At its core Rocket League is as simple as concepts get. You play soccer using rocket powered cars. The only rule is to knock an oversized ball into your opponent’s goal and prevent them from doing the same. It’s this simplicity that makes Rocket League approachable to anyone whether they are sports fans or not. Players will instantly feel familiar with the concept and before long will be speeding around the pitch, jumping, powersliding, spinning, and flipping their cars at the ball as if they’ve been doing it forever.
Graphically Rocket League shines on the Unreal Engine. It’s clean and crisp with silky smooth framerates and a lovable art style that captures the theme perfectly. The cars themselves are bursting with personality and allow you to customize them with different decals, toppers, paint, and wheels. The various stadiums offer a great sense of scale with large crowds reacting in unison with “ooohs” and “awws” and counting down with the clock at the end of each match. There are even smaller details like moving blades of grass, field paint, and rainy conditions. It helps deliver credibility and pulls you into a world where rocket powered cars wearing viking hats playing soccer is not only believable, but the most watched sport on the planet.
The cars in Rocket League control tight and responsively while the physics on display are extremely impressive. The giant ball will bounce off hoods and walls naturally, even the antennas on each car will move realistically. You’ll begin to realize how subtle movements and angles can mean the difference between a game-tying goal or a heartbreaking miss off the cross bar. Thankfully Rocket League is a blast even when you’re failing, but it’s in these failures you’ll start to appreciate the amount of skill it takes to execute on a consistent basis. For those looking to perfect their technique, skills can be honed and polished in Rocket League’s training mode.
The training mode opens with a quick tutorial that introduces you to the basic concepts like jumping and powersliding then moves onto more advanced techniques like dodging and rocket flying. This is when the layers of complexity start to peel back and the “easy to play, hard to master” addictive quality is revealed. The training mode offers three scenarios with three different skill levels. Goalie training tasks you with protecting your net against increasingly difficult shots; Striker training presents you with various scoring opportunities that you must finish; and Aerial training has you defying gravity to perform high-flying tricks and maneuvers. Aerial is the most difficult technique and also the most satisfying when executed properly, adding an entirely new dimension to the game’s enjoyment.
While completing each training scenario won’t increase attributes or level up your cars, you will feel yourself organically getting better each time you play. The shots you never thought you could block in Goalie mode, you eventually will. The goals you thought were impossible in Striker mode, will find the net. And that ball that seemed untouchable in Aerial mode 80-feet above the pitch will be just a jump and a few turbo boosts away. It’s such a rarity in the current gaming landscape to play a game where the avatar doesn’t get better, the person holding the controller does. This is Rocket League’s most endearing quality and what makes it so damn addictive and intoxicating.
Once you’re confident in your skills and want to take them to the pitch, you’ll have 4 different match options to choose from. The standard option is the 3 vs 3 mode which I found to be the best showcase of what Rocket League has to offer. It’s balanced to perfection and allows for a surprising amount of strategic depth. You’ll find that spacing and positioning is key with timely centering passes often leading to easy goals. It’s best to have 3 distinct roles on your team; Striker, Midfielder, and a Goalie. These roles will of course fluctuate throughout the match, but if your teammates understand their strengths and responsibilities you’ll be tough to beat. Another thing I love about 3 vs 3 is you are less reliant on individual skill and more reliant on Teamwork. There is more margin for error and allows for lesser skilled players to still have a blast, make impactful plays, and not feel like a detriment to their team. It’s a great mix between playing towards your strengths while having teammates to cover your weaknesses, feeding into Rocket League’s approachable design.
The other 3 modes allow for various team sizes and will offer a different flavor of the Rocket League cocktail. Duel is simply 1 vs. 1, best player wins. This is where your individual talent will be put to the test as there are no teammates to bail you out. You’ll find that having great dribbling skills is key and ball control is at a premium. Doubles is a 2 vs. 2 mode. You and a teammate really have to focus more on spacing, positioning, and seamlessly transition between roles to be successful. It is not uncommon in doubles to go from Goalie to Midfielder to Striker in the blink of an eye. The final mode is appropriately named Chaos. This is a 4 vs. 4 mode and is as crazy and hectic as the name suggests. While there are less opportunities to control the ball and allow individual talent to make an impact, the fast, frenzied, white-knuckle moment-to-moment action is unmatched by any other mode.
All modes can be experienced both locally and online while also offering 4-player splitscreen. There is even a Season mode that you can play solo or splitscreen against AI controlled opponents. While the AI opponents won’t offer the same strategic depth as human controlled players, their difficulty can be dialed up to offer a real challenge and are still fun to play against especially early in your Rocket League career. Of course playing online is where Rocket League truly shines, it even offers cross platform play between PS4 and PC. And Thanks to dedicated servers you’ll rarely encounter any lag, which is an impressive feat for a small studio. Matchmaking is quick, load times are snappy, and you’ll be in-and-out of games before you know it. There are also Online leaderboards allowing you to track wins, goals, saves and much more adding to the competitive, e-sports nature. Rocket League is one of the best competitive online gaming experiences I have ever had.
The range of emotions you will experience during a match are real because it is your skill that determines the outcome, not a random dice roll or an unlucky lag spike. One moment you’ll be hitting a centering pass to a teammate, next you’ll be rushing down the pitch trying for an epic save, then agonizing and apologizing for the own goal you just scored. Then you’ll redeem yourself with a back-flipping, game-winning, bicycle kick goal from midfield. Nothing will match that euphoric moment, watching the ensuing explosion as cars fly across the pitch. It is borderline orgasmic. Every game you play will have dozens of good, bad, ugly, and jaw-dropping moments just like this. There is a good chance you’ll wear out your Share button trying to capture them all. It’s amazing how a short, five-minute match can be so fulfilling and make you eager for the next. Even if you’re on the wrong end of the scoreboard you’ll still find yourself having a blast while scratching and clawing your way back. I have seen enough three goal leads evaporate so know you’re never truly out of it and no lead is ever safe. This is not only a rare feeling while playing competitively online, it’s even rarer with sports games. You’ll also find yourself taking individual pride in your performance and wanting to compete until the final horn sounds. It is truly remarkable what Psyonix has been able to accomplish with such a basic concept.
The late, great Satoru Iwata once said, “Above all, video games are meant to just be one thing: Fun for everyone.” It’s only fitting that in the same month we lost this industry icon, Psyonix delivers a game that completely embodies this quote like nothing in recent memory. Rocket League is an approachable, addictive, rewarding, and intoxicatingly fun experience that will appeal to everyone who touches the controller. If you only play one game this year, make sure that game is Rocket League. More importantly, make sure you don’t have anything planned the rest of the night. See you on the pitch!
*Review based on PS4 version. Also available on PC and Xbox One