Every time I turn on my PS4, for whatever reason, big or small, I'm sucked in. It might be that I forgot to eject a disc the night before (can't be having that), or that I need to dip back into The Witcher 3 to double check that the Ice Elemental that destroyed me in my previous session hasn't learned any new tricks since last we battled. And there it is, gleaming on the dashboard, beckoning me. Rocket League has been impossible to say no to ever since it found itself a home on my hard drive. I only meant to play a single refresher match before writing this – I stayed online for half a dozen more.
San Diego-based developer Psyonix's follow-up to their Supersonic Acrobatic Rocket-Powered Battle Cars PS3 exclusive of 2008 has a rather more elegant title than its predecessor, but the base gameplay remains the same: teams of (you guessed it) rocket-powered battle cars face off on an enclosed football (soccer) field, a goal at each end, an oversized ball in the middle. The objective is just as simple as football proper: score more than the other team. Rules so simple that any Premier League centre forward could understand them.
Rocket League, released earlier this month (July 2015), allows match set-ups ranging from one against one to four versus four, online and offline, with split-screen local co-op and cross-play across PlayStation 4 and PC platforms. There's a single-player season option for truly antisocial sorts. Cars are customisable, but underneath an array of accoutrements and custom paint details it's always a case of blue versus orange, matches lasting for five minutes and draws settled by the golden goal rule. It's an incredibly simple game to get to grips with controls wise, too: on a DualShock 4 the triggers operate the brake and accelerator, as they do in most driving games, circle gives your car a boost (you can destroy opponents if you strike them at top speed) and the X button makes your vehicle hop into the air, where bicycle "kicks" and other tricks can be attempted.
When I was playing recently, I noticed that some 175,000 people worldwide were also at it, concurrently – an impressive stat indeed, and one helped massively by the game's availability as part of July's PlayStation Plus bundle (beside some other shit I've not played yet... something about a stealthy goblin... nah, I don't care). Rocket League's been downloaded more than two million times in total, so factor in the PC and PS4 cross-play and you're rarely waiting more than a minute before you're into the action. There are several pitch types which all play the same way, but the visual variety helps to preserve freshness across lengthy sessions – like those three hours I spent in front of it a couple of nights ago, when I only intended to stay up for a handful of matches. Whoops.
'Rocket League' "OMG it has everything" trailer
As with most online multiplayers to strike a popular nerve, Rocket League's hit some server snags, but Psyonix is active on the game's official Twitter account and quick to update players on any downtime – and to show them what's available as compensation for sticking with them through teething problems. The sales pitch, in the words of PlayStation's own blog, is an "insane football/racer mash-up", but having spent several hours in the company of Rocket League, I think it taps a deeper memory than any title of those types present in this console generation. It's tickling those same places that the Bitmap Brothers' Speedball 2 got to, back in the early 1990s.
The Amiga's (well, that's what I played it on) premier future-sports sim featured armoured athletes punching and kicking the shit out of each other, the need to outscore the other team sometimes a distant second place in any match's game plan to the pure pleasure of seeing their most talented player carried off on a stretcher. Power-ups and score multipliers were scattered around the arena, from which the ball – small, metal, lethal in the right hands – could not escape. Just imagine the injuries spectators would walk out with, otherwise. Assuming they could walk.
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When I'm playing Rocket League, I'm bang back there with Brutal Deluxe – smashing up my rivals, chasing after a solid-steel sphere (albeit one that behaves more like a shiny beach ball than anything you'd use in a professional sport), drinking in the amazing atmosphere generated by some sterling sound design. The in-match soundtrack to Rocket League is tremendous – there are no cries alluding to ice cream's availability, but the "ooh"s and "aah"s that complement a chance missed or a great save are wickedly enveloping. The crowd counts down to the buzzer, too, adding palpable drama to the sometimes frantic few seconds of a match, where your team's just one behind and then you miss an absolute sitter and you crumple in your seat, utterly deflated, as the timer reaches zero. This really happened to me, just earlier today, with my trio of oranges 3-4 down. It's still painful a couple of hours later.
Unlike so many competitive online games, I feel every collision of Rocket League, I celebrate every goal scored as if it's one netted by the football team I so foolishly persevere with supporting season after season. When the ball's in the air and I launch my car at it, I sit bolt upright and stretch my own neck. I feel stupid for doing so, immediately, but without fail, it happens every time – I'm the player-manager, on the side-lines and the centre circle, kicking every ball beside my faithful charges (who I also am, if any of this makes sense). I don't remember ever feeling this way before about a game that can legitimately claim membership of the eSports club – and, unlike tournaments of Counter-Strike and League of Legends, a Rocket League live event is something I would definitely buy a ticket for. Short matches, simple rules and fantastic action: what's not to like? Add some beers to the mix and I'm there, tonight.
"But eSports isn't real sports" – oh go and look at these sports already
The game's already found a place in the eSports League (ESL), "the world's leading platform for eSports" (says their own website), and with Psyonix promising support for years to come, Rocket League is a title that could play a significant part in shifting eSports to a more mainstream audience, finding popularity amongst the crowd that doesn't tune into Twitch and couldn't care who or what "Faker" is. It's much easier to pick up and understand than Dota 2, and can be enjoyed by two to four mates around the same TV just as it can an as an online multiplayer experience. In a local co-op capacity, it has my mind tumbling back through the years to playing EA Hockey on the Mega Drive with my best pal – another game where the scoring of goals inside an enclosed area was punctuated by outbreaks of gloves-off violence, and where realism didn't quite come through the creative process unscathed (thankfully). The "racer" tag doesn't wholly stick to Rocket League, either – this is a lot more like the first PlayStation's Destruction Derby series than anything so straightforward as a laps-running racing game proper.
Sounds alright, doesn't it? Twisted Metal by way of Speedball 2, wholly addictive in nature, presented in super-shiny graphics that, while not really pushing the PS4's capabilities in that area, suit the exaggerated physics and emergent carnage of every match perfectly. And to two million players, this all represents old news. But with half of all PS4 owners being PS+ subscribers (according to figures of May 2014), and over 22 million PS4s in the wild, many more gamers have some catching up to do. And to those people, I say: whatever you're doing with your console right now, you're doing it wrong. You should really be playing Rocket League. Now do excuse me, I've got to, um, check on my recent PSN friend requests, or something.
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