Excelling in sport means knowing when a moment is outside of your control and recognizing when an opportunity is there to seize. In Rocket League, both events occur countless times in any given match--not surprising for a game heavily inspired by soccer. It caters to the competitive realist who thrills in having sole control of the ball for a few seconds despite knowing it can be snatched at any time. The best part is that you get to kill opponents' dreams and agonize in your own losses from the comfort of a very, very fast car.
Every moment in Rocket League demands split-second judgment. Are you the assertive type who takes control of the immediate situation at the risk of being in the middle of a chaotic, unpredictable scrum? Are you more of a long-term planner, one who watches your cohorts fight over a ball in a corner with the confidence that the ball will inevitably escape. When this happens, are you ready at the top of the penalty arc with the hope that the loose ball will roll between you and the goal? This echoes Wayne Gretzky's words of wisdom: "A good hockey player plays where the puck is. A great hockey player plays where the puck is going to be." Rocket League offers countless opportunities to be Gretzky--or Nostradamus.
Rocket League thrives on speed and momentum. This is best exemplified by the gravity-defying excitement of driving up the side of any of the game's arenas. This ability is useful as well as thrilling. Without the curves along the edges of the pitch, cars would simply bang into the wall. Constantly having to reverse and make three-point turns over a five-minute match would be a disappointing series of momentum-ending buzzkills. Rocket League has none of these obstacles. The curved corners means you do not lose momentum. Your tires will smoothly caress these bends as you ride the walls horizontally, chasing the ball in parallel with rest of the cars on the pitch. Given that the ceiling is also fair game, every player will feel compelled to attempt a gravity-defying loop across the width of the roof. The game's physics and your limited boost will prevent you from completing such a stunt, but you'll attempt it anyway.
The ball in play is comparable to that perpetually bouncing beach ball you find at every music festival, only slightly less buoyant. It bounces and flies in unpredictable directions when touched by two parties at the same time. This is where fortune favors the Rocket League sportsperson who embraces chaos. Transcendence comes when you realize you don't have to be in control of the ball at all times; you should chase it only when you think you can make a difference.
A goal scored ends the fleeting, yet fulfilled, existence of a ball. In its death, the ball's life is celebrated with a literal bang. It's a colorful, smoke-filled explosion that sends all the cars flying away at heights and velocities that would kill any human in real life. It is so spectacular that you can't help but savor the blast, even if you weren't on the team that scored. Rocket League is that rare kind of video-game sport where you're compelled to play your best, even when you're being blown out 5-1 and there's only a minute left on the clock.
There's no shortage of advanced ball handling in online multiplayer. In Rocket League, experience leads to tactical thinking. Tactical thinking leads to performing with finesse. You cannot open car doors to use them like arms; that would be the equivalent of a handball in soccer. Instead, you can spin your car forwards, backwards, and sideways, which is analogous to bicycle kicks and headers. Once you learn to use these moves to advance the ball, you are soon ricocheting shots on goal. Over time, you also discover that your chances of scoring are boosted by hitting the car closest to the ball rather than the ball itself. It's all obvious highlight reel material, which is why the replay save option is so welcome. Learning and mastering these advanced moves makes playing Rocket League endlessly absorbing, even after you've logged over 50 matches.
The joy of Rocket League rests on the countless plans that are conceived and discarded every other second in any given match.
Playing a single-player season in rookie mode is as useful a practice ground as the training mode itself. Without real-life competitors ruthlessly charging to the center of the field for the drop ball, you can practice making spectacular goals from midfield. The drawback is that imperfect A.I. applies to both teams, meaning that your computer-controlled squadmates will average at least one incompetent move per match, whether it's taking the ball to the far side of your end of the field or blocking your path to the ball.
Rocket League's replay value lies in the draw of constant participation, not in a progressive system of unlockable advanced abilities or shoehorned novelty modes. All the arenas are uniform and consistent in shape, without any bells and whistles like the terraces in its predecessor, Supersonic Acrobatic Rocket-Powered Battle-Cars. The only variables are the team sizes, A.I. difficulty, and season lengths. This lack of flexibility adds legitimacy to the sport, mirroring the steadfast traditions within many professional sports, some of which are over a hundred years old.
This thoughtfulness extends to the studio's crafting of a convincing world where Rocket League is the number one sport. You see it in the multi-tier, sold-out arenas and you hear it from the indistinct chants of allegiance from the fans. The crowd goes 'Oooohhhh!' or 'Aaaaahh!', whether it's a goal or a key ball hit at midfield. These sprinkles of realism aren't strictly necessary but are greatly appreciated; for instance, the pitch itself features blades of grass that all move independently. These manicured fields are best admired during the pre-match camera shots, but you can't be faulted for staring at them in the middle of a game. They are complemented by the myriad customization parts, from wildly swinging antenna flags to neon-blue engine exhaust trails.
The joy of Rocket League rests on the countless plans that are conceived and discarded every other second in any given match. Trying to predict where and how the ball will bounce next is a game within the game. Despite the use of cars, Rocket League emulates the emotional surges typical of The Beautiful Game, such as the rush of an unexpected fast break or a well-timed header into a goal. With Rocket League, the promising concept of combining two wonderful things--cars and soccer--is equally magnificent in execution. You can't say the same thing about, say, combining cake and fruit to make fruitcake, as the comedian Jim Gaffigan observed.
Rocket League is featured on our list of the best split-screen PS4 games.