Luke and Patrick have been playing a lot of Rocket League, one of the surprise hits of the year so far. Rather than have them fight it out to review the game, we figured it was best to just let them both do it.
Luke Plunkett: The thing that impresses me the most about Rocket League, and I guess it's the thing that keeps me coming back to it so often, is how it's a multiplayer game, but it's not a multiplayer game. I normally avoid traditionally multiplayer titles; the last thing I want to deal with when playing video games is the grating sound and erratic behaviour of other human beings. But with Rocket League, it just doesn't matter.
Patrick Klepek: Let me be clear: I fucking hate multiplayer games. Even when I have to review games with multiplayer, I'm cringing the whole time. It's why I didn't even want to bother with Rocket League, and ignored everything people were saying during the first week of release. I only started playing the game because people were so enthralled by it, despite the servers being a shit show the first week. Nobody else at Kotaku was playing, and it seemed like someone should. That's how the addiction began, that's how I started playing Rocket League and not playing any other video game in what was supposed to be a slow summer for games.
Luke: I'm trying to nail just why that is. I mean, they're other people. You can see their Steam names, they spam chat, they drive like shit. Like you, I should have hated relying on this. But within the confines of Rocket League — a game designed to be a sports asylum inside a cage — that all becomes...irrelevant? The stuff you're expecting other people to screw up is just part of the game here, because the game is so chaotic, and dumb, and beautiful.
Patrick: Yeah, that part is really strange to me. There's a trophy for playing with a friend, and I still haven't unlocked that. The reason I don't play multiplayer games is because enough of my life is already scheduled and regulated, I like to just play games when I have free time and not worry about anything else. But I'm like you: I should hate all these people. And yet, Rocket League, despite being a competitive game, allows me the zen-like multiplayer experience that I also got from Journey.
I think part of what's appealing about Rocket League, even for folks that don't traditionally enjoy multiplayer, is because your teammates both do and don't matter. You can do a tremendous amount without ever interacting with your teammates and still have a really great time. A Rocket League match where everyone is out for themselves can still be damn fun.
Luke: The game's brevity helps too. It's short enough that you can jump on, play a couple of games and jump off, and it's popular enough right now that there's never a wait to get into a game. So if you want to play all night, that's cool, but if you want to play for just 5-10 minutes, it can accomodate that as well, and I can't think of many (any?) multiplayer games that accomodate that kind of play.
Patrick: Yeah, that's really key to it. Five minutes is perfect. It's also misleading, though, and leads to one of my big gripes with the game's player base. Five minutes is a REALLY LONG TIME. I've had matches go completely south in the first minute or two, where we're suddenly three goals in the hole, and eventually climb back and win out. But time and time again, players will drop out the moment the match isn't going our way, leaving you to try and survive with the numbers against you or quit. I'm so glad the recent patch decided to ban people for 15 minutes if they quit during a ranked match, but I know you have mixed feelings on that.
Luke: Yeah, I'm torn on that, because it's getting to the point now where sometimes I'll want to quit a match because that match stinks. Sometimes you get into a game full of cool people who want to play Rocket League, but other times you get stuck with some loons who just want to drive around ramming you, steal your goals and not play defence. I realise there needs to be a way to punish people just quitting, but at the same time, I don't want to feel like I'm stuck with the game's worst players.
All that said, the games are five minutes at most, so possibly I'm just being a terrible person.
Maybe what frustrates me about "bad" players isn't that they're terrible at Rocket League. One of the game's joys, and this is something it obviously inherits from actual football, is how simple it is. You drive, you hit a ball, you try and hit it into a goal. When I say "bad", I'm not talking about skill. Even people playing their first game can contribute and have fun by driving around and hitting stuff; "bad" Rocket League players are more of a reflection of bad multiplayer gamers, I think, and their selfish/trollish habits.
Patrick: There's also this interesting arc you go through as a Rocket League player. You enjoy the early games because the randomness is silly, entertaining, and hitting the ball is fun, no matter what happens. Then, you start to pick up on the game's nuances — like, say, when staying back and defending the goal is the best option — and the game becomes more interesting. In becoming more interesting, though, you're less tolerant of other people's bullshit. Essentially, by getting better at the game, it loses some of the yee-haw fun that I was having during my early hours. This is especially true of how I judge my own play. I know I'm capable of pulling off some wild shots on purpose, so when I whiff and blow a match, I'm not laughing anymore — I want to throw my controller.
Luke: And yet there you are, still playing, still yelling, still loving it despite the frustration.
Patrick: My wife registered a PSN account so she could play, as I wasn't willing to let her play on my account. (To be fair, she'd be getting matched with people way better than her, so I'm not a total arsehole.)
She can barely grapple games with two analogue sticks, yet she's putting in the hours to learn Rocket League. That's crazy.
Luke: It's got a great tutorial, which must be helping. It assumes you know the basics of football, it teaches you the basics of the car controls, then lets you at it. The game looks WILD when you're watching someone else play it, but someone new can be up and playing within 10 minutes.
Patrick: We should talk about the soccer part, since I don't give a shit about soccer, besides having an excuse to occasionally day drink. I was listening to a podcast recently, and they were talking about Rocket League. They mentioned how Rocket League feels playing the soccer highlight reel. You get those "oh my GOOOOOOD" moments every few seconds in Rocket League — the headers, the near misses, etc. You spend hours waiting for those in a regular match, and it's the moments anyone can get into, no matter how they care about soccer. Rocket League makes those happen on the regular.
It also helps that the game REWARDS you for engaging in those activities. I love getting points for taking a shot.
Luke: Yeah, the rewards are smart. They're like an extension of the tutorial for people who aren't that familiar with the sport: "OK, so getting it away from the goal like THIS is important", or "it's probably a smart idea to get it into the middle of the pitch so someone can take a shot".
As for the highlight reel stuff, again, that's a number of really small, smart decisions. The fact you can score from ANYWHERE basically removes the idea of a midfield in Rocket League, which in actual football is where a lot of the boring stuff takes place. But then it also makes the good stuff BETTER by making the big actions feel more gratifying; the sound effects, the EXPLODING BALL, the fact everyone is knocked away after a goal, it all just makes you think fuck yeah, whatever just happened was amazing.
Patrick: It's also so easy to see how they could have screwed it all up. I know everyone loved Mario Kart 8 last year, but you know what? That game is a pain in the arse. Not only do you have to decide which character to pick, but you have to figure out your tires and all this other junk. Ugh. I love that Rocket League is painfully simple. The cars are the same, nothing changes. You can never blame "oh, well, maybe I just customised my car wrong." It's all about your skill.
Luke: Yeah, their whole approach to new players and a level playing field is to be applauded. It must have been tempting to lock away better gear, but the fact everyone — whether you're a pro or it's your first game — is on the same footing is a big part of its success. No way would so many people be playing if their first experience was to get creamed by cars that were faster and stronger and could shoot more accurately.
Related: maybe they got the screw-ups out of their system with the first game, which nobody played or even seems to know: Supersonic Acrobatic Rocket-Powered Battle-Cars. Which proves that if nothing else you can be more successful second time around if you think of a better name for your game.
Patrick: I played an hour of that game, and there may or may not be a story about it on the site when people read this. But the short version is this: the old game is basically Rocket League without the exceptional polish. That exceptional polish, however, is critical to making the game appealing. They basically nailed the fundamentals in 2008, and spend the years since making it sing.
What's your preferred way to play the game, by the way? I think 3v3 is overrated. I almost exclusively play 1v1 and 2v2. Honestly, I think 2v2 is what the recommended mode should be. It's the perfect balance.
Luke: Nah, we'll differ here. I think 3v3 is the default for a reason: the size of the pitch, the movement of the ball and the speed of the players is just perfectly suited to it. 2v2 has too much space, 1v1 is lol and 4v4 is just madness.
Patrick: 1v1 is so much damn fun because of the risk/reward factor. You can fuck up the opening hit — it's over. You can miss a single shot — it's over.
Luke: I'm looking forward to DLC and future updates potentially changing this, though...bigger pitches, or fields that are a different shape. I was talking with someone yesterday that instead of tinkering with the number of players on a team, I wish we could tinker with the number of teams in a game. A circular field with three teams.....
...but maybe I am a heretic and a madman.
Patrick: Some of the maps in the old game suggest that very path, Luke. The default map in the old game IS one of the maps in Rocket League. The other ones widen the playing field, another introduces a tiny, circular loop that allows you to essentially pinball the ball around the map.
I think they made the right choice by keeping the launch game simple as hell, then introducing variables once people know what they're doing. Splatoon, actually, made the same decision, and I think it's really smart. And in both cases, neither game is charging for DLC. (With Rocket League, only aesthetic stuff will cost any money. I don't think Splatoon charges for anything — period.)
Luke: One last thing I want to talk about is the game's potential as more than something you just play. I don't usually play multiplayer games, and I don't watch them either. But Rocket League, I could watch all day long. I'm sure a lot of that has to do with the game's similarities to actual football, but whatever, that's a happy coincidence; where most multiplayer games struggle to give an outside spectator a concise view of the whole action, Rocket League is able to just stick a camera behind a goal or on the roof and let you see the whole thing, and I love it.
Patrick: That may have a lot to do with the game's physics, and the connection to a real-life sport. When you watch other games, it can be tough to understand why what you're seeing is impressive. When you watch a last-second save in Rocket League, it doesn't require much explanation. When you witness someone punt the bminall from one side of the arena, only to have it quietly bounce into the other goal, long before anyone can reach it, you can appreciate how cool that is.
The game's dramatic camera angles in the replay mode certainly helps, too. I love slowing down a good shot to 10% of the original speed, and seeing what everyone else was doing at the time. When I was looking at the replay for my wife's first game, we realised her last-second goal didn't happen because she hit the ball, but because she slammed into the corner of another car, and the CAR hit the ball. It was amazing.
Luke: Hah. Every frame tells a story. A story of hoots, and hollers, and high fives, and "fuck this bullshit".