balanced it is. You can change the car that you use, but you aren't going to be usurped by someone who comes along who has the Back to the Future DLC and is using the DeLorean. Even though it's powered by a Mr. Fusion unit, their car moves in the same way that yours does and at the same speed. The arenas are laid out identically and the boost pickups are in the same place on every single one, so there's no home field advantage for someone who has spent time learning the map. Someone who has played 500 matches may have unlocked all of the toppers and flags and other decorations that they can, but they'll still be starting each match on that level playing field. All of this flies right in the face of the usual online setups, where how much money you're willing to spend to get Ronaldo and Messi in your team in something like FIFA Ultimate Team or how many guns you've unlocked after playing hundreds of rounds in Star Wars: Battlefront often is the key differentiator when all is said and done and the final scores are shown. Rocket League is a game of pure skill but due to the matchmaking system and the plethora of ways to play, doesn't have that standing as a barrier to joining the fun nor as a limitation to the amount of time you'll spend playing it.
There are a few things that could be improved or added to the mix to round Rocket League off, it must be said. A couple of the arenas do show off a few frame skips here and there. A patch is apparently en route and you'll undoubtedly get used to the minor jumps to the point that they aren't noticeable, but they aren't present in other versions and can be jarring to begin with. Also, even though you can get your friends together in a party and play as a team, there's no real recognized team system in place. You can call yourself "The Four Amigos" in your heads, but Rocket League will only ever recognize you as individuals in matches and in terms of league rankings. Something akin to the aforementioned FIFA's Pro Clubs system isn't something that would be nice to have in a game focused on team play, it's something that you'd expect to have.
It could also be said that more statistics would be handy. You can see your overall stats for the entire game, but not individual game mode or league numbers. So, you know that you're ranked as "Prospect Elite" in 2v2 play for example, but you don't know your win/loss record for that type of game, how many goals you've scored, or anything like that. The reporting side of things is a little bit bare bones for those who want to monitor their play and see where they could improve in order to climb up the rankings.
Speaking of ranked play, there doesn't appear to be any punishment (certainly not any that seem to work, at least) for people who abandon ship halfway through a match. Also, the way in which the game handles a leaver in this situation isn't great. If a player leaves in ranked play, they aren't replaced, but they can be in unranked games. What this means is that in a 3v3 ranked match, if two players on your team decide that they don't want to finish out the match, you'll be left playing 1v3 until the final whistle sounds and your ranking will take a hit as a result. It's understandable as to why a new player can't just drop in as they do in non-competitive matches – people would be awarded or punished for results they've had very little opportunity to affect - but an AI replacement would at least give sportsmanlike players a fair shot. It must be noted that across fifty or so online matches, this only happened to us half a dozen times, but it's enough for us to need to make mention.
We should also mention however, that even though one of those matches saw us lose 14-1 as we played 90% of the game in a 1v4 situation, we jumped right back in for another match directly after without even so much as the most fleeting of thoughts of putting down the controller. That's the hallmark of a fantastic game and Rocket League entirely fits that description.
Relatively very minor gripes aside, Rocket League is a genuinely new type of game that provides addictive, enjoyable, skill-based fun that doesn't prevent new players from joining the fray and which never threatens to become dull. Even folks who aren't necessarily excited by football, sports in general, or cars will find something to love here and for many, it'll become their new favourite pastime. This is absolutely superb and will keep you entertained for many, many hours.