A beautiful game

For more than a decade, one of my favorite TV shows has been the BBC series Top Gear. I’m the furthest thing from a car nut, but I’ve always enjoyed the insane stunts they pull. On more than one occasion, the program has played soccer with a variety of cars. So, even though I had never played Supersonic Acrobatic Rocket-Powered Battle-Cars, the predecessor to Rocket League, I expected to be able to immediately jump into the concept.

Funny enough, my hunch proved correct. Rocket League’s entire premise is just playing soccer with cars. You try to deflect a massive ball into your opponent’s net more times than they knock the ball into yours before the 5-minute clock hits all zeroes. What I couldn’t predict, however, was just how damn addicting it would be. Sure, it might not sound like a lot to hold your attention, but its simplicity is why this is one of the best off-the-wall, arcade-inspired experiences you’re likely to find on new-gen consoles. Not to mention, it’s easy to pick up and play but difficult to master—an often-defining quality for games that have a habit of sucking you in as Rocket League did.

This leads me to Rocket League’s greatest strength, its controls. The cars handle like most vehicles in other driving games, with the triggers serving as the accelerator and brakes.

With the face buttons, you can perform a variety of moves normally equated with a traditional soccer game, such as boost, slide, or even jump. You can flip your car to perform bicycle kicks; tackle your opponents at high speeds, causing them to explode and be taken out of the play for a couple of seconds; and even hurtle yourself across the goal line before the ball crosses it to make last-second saves.

I found it difficult at first to do anything beyond just blindly ramming into the ball. But after a dozen or so matches, I could control my car as if it were an extension of myself, stopping on a dime and performing acrobatic feats that shouldn’t be possible in a 2-ton car. I even used the walls, which you can drive along at high speeds, to bounce and re-direct the ball in mid-air.

The problem with performing these stunts, however, is that the game’s camera can’t keep up. It can be set to follow either the player or the ball, but neither option is as effective as I’d like. When it follows the player, the camera hugs the rear bumper pretty tightly, so it’s easy to lose track of the action when I’m taken out of the play or I shoot past the ball.

If the camera follows the ball, the controls change, making it far more difficult to control the car. You can switch between the two on the fly, but the herky-jerky transition isn’t pleasant. Instead, you’ll probably have a better time taking your chances with the default camera. A wider camera option, or even one locked at midfield, would have been a nice solution.

On the other hand, Rocket League excels at offering customization options. Although the choices are only cosmetic in nature, the game offers more than a hundred unlockable items ranging from new car chassis to the color of your boost stream. And something particularly pleasant is that you receive one randomly after each match you play, online or offline, win or lose. After only a few matches, you can make your car look as unique or as generic as you desire.

Unfortunately, the game modes themselves have far fewer options than the vehicles do. The single-player mode matches you against nine computer opponents that you can choose to face one to four times each. The mode doesn’t give you a reason to care, so it only serves as another way to warm up before taking on human opponents online. Both online and offline modes only feature your standard versus match, with the single variation coming from how many players—from one-versus-one to four-versus-four—you want to play with.

Even without many game-mode variations, though, the sole option Rocket League touts is a good one. Most folks probably won’t need more than your standard versus mode, especially if you start playing online with your friends, which is where this game really shines. At the time of this review, the early server issues that were reported seem to have been resolved; I experienced no connectivity or matchmaking problems during the past week. So, if you can look past a wonky camera and put the time into mastering the controls, Rocket League looks to be a nice hidden gem of a game that would make for a great way for you and your friends to get through the dog days of summer.

Developer: Psyonix • Publisher: Psyonix • ESRB: E10+ – Everyone 10 and older • Release Date: 07.07.15
Despite a few camera issues and lack of modes, Rocket League is a fun, addicting experience that will keep players engaged for a long time.
The Good Plenty of options for customization, surprisingly tight control, and tons of fun when playing with people.
The Bad No depth to the single-player; camera can be a nuisance at times.
The Ugly How badly it shames soccer games with humans.
Rocket League is available on PS4 and PC. Primary version reviewed was for PS4. Review code was provided by Psyonix for the benefit of this review.