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2015’s Best Games: Rocket League

To round off the year, we’re taking a look back at our favourite games of 2015 – it’s been a hell of a year! Next up, what do you get when you combine cars and football? Apparently, an amazing multiplayer game…

Well, Psyonix really underestimated how much people like free things that are really good. Offering its new game to over 10 million PS Plus subscribers was a nice thing to do, sure, but failing to provide servers at launch capable of supporting even /one per cent/ of that total player base concurrently was, to use a parallel from the game itself, an impressive overhead attempt that took a horrible detour and bobbled into the dev’s own net. After several patches and server reboots, things are finally working as they should, though. And that’s very much for the best, as Rocket League without multiplayer is like a sandwich without bread: pretty rubbish.

To its credit, Psyonix has packed in a decent amount of stuff for solo players to do, see and unlock, the issue here not so much one of content but of discontent with non-human players. Bot AI is, to put it nicely, all over the damn shop and not one of the three difficulty levels available offers a fair or equivalent challenge compared to playing with other people. Rookie bots simulate what it might be like to play the game with a group of crippled chimps; the mid-tier setting works best in general but still occasionally just seem to give up or turn heel with a belter of an own goal for no reason; All-Star opponents score with pretty much every touch, making for a frustrating uphill battle against emulated versions of the world’s very best players. There really needs to be a fourth setting that fuses fallibility and skill in a more believable manner as without it, there’s no substitute for playing with other people and neither AI opponents nor CPU allies can be trusted to not ruin everything in some stupid way or another.

But then again, that’s kind of the point. Although the existence of a Season mode might lead you to believe that there’s more to solo play than basic bot matches, there really isn’t. Rocket League is a multiplayer experience at its core and trying to play it in any other way will only lead to boredom and frustration. With a few friends either by your side or in Party Chat, or even with randoms online, it’s a different story. Thanks to its simple mechanics, physics-based everything and deeper-than-you-might-think gameplay, Rocket League is about as good as skill-based games get. It’s not so much football with cars as three-dimensional pool with cars – you can’t just hit the shoot button then move your thumb to hover over the Share button just in case here, oh no. Trajectories need to be perfect (or really lucky), high-flying leaps must be expertly judged and finished and your teammates need to know when to chase the ball and when to chase other players. The result is a game where misses are often catastrophic but, on the other hand, one where a perfectly placed finish feels incredible. There’s no aim assist, no shot guidance, no racing line… whether you smash home an incredible aerial goal or fluff a bicycle shot so badly that it tumbles into your own net, it’s all on you. And it’s so much more satisfying for it.

In fact, you’ll come to learn the angles and shot types so well that you’ll eventually know even before you strike the ball that it’s soaring wide of the mark or cheekily bobbling under the last defender. Whereas a heavy reliance on physics-based mechanics tends to make games unpredictable, here it has the opposite effect – make contact perfectly and you can safely turn around and not even watch it go in, because it’s all but guaranteed to. Hero saves can ruin the moment for you in this kind of situation, but all that does is create an equally satisfying reward for playing well at the other end of the pitch. And given how small the pitches actually are, it’s amazing that these cars can even move for all the potential treats and rewards scattered around the confined play spaces.

Given how much stock Sony has put into Share button functionality since the launch of PS4, it’s amazing that this should be one of the first games to really make it matter. If you do something spectacular (or spectacularly bad), someone in the game is going to put it public before you even know about it. Hell, it may already be too late at that point – given that ESL picked up Rocket League in its first week, it’s safe to assume that if you’re playing online, you’re probably an extra in a stream you’ll never even see. Saving a great replay in FIFA or PES is one thing, but sharing a clip where skill alone wins out for you is on another level. That new button is going to see a fair bit of use over your time with this game.

Simple as it may seem, Rocket League joins TowerFall in the top tier of PS4 multiplayer gaming. It shares some of the same issues, sure – it’s practically worthless unless you’re playing with other people – but the highs that come when you soar over everyone to knock in a winning goal will make the lows feel like they happened in a different lifetime. Yes, it’s a one-trick pony, but you’ll want to watch that pony’s solitary trick on loop for years. While spamming ‘What a save!’ in chat. That can’t just be us, right? Phew. And hey, at least it isn’t called Supersonic Acrobatic Rocket-Powered Battle Cars any more…

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