It's probably been a while since you snuck up on a live human being hidden in a cardboard box. After all, Metal Gear Online's servers shut down almost three years ago. As is the case for any game that released in 2008, be it Super Smash Bros. Brawl, Race Driver: Grid or Resistance 2: all of them saw their online servers shuttered.
Yet Supersonic Acrobatic Rocket-Powered Battle-Cars wasn't.
Who would have guessed that a modest PlayStation Network game about cars playing football would be the (almost) lone survivor from one of the greatest years in video games of all time?
With an overly long title and crazy, non-intuitive ball physics, Supersonic Acrobatic Rocket-Powered Battle-Cars's steep learning curve made it difficult for new players to get into. Which is unfortunate, because those of us who did stick with it found something marvellous underneath the hood.
This is where Rocket League comes in. After years of rumours about a Battle-Cars sequel, we finally got a glimpse of the latest entry to the world of car football last year. By now, we've even been able to try the beta, which has garnered plenty of praise and attention over the last few weeks. The developers at Psyonix are trying to make the new instalment approachable for new players, while also attempting to keep the appeal that kept the veterans coming back to Battle-Cars. A difficult balancing act.
The first thing that struck us about Rocket League was how much heavier it feels compared to its predecessor. While Battle-Cars saw footballs bouncing between walls and shots easily covering the entire field, you now need to build up some actual speed in order to really send the ball flying. It felt a bit strenuous at first, and we quickly realised that some of our old tricks and techniques no longer work the way they used to. We'll admit to having a slightest impulse to turn on the Playstation 3 and go back to the old game.
But, after a couple of matches any urge to play other games disappeared. Rocket League might be a tad slower-paced and, sure, the ball is a bit heavier, but it didn't take long until we started to see the benefits of the new physics. We just needed to add some more weight behind the ball. The globe feels and acts like the real thing now. Bunny hops and bicycle kicks (doing a reverse somersault with your car) don't send it soaring through the air like they used to, nor does the ball bounce off your hood at the slightest touch.
The more realistic ball physics are no accident, according to Jeremy Dunham from Psyonix. He explains that the developers didn't want the player to have to learn special physics within their game, but rather wanted them to be able to do what they'd expect to be able to. At the same time, they have slowed down the pace of the game to encourage team play, so that players could have more opportunities to pass the ball and set up shots.
It's easy to notice when playing the game. For most people, passing the ball in Battle-Cars generally meant crossing the ball along the wall and into the box, hoping that your teammate would jump highest and get to it first. In Rocket League, it's become easier to play a more direct passing game, making the overall flow of the game feel a little less like volleyball and more like hockey or football.
Even with counter-attacks, which in Battle-Cars typically saw you shooting from your own side of the pitch, it's a good idea to set up a breakthrough pass. The chance that the ball will make it all the way from one goal to the other on its own is much smaller now.
In Rocket League, it has become easier to mix drifting into your shooting and dribbling. With good timing, you can hit the brakes and turn just before you hit the ball so that you hit it at the very edge, making it possible to score from seemingly impossible angles. Getting it right feels extremely satisfying and we can imagine it's possible to spend many hours perfecting the technique.
There are also plenty of new things happening outside the football arenas. One of the problems with the first game was that the online play seemed laggy at launch and that the game relied entirely on player-hosted servers. This time around, Psyonix are providing their own dedicated severs in Europe and North America, and in spite of what must have been a record amount of car football athletes competing, they seemed to be up to the task.
Jeremy could also tell us a little bit about the upcoming seasons mode for players that are less interested in servers and online play and would rather play against the computer. This mode will be similar to the season modes from other games like FIFA and Madden, in that you can compete in championships, playoffs and even customise your team. It will also be possible for friends to drop in and out of your game for some old-fashioned couch co-op.
It will be interesting to see if AI can provide any real competition against human players. We did get a couple of opportunities to team up with and against the artificial intelligence and it seemed to perform much better than in the previous game. It even scored a few goals! The AI's goalkeeping probably needs some work, but then again, so does ours.
Overall, Rocket League seems to nicely packed with content. When it launches for PC and Playstation 4 this summer it will be in a different league from its predecessor in visuals, AI behaviour and performance. From another company, say Electronic Arts, that alone might have been enough to warrant a sequel, but Psyonix clearly don't want to stop there.
They've thrown in a new season mode, car customisation, new tutorials and a smarter match-making system that puts you up against players with similar skill levels. According to Jeremy, Psyonix are even in talks with Sony about implementing cross-platform play.
In spite of all this, what warms the heart of an old Battle-Cars fan the most is that the core gameplay is still in place: Cars playing football, with no rules, no players feigning injuries and no Sepp Blatter running for re-election. Instead, there's strategy, dribbling and huge explosions when you score. The way actual football was intended to be. We just have to guess if the servers will still be online in 2022. We have a feeling they will be.
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