Game Review – Rocket League

Rocket League is a sports game for people who don’t like sports, and for those who do as well… They combined rocket propelled cars that are in the air almost as much as on the ground, with the simplest rule of football. The result has surprisingly broad appeal and competitive depth from its stellar execution. Psyonix tried this before in 2008, but I feel the key differences this time around were the inclusion of PC in their launch platforms vs the lifetime PS3 exclusivity of the original, the considerable effort put into crafting a unified and visually impressive aesthetic, and the artificial word-of-mouth style spike in popularity from the free w/ PS+ promotion when the game launched.

Banner - Rocket League

Aspect Ratios 4:3 to 21:9 Good, Small Issues for Taller/Wider *
Triple Monitor Yes *
Framerate Cap 120-144+ *
FOV Yes, 60-110 horiz + Distance/Height/Pitch
SLI Yes
Performance Great
Options Great, 2 Conflicts
Key Rebinding Yes (1 Slot), Issues
Controller Support/Rebinding Yes, Yes
Local Co-op 2-4 Players, Local & Online Matches, Vert or Horiz Split

* = Needs Basic Unreal Engine 3 Config File Tweak – See PCGamingWiki.com/wiki/Rocket_League


PC Port Quality

Considering Sony’s pull on the game, I was surprised by the quality here, though it is the infamous Unreal Engine. You need to whip out a text editor for a quick edit or two, but nothing substantial. Uncapping the framerate can cause an issue with vertical camera movement while jumping repeatedly. I don’t believe this has been fixed, but I never really noticed it during actual play at 120hz. This is likely exacerbated by a higher and higher framerate, so a high-end system with an uncapped framerate would likely get it much worse. In reality I only see this effecting PG279Q (165Hz) owners for the time being, as there’s no other reason to let it exceed 120/144 for now. It supports SLI well from what I can tell and performance is mostly solid outside of small dips from time to time usually right after spawning in. Nvidia Adaptive V-sync does force properly with the in-game setting off as it should, and I don’t recall seeing a single tear. The game is very scalable for low end systems, and only a 3GB install size.

Rocket League - 02 Settings

In terms of graphical options, there are numerous including toggles for Motion Blur, DOF, Bloom, etc. However if Bloom is enabled, the DOF effects are turned on automatically, even though the DOF check box remains unchanged and they are on the same level, rather than in a parent/child layout. In addition to that, their DOF implementation adds noise to the entire image. While it’s not noticeable during regular play, screenshots look horrible at 100% crop, and it’s very clear in the main menus and car customization area. There are over 100 lines of graphical settings in the main .ini file, so I need to do more testing to see if either can be solved by edits there. Many resolutions and aspect ratios will need to be set manually in that .ini.

The HUD scales to the corners, which will make them out of view on wider than 21:9. The wider the resolution, the closer the camera in the menus. At 21:9 the car almost clips out of frame, and on triple-wide setups a good 30-40% of the car will be out of frame. During gameplay, this is not an issue as the vertical space is equal (set by your FOV setting) regardless of how wide the resolution. The HUD has a safe-zone setting which consequently makes the HUD smaller, but there’s no standard scale setting to reduce huge console-tailored sizing while sticking to the edges of the display.

For both the PC and console releases, there are extensive camera configuration options. Sliders for FOV from 60-110 horizontal degrees, distance, pitch, height, rotation speed, stiffness (the speed of response to both following the car and your inputs via the right analog), and toggles for hold/toggle camera mode and UI indicator, inverting, and camera shake.

Rocket League - 01

Outside of one or two small elements, the menus work very well with the mouse; so much so that I always chose it over controller while in the garage choosing cars/paints/accessories. Both KB/M and Controller can be rebound, though both only have a single bind per action, and some questionable choices make KB/M unusable for high level play. Some say KB/M is outright unplayable, and while I disagree, I will say that it does limit how good you can be. It’s not just lack of analog inputs, but binding issues that hold it back even further. Mouse movement can be mapped to the camera, but it acts like the analog stick requiring continuous input in one direction otherwise it jitters around or snaps back to center, and not in a usable way like Saint’s Row 3/4’s implementation. It’s inexcusably bad, especially considering much older games Rocket League is trying to emulate, did far better. There’s a reason there is no camera control for KB/M by default, they didn’t even try.

After 20+ hours of play with controller, I could do pretty well with KB/M, but it’s absolutely a wonky disadvantage. The problem is forward and reverse being the same inputs as pitch control in-air. You can consciously let go as you jump, but that becomes very challenging to manage in hectic situations that occur frequently in real matches. There are creative possibilities with say mouse pitch control, but the limited single bind mapping makes a truly competent layout impossible, even with external programs. The easiest and most impactful change they can make is mouse free-cam with a variable delay before snapping back to center like Saint’s Row.

It’s pretty well known that they had some server issues early on, having underestimated their initial playerbase. I have a decent connection, and in 24+ hours of play, months after launch, I only saw a few instances of lag or rubber-banding, and I was never once disconnected. I had a whole enemy team drop out once or twice, forfeiting the match, but I’m pretty positive that was of their choosing. If individual players leave I noticed that people would fill their place in under a second or two, before the smoke from their explosion even cleared. You can select which regions you match into, as well as which modes you queue for, whether it be every single standard and ranked mode at once, or the exact one you want to play. Private matches with all sorts of entry parameters and match settings are also available.

The game supports cross-play between PC and PS4 (option to disable in the settings), but not the upcoming Xbox One version (Microsoft’s decision). There is in-game voice chat, with a volume slider and option for push-to-talk, as well as standard text chat. Though the vast majority of users in random games like to use the d-pad’s preset responses. You need to memorize the combinations to really use it effectively in the middle of the action, but it works well, and I’ve only come across a few toxic players that overuse the more sarcastic lines to mock you when you mess up. If you really want to utilize voice, you’ll probably use an external service with your friends, and that’s easy considering the maximum team size is only 4, with 2v2 and 3v3 being most common.

Rocket League - 03

It supports local 4-player split-screen play, online and off, which is a very common exclusion from PC versions, especially when console manufacturers are involved. Extremely happy to see it here, and a few friends and I have already had a blast playing together on multiple occasions. Each player can set completely separate camera FOV/position settings, and for 2 players you can switch between splitting vertically or horizontally. Running borderless windowed it is also possible to span the game across two displays so two players each have a full display to play on, but this can be fiddly and isn’t really an intended feature. The framerate can dip depending on your rig and graphics settings while using split-screen, as to be expected when rendering multiple viewports, but the only real issue is that the game won’t let you specify a player’s input as the KB/M. You either need a controller for each player, or need to use a workaround to trick the game into thinking you have a controller filling the first slot, so that the real controllers fill 2-4.

Gameplay

There’s no doubt about it, the core gameplay is an absolute blast. Even if you don’t like soccer or racing/cars, you’ll likely still have fun. Traditional sports games offer relatively vague control over a player or entire team, and Rocket League plays more like a racing sim or first person shooter in the sense that every single movement is deliberate, as it would be for a participant in a real sport. For the few I’ve found who don’t like the game, it essentially boils down to them needing to win in their mind, while being initially horrible without the drive to work at it, so they give up. The rule set is no more complex than to get the ball/puck/cube in the goal, 1-4 players on either side, most goals in the time-limit wins. Such simplicity means players only need to concern themselves with the movement system, reading the situation, and working with your team. I love games like CSGO and others, but sometimes you want a competitive experience without memorizing every inch of a complex map or the pros and cons of every weapon choice. And the only times the base mechanics begin to change, are in private matches where you set various mutators, and in the one public matchmaking lobby that has them enabled.

Rocket League - 04

In addition to the online modes, you have 3 others that you can play purely alone and offline. Exhibition is essentially free-play, with control over all sorts of modifiers, player counts, AI difficulty, etc. You can play with up to 4 players locally or online, and can play unbalanced matchups (1v3, 2v4, etc) using the unfair difficulty. Season is a single-player only tournament mode, with control over difficulty, length, team size, and team number. On the cosmetic side you can choose a team logo (which effects the paint color and coloring for your half of the field), name, and the vehicles your teammates use. Adding the ability to add local/online teammates would notably improve the lifespan of this mode. Finally, Training offers a generic free-play, a basic movement and controls tutorial, and 3 advanced trials (with 3 difficulty settings each) for goal keeping, striking, and aerials. The top levels are extremely challenging, but it’s great that this mode is here as it presents the opportunity to constantly practice advanced moves where real matches rarely do.

The AI is surprisingly interesting to face against, and the highest difficulty seemed notably superior to the average player. However playing with AI teammates can be very frustrating at times, consistently ruining your shots and scoring on your own team. Fun can still be had on your own, but I feel the game is much more compelling with online connectivity and/or multiple local players.

There are many improvements to be made in terms of convenience features and “content”. Slots for customizations and separate selections for each side (as accessories can clash with one or the other, limiting selection), colors other than just orange/blue outside of the single player seasons (for custom matches at the very least), variants like the current Hockey mode available in custom matches, and more diverse map structure like their original game and it’s predecessors had. There are currently 6 core map designs, with 5 weather/time variants (not each, but in total), and all but one are structurally identical. They frequently push updates and even already have some of these ideas on their public to-do list, so I hope they eventually come to fruition. There’s one map in particular (set on a pirate ship) that I’d really like to see implemented, with its interesting raised platform behind each goal.

Progression & Pay Model

They release a DLC pack every 2-3 months or so, at around $3.99 each (3 at the time of review, with one half price one only containing the Back to the Future DeLorean). The map releases that correspond with those are made part of the base game for all, so there is no segregation of the playerbase or anything like that. Everything is purely cosmetic, except for the vehicles which have very slightly different hitboxes, and thus behave differently within the physics engine. It’s irrelevant outside of higher level play, and the top two objectively best cars (though these advantages are very slight), are part of the base game.

I own all of the packs except for the very newest, and I very much appreciate how the items contained within them do not show in their respective sections before purchase. Every item you see in your garage, you have access to. Tons of other games throw all of the DLC in these lists and beg you to purchase over and over as you flip through. All of the cars/items of the base game are tied to a simple system of one item per match. I dislike progression systems, but the great thing here is that it’s not restricted to any mode, you set it to an offline practice match with no bots and 1 goal to win, and will unlock all of the base items in no time at all. You can use that time to get a handle on the controls before you hop online for the first time.

Rocket League - 05 Paints

Outside of that there are holiday items which seem to be on a slower drop rate and online-only to encourage players to play whatever the new mode is, but you don’t ever have to actually win or even score to get them. These periods last 2-3 weeks usually and the items go back into hibernation till the next year, but you can unlock all of them in a single session, so there’s no issue there. Other cross-promotion inclusions like Chivalry, Warframe, or the recent set from Portal are added to the base item set permanently with no time or purchase restrictions.

Finally, there are 3 console exclusive vehicles that the PC version will likely never receive because Sony and Microsoft paid specifically for that to be the case. I hope they can partner with another indie dev to give an interesting design to the PC crowd in the future to balance that out. If you were to buy a single DLC pack, I would recommend Supersonic Fury as the the 5 paint finishes add a lot to your choices for all vehicles, and the two added vehicles are the most interesting in my opinion. Of course I’d prefer all content free, but I think they’ve done a good job of keeping it from effecting play or causing segregation, while continuing to expand the base game for no cost as well. They could turn around in a month and destroy everything or gradually head in the wrong direction (as so brilliantly showcased by Overkill Software with Payday 2), but for now I’m very pleased.

Presentation

While there’s little structural variety, there’s decent visual variety for the maps, and aside from the noise with DOF enabled, the rendered image is appealing. Good use and variety of color (even more if they allowed more than Orange/Blue in modes other than just the single-player seasons, more in-line with Splatoon, as team color effects the field too) but a touch undersaturated I feel; nothing Reshade/SweetFX can’t change. My Reshade Preset linked below: (Coming Soon)

Rocket League - 06

The audio design is very well done, with dynamic crowd reactions based on ball interactions and locations on the field to the point where they will be almost silent when the ball sits still. There are 4 sliders for those ambient sounds, menu music, all the standard sound effects, and voice-chat. The “best” way to play would be with the crowd audio muted, as you can hear the ball rolling, bouncing, collisions, and other vehicles in 3D space so well, that it would absolutely give you an small advantage in high-level play, on top of the really calm feeling it has without the crowd’s roar. That said the crowd adds a lot to the experience for the average player, giving it a really substantial feel. The music only exists in the menus and is all up-beat electronic and trance. While I do like it, after a short while I chose to go with my own instead, even during gameplay unless I was on VoIP. I’ve tried quite a few genres, and oddly the one that suited it best was the soundtrack from Anno 1404, aka Dawn of Discovery on Steam. Playing with a friend, he couldn’t stop commenting and cracking up over how perfectly moments in-game lined up with the mood and transitions of the score.

Conclusion

It’s such a simple idea, executed to a surprisingly high level of quality. Every time I start playing, I end up putting in another 4-5 hours. Even solo with random players online, the game is tremendously engaging and a joy to play. If the content stopped coming entirely, I could see myself getting bored after a while. If however they keep on their current path, some new items here, a new map/mode there, I could easily see myself playing off and on throughout all of next year if not longer. In terms of raw content, I don’t think the game has reached its most compelling price point. But with more content being added and its price gradually coming down, it’ll happen soon, and I’d urge you to give it a shot. I’d have been quicker to put money down if a demo was available because of how great it runs and feels, so It would probably benefit them to implement one. Till then there’s always the Steam refund system in case you don’t like how it feels or if it conflicts with your system. You can definitely get the gist in an hour or two, but if you like it you’ll be begging for more.

Rocket League - End Slate

My play showed promise from my very first match, where I somehow managed a hat-trick and won. But the seemingly simple mechanics in place allow for so much depth because it’s heavy use of a third axis, physics engine, and mid-air rotation/propulsion. There’s so much room for me to improve in terms of coordinated team play, physics and behavior prediction, and learning more advanced maneuvers… It’s so exciting to find those factors in something that at face value seemed casual, and does still appeal heavily to that audience as well.

The temporary but potentially permanent (based on player reception they say) Hockey Mode is a blast and a genuinely different experience from the base game. However you can tell it is a bit untested from the occasional physics issues where the puck may stop dead on a curved surface, or get stuck to the roof, sliding slowly across the entire length of the field. The primary issue with it is that the magnetism they implemented to emphasize wall-play, can cause many effortless goals as the puck can ride the wall and slide itself into the goal, where it is literally impossible for the ball to do this. Needing a second touch to push the ball in as it flies across the goal is a core component, but the puck often doesn’t require it.

A tiny tweak or two can solve those issues, putting importance back on team coordination for that mode, and that’s great considering I feel these types of slightly tweaked alternate modes are exactly what the game needs more of to keep casual players coming back continuously. You can be fresh and new, while maintaining the game’s core principles and not turning it into a racing or weapon/battle game that could muddy the experience. They could probably pull off a Mario Kart style battle arena mode, but they’d have to really nail it for it to be a worthwhile addition as opposed to a messy distraction in the long run.

Rocket League - 07


Temporary Note: The game has been out for roughly 5 months at the time of review, and to my surprise they announced fixes for two of the problems that I’d already written into the review! An in-game maximum framerate setting that claims “none of the side effects” of the ini edit (hopefully they mean the camera issue), and a UI scaling slider in addition to the safe-zone slider that’s already present. Said fixes are slated to come in the first patch of the new year, and I will edit my review if that goes as planned.

For full disclosure, Rocket League and the 3 DLC packs were purchased by me, no contact with the developers or anyone involved. I got and redeemed an Alpha key in mid-2014 (I even have a fancy hat to prove it), though I never actually downloaded or played it… I wish I had, as I’ve heard it was similarly excellent even back then. The game is so good that “It’s great, go buy it” would be pretty accurate… However, that’s really not my style or what I want to provide. While I’m not the most eloquent and my structuring needs work, I try to cover every aspect to give the most complete picture I can. If you found the review helpful, feel free to rate the condensed Steam Review, among a handful of others I’ve done in the past.


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