Rocket League is a special kind of brilliance wrapped in a special kind of stupid, much like Einstein draped in a Hello Kitty sleeved blanket. Rocket-propelled battle cars juke, jostle and roll in a horribly misheard version of soccer, stripped to just three players on each side and an oversized ball that likes to explode when it bounces into the arena goal. The sport is so reduced that people merely exist as a vague crowd rumbling in the distance, vocal only before they count down the last ten seconds of a match in unison. Humanity is less important than the eccentric cartoon cars of Rocket League, and for once that absence leads to a friendly game of infinite, ceaselessly intricate competition. You may absolutely take it seriously.
There are benefits to this effective dehumanization of sport in Rocket League. It leaves a video game that feels like the video game you’ve been training your whole life for. It’s super fast, fully three-dimensional and after luring you in with the pizazz of colorful hotrods clashing over a big ball, reveals itself to be a rich and pleasing interface between player and acrobatic vehicle, like a riotous amalgam of racing, fighting and cyber-FIFA. With no signs of humankind, there are no figures to vilify when you lose, no obnoxious victory poses to curse and no toxic atmosphere awaft with teabagging toddler-brains. It’s just flipping cars, a bouncing ball and players who can only express themselves — endlessly — through those two wonderful things.
All’s fair in physics, too. Rocket League’s ball is the most important object in the game — but it can’t be reasoned with outside of a tap from your car. Once you’ve given it a nudge, it’s gonna go where it’s gonna go. The joy of Rocket League is in finding all the pre-nudge possibilities and permutations and becoming so attuned to your car’s movements that explicit thinking evaporates, leaving only instinct in the eternal battle of who’s gonna nudge next. You’ll learn something new and minor almost every round: how much distance you can cover with the double-jump forward flip, or how high is too high for you to sail right below the ball in misguided anguish. There’s the sideways flip-boost, sending the ball into the goal at a right angle; the glorious (but especially difficult) rocket flight above everyone else to snatch a ball from the heavens, the rude bump of an opponent to ruin their planned trajectory into a rocket-fuel pickup on the field. There is just as much skill to learn as there is to demonstrate by accident (don’t worry, nobody will ask if it’s the latter).
The arena design in Rocket League covers a visually eclectic array of places, from an ornate garden embellished in brick to a slice of Mad Max’s deserted backyard. They all share an elegant oval shape that funnels the ball toward the goal — but rarely straight into it. In fact, a huge part of playing well is learning to bounce or roll the ball against the curved perimeter (even rocketing across the walls and ceiling, if you must) and get it in just the right spot for a decisive headbutt or a flanking teammate to seal the deal. The enclosed arena keeps things moving, always, and comes to represent just how satisfying and neatly locked in all of Rocket League’s mechanisms are. Play it enough and it’s like existing in that capsule. Your body is a car now. You drink gasoline and fart fire.
Man would not become car quite so quickly if Rocket League wasn’t also peppered with respectful features to put play at the forefront. Loading times leave in a flash, there’s split-screen play (remember that?) along with a huge list of gameplay mutators that make exhibition matches between friends feel especially wild. There are clever little touches, like the ball changing color and vibrating frantically when it’s about to roll over into a score, or how all nearby cars are tossed back in the subsequent screen-rattling explosion. And though Rocket League feels perfect in 3v3, you can go as low as 1v1 or to the chaotic 4v4 mode, if you suspect all the pretty cars should crash into each other more often. The game is also generous in dishing out new gameplay-neutral car designs, wheels, rocket trails (I highly recommend the trail of bubbles), funny hats and flags as you level up, though the rich level of customization makes the lack of a more developed, public spectator mode sting a little.
In other Rocket League things that sting: The Xbox One version is tardy, arriving about 7 months after debuting on PS4 and PC. The additional time has not led to the definitive version, sadly — the smaller pool of players is to be expected at first, but the absence of cross-platform play maroons the Xbox crowd on its own little island. The PlayStation 4 version can talk to Windows, but the Xbox version can’t? Rocket League on Xbox One does come with the game’s ‘Season 2’ refinements, including a more sensible professional tier system, and new arenas (like Wasteland) and Xbox-exclusive car bits, but it’s also missing the experimental arena types from ‘Rocket Labs’ mode, available on other platforms. It is absolutely lovely to play with the Xbox One controller, though, especially if you’re fortunate enough to have an Elite handy.
Regardless of where you play it, Rocket League is a vivid example of a restrained yet silly form of competitive play that only video games can provide. It could easily claim to be a weird racing game, a four-wheeled fighting game or a completely legitimate sports game, but debating its genre feels like the academic detour we don’t need — decidedly not for a game about on-the-spot learning, instinctive skill and soccer-cars flipping all over the damn place.