We're in what you might call the dog days of the annual sports game cycle. There are still a handful of people playing last year's games, and baseball fans are happily plugging away at MLB 15: The Show, but the rest of us are mostly waiting until fall arrives. Well, at least we were until Rocket League came out of nowhere.
Check social media or any number of message boards, and you're apt to find some reference to this ridiculously fun new game by Psyonix, which is currently available free to PlayStation Plus users (and it's also available on Steam). It's so popular that it's smashing Psyonix's servers and shattering their in-house record for concurrent users. It has arrived at the perfect time, capturing the imagination of gamers in the part of the year where there isn't a lot to play, least of all sports sims.
For those of you who aren't familiar with Rocket League, it's actually the sequel to the little-known Supersonic Acrobatic Rocket-Powered Battle-Cars for the PlayStation 3, which was released back in 2008. Like its predecessor, Rocket League is one part physics-based soccer game and one part RC racer, featuring spacious arenas in which RC cars bounce off walls and each other in an effort to knock an outsized ball into the goal. It's chaotic and ridiculous, and within five minute, you'll find yourself giggling uncontrollably as a gaggle of cars bound into the air and smash into one another in an effort to bank away the elusive ball. It works for any number of reasons:
1. It fill the arcade sports game gap: The physics can be a tad floaty, and the cars can be difficult to control, but the learning curve is otherwise quite gentle. I had a handle on the controls and the strategy within a couple rounds. By contrast, Madden NFL took me a solid year to properly understand. I don't want to bang the "sports sims are too hard" drum too hard since complexity isn't always a bad thing, but Rocket League does a fantastic job of filling the arcade sports game gap left vacant by the demise of NBA Jam and the Street series.
2. The games are nice and quick: I've argued for a long time that 15 minutes is the sweet spot for a multiplayer game. It's one of the biggest advantages that FIFA has over NBA 2K or Madden. Games like League of Legends have managed to thrive anyway, but that's been despite their playtime rather than because of it. With Rocket League matches running a mere 5-10 minutes from start to finish, it never risks feeling like an overly long commitment.
3. It has local multiplayer: The benefits of local multiplayer tend to be overlooked by the mainstream games press, who frequently live in small apartments and view games through the very narrow lens of the hobbyist. For parents, kids, and parties, local multiplayer can be a godsend. Rocket League reminds me of all the great times I had playing Nintendo 64 games with my friends. I know what I'm playing next time I have company.
4. It just feels good: Patrick Klepek wrote about this a bit today over on Kotaku. Though the tiniest bit floaty, as I already mentioned, the momentum is still tuned well enough that it feels wonderful to slide through a hail of cars and deliver a hard enough bump to the ball that it sails into the goal. It feels even better to see it slip out from a pileup, hit the jets, and ram it into the net. The action is bolstered by a tremendous sense of speed, particularly when you activate the boost. It's that moment when you manage to harness Rocket League's speed with a modicum of technical ability, though, that special things happen.
5. You can make your car shoot flower exhaust when you hit the boost: And you can give it stripes, which we all know makes it faster.
Probably the easiest way to gauge Rocket League's appeal is its apparent hold over non-sports fans who ordinarily wouldn't go anywhere near a soccer or racing game. It hearkens back to the days of the NES, when simplistic but entertaining sports games like Blades of Steel could grab anyone, not just hardcore sim heads. We've lost some of that in the drive to add more and more depth to the annual sports sim; but while racing games have had the likes of Burnout and Need for Speed to balance more hardcore sims, Madden and FIFA have had no such counterweight. The arcade sports sims that have made it to market over the past few years have been mostly underwhelming, include Super Mega Baseball (despite the protestations of my peers). In that regard, Rocket League is more than welcome.
We'll have to see whether Rocket League ultimately ends up having any legs; but regardless of how long it remains popular, it's been a welcome respite from waiting for training camp to get underway.