Precision and simplicity converge in this bizarre and wonderful automotive football game.
If you're even slightly disappointed by the feel of the Batmobile in Arkham Knight, the X-Devil body with Almas tyres will give you all the Batmobile you could ever reasonably need. Sure, chassis and wheel types are cosmetic here, but still: what a beast! That particular visual combination is the final ingredient to a car that already hugs the ground tightly as it roars along, yet can spin on a dime and do crazy, dreamy backflips in mid-air. It barrels through enemies - they certainly feel like enemies anyway - and hits top speed in the blink of an eye. You can even customise the colour of the flames that blast from its exhaust when you reach for turbo. Oh yes, and it is pretty handy at headers and shooting from corners, too.
Football with cars: that's the premise behind Rocket League, and it's to the game's grand and eternal credit that it never dulls this glorious idea with over-complication. A sequel to 2008's Supersonic Acrobatic Rocket-Powered Battle-Cars, Psyonix latest feels like a design that has found its true voice and its true focus. Season mode and cosmetic customisation bring a sense of shape and personal flair to the basic flow of matches, dedicated servers make it easier to find stable games online, and the decision to release on PC as well as the PS4 - and allow cross-platform play - greatly expands the audience in the first place. The original game always felt like it was headed somewhere strange and promising; this one feels like it has arrived.
And - again - it is so simple: two teams of glossy, full-throated muscle cars. A tight pitch with ramps at the edges leading to walls you can drive up. A huge ball urging you to knock it into one of the colossal goals at which point it explodes. This is the beautiful game, and it is further enlivened by a handful of very simple additional tricks that leave you feeling extremely powerful. A double-jump with a lovely squashy feel to it as you push through the air, a smooth drifting turn that allows for quick repositioning and nimble whacks of the ball with your rear-end, and a powerful boost, charged up by running over little nodes on the pitch: ka-chunk.
It's not quite football, in other words. Those walls, curving up to steep slopes, encourage a greater emphasis on rebounds, while the very fact that you're a car rather than a person means you're constantly battling with your own sense of momentum, too, forever compensating for your inevitable overshoots or calculating where a nudge of the ball will leave you as well. In James Gleick's wonderful and lyrical biography of Isaac Newton, which I have to admit I like even more than Rocket League, the author mentions that this giant of science only ever laughed once in his entire life (the occasion was upon being asked if there was any reason to read Euclid). I think he would laugh at Rocket League too, or rather with it, because it is his world brought to glorious, multicolour life on the screen, a thing of trajectories and gravity and inevitability, of the ball's straight line bound up with the arc of your own turning circle.
Matches are kept to five minutes, which is exactly the right time to leave you giddy with fear that the tables can turn at any moment, or breathlessly hoping that you can undo the effects of a hilarious disaster. Equally, you can choose between teams of 1 to 4 players, between duels and absolute anarchy, with 2v2, I think, being the sweet spot that creates a perfect tension out of guarding the goal and racing for glory.
A spin through a few seasons suggests that the AI is fun to play against, although I've had the odd glitch where the enemy team has just parked itself for a few seconds, unable to move, and online offers immersion in a community that has already taken the sport of automotive football to strange and terrifying places. You'll see precision headers and dribbling that lasts for an entire lap of the pitch. I even played one game in which most of the action took place on the walls rather than the grass. Still, such is the knockabout nature of a game that builds itself out from physics, you'll never be entirely without hope, regardless of how witlessly you play.
It's pretty, offering glossy, juddering cars let loose in gorgeously lit arenas, and it's also wonderfully balanced. The goal, for example, is always placed a perfect distance from the middle of the pitch to ensure that, if you accelerate blindly into the ball at kick off, you will just miss scoring. Exploit removed, what you're left with is a laboratory of tactical choices as you work out exactly how best to get to that ball each time the pitch resets, and whether the first touch is even an advantage anyway.
There's XP beyond that, and the promise of a scramble up the leaderboards, but I don't think Rocket League genuinely needs these things to hook you and hold you. Aside from the compact drama of the five minute matches, this is one of those rare games where the simple act of throwing a car around an arena is enough to keep you at it. Newton would approve and so would Batman. What more would you want?