There's two things I've always enjoyed yet wanted to be better at. Football and driving. Football I've played since my youth, but I was never quite as good as I'd have liked to have been. Driving, I didn't pass my test until into my thirties. I'm not a natural at either. Digitally speaking I fare a little better, but I'm still not what you'd call a master of either. So when a game lands that combines the two and invites me to be rubbish at both, simultaneously, well I'm equal parts interested and apprehensive.
Luckily for me I needn't have been apprehensive. After a couple of lacklustre matches, where admittedly I wasn't convinced, it wasn't long before Rocket League had sunk its claws in and wouldn't let go.
The game's greatest strength is its simplicity. There's remote control-like cars, there's a giant ball, there's a goal. Car hits ball into goal. Simple. Well, it would be, except for multiple rocket-powered cars hurtling around the arenas tends to cause chaos, and often matches descend into violent ramming attacks and opportunistic goal poaching. It doesn't matter though; it's all fun and games.
There's a selection of game modes, and we'll start with the solo activities, as they're a nice warm up to the main multiplayer event. First up - once you've got the training modes out of the way - there's the standard exhibition mode, and in that you can practice matches from 1v1 through to 4v4. The lower the headcount, the more straightforward the match, and so a one on one is pretty tame when compared to the chaos of a four on four game. In the former it's more about individual skills, while in the latter it's about taking advantage of the on-screen carnage and grabbing the moment to score when it arises.
There's also a seasons mode, where you'll set up a team and play in a mini-league, with the winners then entering into a knock-out playoff before the champion is announced. Both single-player modes are nice distractions, a way to spend a few hours, but it's the multiplayer that really stands out in Rocket League.
Using the points you earn for competing in matches, including actions within each match such as making saves, setting up your teammates, or, you know, scoring a goal, you can earn points that bump up your level and you can unlock customisation options that allow you to personalise your cars. The range is fairly decent, from different chassis through to various paint jobs and decorative options to further differentiate you from the crowd, but at the end of the day the playing field is level, and it's about the skills you bring to the game.
Once you've mastered your ride and got to grips with the controls, it's time to venture into the online space and try your hand against human opposition. You can either play with friends in your own custom matches, or you take on all-comers in both casual and ranked playlists. I our experience Rocket League offers solid matchmaking, and it doesn't seem to take long to get put into a match. If there's vacant spots on a particular team then AI bots will be drafted in to fill the gaps.
This leads to solid matches that tend to be well-balanced. In one match I was teamed up with two bots, and put up against one bot and two human players on the other - we absolutely smashed the other team, with both bots outperforming their opposite numbers, and each of us scoring a hat-trick. That said, for the most part, the matchmaking seemed evenly contested, and there wasn't a lot of thrashings being handed out.
The matches themselves are tense, but ultimately they're enjoyable, often even when you lose. This most notably when you jump into split-screen mode. It's during the fast-paced battles for possession that the simplicity of the mechanics makes way for the nuanced tactics that can be employed by a confident player, with rebounds and passes between teammates and angled shots all quickly becoming an integral part of every player's repertoire of tricks.
There's mid-air rocket-powered battles for the ball. Players drive up and down walls and can even cling to the ceiling for a time. There's bunnyhopping cars and opportunity for last ditch saves and heroic injury time winning goals. Scoring unleashes a wave of energy that knocks all players away from the goal, and it's super satisfying to watch the ball explode when it crosses the line.
With plenty of visual effects, like the aforementioned exploding ball, or the flames/bubbles/sparkles that come out of the back of your car when you hit the boosters (you charge it up as you drive around the pitch collecting fuel), the game looks great. It's straightforward and no-nonsense in terms of visual language, maintaining the simplicity found elsewhere, and thanks to a clever camera (you can zoom in on the ball with a button tap) it's easy to keep track of what's going on at all times.
I've really enjoyed my time with the game thus far - even the solo matches when the servers were down - but my only (very minor) concern comes regarding longevity; it remains to be seen if the game has the hooks to you keep you playing regularly beyond the first couple of weeks.
Short or longterm, Rocket League offers fantastic multiplayer fun, so much so that it makes for an easy recommendation. We played the version on PlayStation 4 that was just given to PS Plus subscribers for free this month, but even at £14.99 on PC, it's a no brainer. There's a great game here, one that perfectly fits the old cliche in that it's easy to learn, but tricky to master. But master it you'll want to, such is the quality of this deceptively simple vehicular football mashup.
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