Sports games have always been a dominant force within our industry, but one particular sport that has never managed to achieve success in gaming is dodgeball. Velan Studios, however, looks to change this sad fact with its latest project Knockout City, a competitive dodgeball game that meshes the sport together with mechanics from a third-person shooter. The game is out now across all modern platforms and there is a 10-day free trial currently active that is planned to run until May 30.
Competitive online games aren't usually my forte, but I found myself racking up plenty of KOs in Knockout City due to how accessible its core gameplay loop felt. Each player has two lives, which cannot be regained, and these are lost through getting struck by a dodgeball. You can throw the ball using RT (on Xbox) and to avoid getting struck, you can either dash out the way using X, or perform a catch by pressing LT right before the moment of impact. By holding RT you can charge the ball for a more aggressive shot and each subsequent catch between you and your opponent causes the ball to move at a faster pace.
It might be simple to grasp, but there are many different tricks that players can employ and you need to be wary of these so you don't fall victim. Players can perform hooked shots around obstacles and they can play mind games by tricking you and pretending to throw. The dash mechanics are also a powerful tool if timed right, as it can be used to quickly gain possession of the ball and to send players falling to their deaths if performed near a ledge.
Teamwork is also vital in Knockout City and I'd encourage players to play with a mic. Luckily, there's the option for players on all platforms to chat in-game if they have a mic plugged in. If you are together with a group, you can easily overwhelm other players and lure them into making mistakes by pummeling them with a barrage of dodgeballs. You can also hilariously turn yourself into a ball if your teammate doesn't have anything to throw and often it's more beneficial for you to pass the ball to your team if they are in closer range of an opponent.
Alongside the regular dodgeballs that you'll find scattered around the arena, you'll also encounter several different special balls that all have their own effects. There's a Moon Ball that enables you to glide through the air when holding it, a Sniper Ball that can be used to lock onto foes, and a Bomb Ball that explodes once its steadily ticking timer runs out. Usually things are restricted to one special ball per match, but there are a few expectations like the Party KO mode where each type is present. At launch six ball types will be available, but this is planned to expand within future seasons.
At launch Knockout City will also feature four different game modes (a fifth Ball-Up Brawl is coming on May 25) and new modes will be added within upcoming seasons of the game, whilst others will be temporarily suspended. Of the modes I was able to sample, Diamond Dash and Ball-Up Brawl were clear highlights, as they strayed away from the typical deathmatch formula and contained their own wacky edge. The other modes Team KO, Face-Off and Party Team KO still featured the same addictive and tactically-rich action, but they were a little more predictable with you just having to defeat a set amount of opponents.
In Ball-Up Brawl there are no dodgeballs present and you have to rely on throwing your teammates to push you closer to the winning score of 15 KOs. I really liked the sense of danger present in this mode, as you can find yourself in trouble pretty quickly if an opponent is able to grab you in ball form. In Diamond Dash, your goal is to collect 30 diamonds from your opponent's team and three of these are dropped each time you are knocked out. Here you have to both be vigilant and act quickly, as you can easily get struck in the back of the head by a dodgeball when scrambling around to pick up diamonds scattered on the floor.
There are also five maps releasing alongside the game (another is coming on May 25) and I found each of these to feel distinctive in terms of both their layouts and design. Concussion Yard, for example, is a construction site that has a deadly swinging wrecking ball in its centre and Knockout Roundabout sees you dodge oncoming hover cars as you fight in the streets outside of a casino district. Along with feeling distinctive, all these arenas have a great sense of verticality with many jump pads to fire you into the air and give you the height advantage.
Outside of matches, players can completely personalise the look of their sporting hero by purchasing cosmetics within the game's shop. Players can obtain the in-game currency of Holobucks either by completing challenges or by purchasing packs. There's 100s of different cosmetics here, and along with shaping their appearance, players can even customise things such as visual taunts and the look of their hang glider. Microtransactions, as mentioned, are present, but fortunately, they don't feel particularly intrusive and there are no items locked behind paywalls.
To help keep players engaged, there are exclusive items and cosmetics that can be unlocked by levelling up what is known as your Street Rank. Players earn an XP reward based on their performance within matches and there are also Contracts that give you XP bonuses for completing specific tasks. One Contract tasked me with gaining 100 knockouts, whereas another required me to travel 100km when rolled up into a ball. One thing I really liked about the Street Rank system is that the rewards are completely randomised for each player, so there is no set linear route that the entire community needs to follow.
The approach that Velan Studios has taken with Knockout City is admirable and I hope that more developers follow suit in future with their online games. Despite featuring microtransactions, Knockout City isn't hampered by them and with cross-play enabled from launch, there's plenty of options to play the game the way you would like. Its concept also feels fresh and there is plenty of depth present with the number of trick shots and cooperative maneuvers that you can pull off. What's exciting too is that this is only the very beginning for the game and more maps, special balls, and game modes are planned to arrive within future seasons.