These days, we’re so used to successful games being prefigured by a protracted blaze of hype that, when one appears without any fanfare and organically becomes a big hit, it seems almost shocking, as well as being hugely gratifying. After sneaking onto Steam in July, and subsequently onto the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, Rocket League has truly gone viral: over five million downloads strongly suggest that it must be onto something. And it’s easy to see why.
A catchy name helps: Rocket League is actually the sequel to a game called Supersonic Acrobatic Rocket-Powered Battle-Cars. But the real secret to its success is its simplicity. Which manifests itself in the fact that it couldn’t be easier to describe: it’s football played by rocket-powered cars, as pioneered in real life by Top Gear.
While Rocket League has an offline Season mode, in which you compete with and against AI-controlled cars, it’s really all about online play. It has one of the shortest tutorials ever: all you need to learn, above and beyond the conventions of any driving game, is that you can pick up rocket-boost by driving over pads, and execute a jump move to connect with the giant ball when it’s above the ground. Double-tapping the jump button executes another move, akin to a scorpion-kick, which sees your car flip up and, if you time it right, send the ball flying in the direction in which you face, in considerable style.
The other factor at play in Rocket League is physics: in this case, they are commonly described as “floaty”, which is exactly what you need in a game in which you’re attempting to kick footballs with what looks like a radio-controlled car. Everything takes place in a game-world in which, apparently, gravity has been slightly reduced compared to what we’re used to experiencing. One consequence of that is the ability to drive up the walls of the arena in which the four-versus-four matches take place. Fun though that may be, it proves to be a poor tactic, as it takes ages to get back down to the ground, during which time the action has invariably moved elsewhere.
Another part of Rocket League’s genius lies in its scoring system. You get points for scoring goals, of course, but also for conspicuously helpful teamwork, such as clearing balls from your own goal-line or executing through-passes. At the end of each game (games go into American-style overtime if they are tied when time elapses), your XP mounts up, and a limited set of rewards are made available, essentially consisting of new bodyshells and upgraded rocket-boost systems.
Rocket League proves to be infernally addictive to play, whatever your skill-level or favoured tactic. You can hang around the half-way line, seeking to pick up scraps from other players, or follow the action around, hoping to time your interventions just right. Every game throws up a number of irresistibly spectacular moments which can’t fail but to get all participants chortling. Above all, it provides simple, unadulterated, exuberant fun.
Games publishers would do well to note its simplicity, whenever they feel tempted to endow their blockbusters with unnecessary complexity. The fact that Rocket League has been incorporated into several professional gaming leagues demonstrates that it has already attained the status of a full-on phenomenon: it’s one joyous bandwagon which you’d be mad not to jump onto.