If you were playing classic arena shooters back in the day, you know the feeling of a rocket duel. Two players, side-strafing and angling shots across expanses, occasionally blasting their own feet to gain the upper hand and frag an opponent. Winning a rocket launcher duel is a point of pride.
It's also a different challenge to tackle compared to most other weapons. While a sniper rifle or pistol might be "hitscan," rockets have travel time to account for and can splash damage off surfaces. A good rocket fight is a ballet of soaring explosives and footwork until someone eats it.
Electronic Arts' new multiplayer hero shooter Rocket Arena, developed by Final Strike Games, is a venue where rockets are the only weapon. Revealed during today's EA Play Live, everything in Rocket Arena centers around the careful, concerted dance of dodging and firing rockets.
We recently got to spend some hands-on time with Rocket Arena, and to my surprise, it wasn't really angling for the Quake market like I'd expected. Rocket Arena feels more Overwatch than anything else—its battlefields are colorful and filled with set dressing, and its characters are all easily identifiable by silhouette and utilize rockets in different manners.
The key difference is that there aren't really kills, but knockouts. Everytime an enemy is hit with a rocket, their meter builds up. Similar to Nintendo's Super Smash Bros., a higher meter means a hit will send someone flying, resulting in a knockout if they connect with the edge of the ring. Knocked-out players are given a brief respite as they soar over the top of the field, watching the action from on-high as they reset and rejoin the action.
Of course, there are escape options too. Players have an airdodge that lets them momentarily dodge rockets, as well as movement options to employ in order to create some distance and let their meter drop back down to safer levels. Rocket Arena has undergone some notable changes since its original reveal, even shifting from a first to third-person viewpoint.
The primary goal, according to Final Strike CEO Kevin Franklin, is to create a "knockout loop" that felt unique to Rocket Arena. "The most competitive players we've seen are not just great at blasting opponents, but also experts at timing dodges and jumps to avoid incoming rockets," says Franklin.
And while knockouts are crucial in the team deathmatch mode, others focus more on objectives and teamplay. Treasure Hunt encourages players to gather coins and keep control of a treasure chest. My personal favorite was Rocketball, where each team tries to defend their own goal and score on the opponents using a throwable ball.
The different abilities of each of the 10 available characters come into play when trying to control these objectives. Amphora was particularly good at disrupting an offensive player or punishing poor positioning with her water geyser ability, while Izell was more of a huntress, looking for easy knockouts on isolated players. Blastbeard was one of my favorites, as his cannon ability made for an easy way to play defense in Rocketball against faster fighters like Rev.
Crucially, alongside their signature abilities and looks, each character has their own rocket launcher type. Rev shoots chains of weaker rockets, while Boone's launches in a musket-style spread and Amphora's can charge up. Franklin tells me the character designs for Rocket Arena always start with a fighter's unique rocket type.
All of it comes together to feel like an approachable take on multiplayer first-person shooters. Deaths feel less punishing, and teammates can work together to take out enemy players one-by-one. The focus on objectives and physics make it easy for less frag-focused players to still contribute to victories, and rockets are a little easier to read and understand due to their natural travel time. "Players always have an opportunity to look out for and dodge incoming rockets, which can make all the difference in combat," Franklin tells me about how the lack of hitscan weapons change the way Rocket Arena is plays.
Rocket Arena feels a bit like a fighting game, thanks to its mid-air dodges and movement options, as well as a little bit like a shooter. With a good spread of characters, it definitely feels like something that could make for a couple fun sessions—staying power is another matter, depending on whether the objective modes and rocket duels stay interesting after the honeymoon phase wears off.
It won't be long until players get their own chance to check out Rocket Arena. EA's team-based hero rocket shooter launches on July 14 for PC via Origin and Steam, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One. It will also have cross-play at launch-part of a seemingly ongoing push for crossplay alongside Need For Speed Heat and Star Wars: Squadrons, and something Franklin tells me was important for the team.
"Cross-play was a major goal for us throughout development," says Franklin. "Our team wanted to make sure friends could play together regardless of platform, and we are very excited to support it on launch day."
As for Nintendo Switch or next-gen? Final Strike Games isn't commenting on either one at the moment. Plans seem to be set on the launch of Rocket Arena, as well as its first season of content via a Blast Pass with both free and premium tracks. Alongside the launch cosmetics and progression rewards, which are all achievable through gameplay, the Blast Pass is set to add more cosmetics as well as event-based challenges and unlocks.
Rocket Arena is an interesting move for Electronic Arts headed into a new generation. The three-on-three rocket competition is a shooter where no one dies, as much Quake as it is Super Smash Bros., but it all oddly works for an arena shooter that's nothing if not unique. With crossplay at launch and an appealing art style, it can hopefully bring a new paradigm to the shooter genre next month.