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Friday, May 24, 2024

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State of the Game: Rocket League – There’s still grip on these tyres

Rocket League

My introduction to Rocket League was suitably chaotic. A friend had secured beta access, setting up 4v4 matches with six other people across two TVs. We played for hours. Between the unlikely goals, great assists, and questionable demolition tactics, I loved every moment. There isnt a game that encapsulates the “just one more round” mentality better than Rocket League. Its currently my most played game of all time, each explosive match calling out for another, and I wasnt alone in being hooked. Psyonix knew it had a hit, partnering with Sony to make it a “free” PS Plus game at launch, sealing the deal for many. Seven years later, Rocket League remains a winner.

Rocket League splits players into teams and asks them to score goals – using rocket powered cars rather than feet, and employing a ball that absolutely towers over them on the pitch. Competing to score the most points before time runs out – if youre drawing after 5 mins, say hello to overtime and sudden death – youve got a few tricks at your disposal. Boost pads are evenly spread across the field to provide a speed advantage, for instance, letting us shoot at pace or demolish an opponents vehicle if we collide at max speed. If you fancy trying something more technical, jump up and use that boost for an aerial shot.

As you might have gathered, Rocket League is primarily multiplayer focused, placing heavy emphasis on team strategy and player rotation. You wont find set positions like in a football match, though setting up assists from the midfield or staying behind as goalkeeper often feels natural. Co-ordinating with teammates is key and victory always feels better together.

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Rocket League announcement trailer.

Speaking of victory, scoring goals is an utter joy and I maintain few things in gaming are more satisfying than landing that perfect aerial. If theres anything that explains Rocket Leagues longevity this is it. Youve calculated the jump, judged the angle, hit the ball at that right moment and before long? Back of the net.

Because of its immediacy and easy delight, Rocket Leagues fundamentals remain largely untouched since 2015. Make no mistake, though, the last seven years have ensured that it’s a competitive game with a high skill ceiling. Little surprise then that Psyonix formed the Rocket League Championship Series in 2016. While its esports scene doesnt compare to, say, League of Legends, RLCS remains strong. Better still, Rocket Leagues a perfectly accessible experience for newcomers too, improved by post-launch updates like crossplay and cross-platform progression. Its busy too. Thanks to its innate friendliness and Rocket Leagues free-to-play shift two years ago, Ive never struggled finding an online match.

Its a beautiful game in its own way.

Despite the success, this hasnt always been the smoothest journey. Mac and Linux support was pulled two years ago, but much earlier on, back in 2016, Psyonix introduced a loot box system known as crates. Offering random exclusive items, this was poorly received and crates were eventually removed, replaced by a blueprint system that tell you exactly what youre getting. But prices to use blueprints vary. Providing all manner of cosmetics, costs goes as low as 50 credits, but with rarer options, Ive seen them as high as 2500 credits. (For context, credits are primarily obtained in set bundles, and 3000 credits comes to £18.75. Meanwhile, a Rocket Pass costs 1000 credits.)

Monetisation has become more prevalent since going free-to-play, which is both unfortunate and entirely expected. Its still quite delicately handled, though. Buying a Rocket Pass provides an EXP boost and items, sure, but Rocket League steers clear of any pay-to-win. All these new cosmetic cars, decals, and other items are purely that: cosmetic. No ones getting an advantage by using a Batmobile over Octane, and although it might not be the friendliest approach for players who bought Rocket League at launch – or those like me, who bought it on PC, Switch, and physically (look, it came with the DLC packs) – Psyonix has, to its credit, provided “legacy rewards” for existing owners upon the free-to-play shift. Its also never railroaded its players into buying these cosmetics, either.

Rocket League blueprints
Blueprints can be pricey.

Beyond the Rocket Pass, weve seen some hefty post-launch updates that introduced new stadiums and new modes, which have kept me coming back. Mutators let us players mess around with Rocket Leagues finer aspects – like setting unlimited boost or decreased gravity – and there are additional online playlists. Snow Day introduced an ice hockey-inspired variant that replaces the ball for a puck, we got Mario Kart-esque shenanigans with the item-filled Rumble mode, and I cant forget the basketball-inspired Hoops, either. Theres more, but my personal favourite is Heatseeker, which is basically Rocket League Pong. Its a refreshing change as the ball moves automatically, and those times where my team scored without landing a single hit were very funny.

Were still getting a regular slate of new cars, too. Initially opting for more traditional DLC packs, Rocket League later implemented a revamped Item Shop with rotating vehicles, player banners, goal explosions and more. These are bought through credits, which can be earned through the Rocket Pass, but thats almost never enough without requiring you to spend real currency. For the more competitively minded, youll find a separate esports shop too, which uses an alternative in-game currency. While the early days saw some fun (and no longer available) crossovers like Back To The Futures DeLorean, playable, licenced vehicles still appear between seasons, and Ive not stopped racing with F1 cars since that pack went live – Im a big fan of the 2021 Alfa Romeo/Williams combo.

Rocket League season 7
Season 7.

My only major gripe is that recent updates havent been that exciting, with Rocket League feeling just a little stagnant at points. I like seeing a shiny new McLaren as much as the next racing fan, but we’ve not seen any new modes for a while, and I cant recall the last major update which wasn’t the Halloween event or a new season. Cosmetics alone isnt enough to entice former players to return. Of course, none of this diminishes the main experience. Just note that it may impact how long you hang around.

This isnt to say Psyonix hasnt tried. Gotham City Rumble was a fun limited-time twist on Rumble last March, PS5 and Xbox Series X/S players received improvements via backwards compatibility, including 120hz support, and we’ve also seen a new mobile entry, Rocket League Sideswipe. But curiously, theres still no word on native versions for Sony and Microsofts latest hardware, nearly two years after they launched, and it doesnt feel entirely clear whats the next big step, which makes me wonder what exactly Psyonix is planning. Maybe a Rocket League 2 in a new engine, similar to Activisions Warzone 2 approach? Who can honestly say.

Either way, Im excited to see what the future brings for Psyonixs incredible hit. Seven years on, Rocket League isnt in the limelight anymore, but it still maintains everything that made it special back in 2015. Plus, thanks to the move to the free-to-play model, there are no longer any entry barriers and Rocket League maintains its hefty user base, meaning theres arguably never been a better time to jump in. Id recommend giving it a go. Now, if youll excuse me, I have a Hoops game to inevitably lose.

This piece is part of our State of the Game series, where we check in on some of the biggest service games running to see how theyre getting on. You can find plenty more pieces like it in our State of the Game hub.

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