I hate sports games -- but 'Rocket League' is the best game of the year so far

I used to play sports games. Remember this iconic scene from cult classic film “Swingers?”

That was me, but, ya know, not dressed as for jazz dancing. And certainly not as pretty as Vince Vaughn. 

I grew up with sports games like “NBA Jam,” “NFL Blitz,” and “Mutant League Hockey” — sports games that didn’t aim to re-create actual sports as much as they took those sports and turned them into interesting video games. They were silly and fast and, often, much more fun than sports game nowadays. Even EA Sports’ games were more fun back then, when games weren’t capable of near perfectly re-creating real life sports (as evidenced by the clip above).

With a scant few exceptions, sports games like this don’t exist anymore. The companies making sports games — more or less only EA Sports and 2K these days — enjoy a much larger profit from annual releases of Madden and FIFA. 

On July 7, the first new sports game in many years not intended to re-create real sports was released on the PlayStation 4 and PC: It’s called “Rocket League.” And “Rocket League” is one of the best games I’ve played this year.

What is “Rocket League?” It’s soccer with rocket cars, played three vs three or four vs four. Yeah!

You know all of those rules in soccer? None of those apply in “Rocket League.” There’s no “out of bounds” because you drive on the walls

It starts out with a mad dash to the ball from both sides to center field, like a face off in hockey, but with rocket-powered cars instead. Like so:

You could drive at the ball at full speed, or you could use some of your rocket juice, or some combination thereof. The most important thing you do next is make your car jump — yes, jump — and front flip forward. This is the “Rocket League” version of soccer’s header combined with standard dribbling, albeit a bit more forceful and unpredictable.

Like everything in “Rocket League,” doing front flips with your car is blessedly simple. Press X to jump, press X again in mid-air to flip forward. Push to the left and you’ll flip left. Push to the right and…well, you get the idea. This is the basic formula for ball control in “Rocket League,” and it’s nowhere near as precise as actual soccer.

The next aspect you need to get under control is using your rockets. Every player starts out with a third of a tank of nitro that can be replenished by driving over pickups scattered around the field. Balancing your nitro use with offensive and defensive tactics is the core of “Rocket League,” and what makes it such an intense, frenetic competition. 

Will you get to the ball fast enough to beat out the competition, and ultimately get the ball away from your goal and toward theirs? This is the basest level question you seek to answer at any given second in “Rocket League.”

This is a madman’s vision for future soccer.

That’s evident in every aspect of “Rocket League,” from the game’s ridiculous menu music to its car customisation options. Swap out rims, exhaust colours, and even hats! My car has a wizard hat, a tennis ball antenna topper, and it shoots “Tron”-esque streams out the back.

But maybe you prefer something a little less gauche? Thankfully, there are thousands of combinations in “Rocket League” to suit your preferences.

You’ll earn more car colours and more hats and more everything else by simply playing the game. There’s an offline mode that has you playing against computer-controlled AI teams. I’m sure that’s fine, but where “Rocket League” shines is online, against other human beings controlling rocket-powered cars.

That’s where the real madness emerges.

Here’s one great example of some of that madness:

And of course, scoring goals is incredibly rewarding. Due to the craziness inherent in “Rocket League,” goals are often erratic and sudden. But sometimes, every now and again, you get a moment of unadulterated strategy and are able to pull it off:

I can’t stop playing “Rocket League.” I was up until midnight last night — well past my bedtime — passing a PlayStation 4 gamepad back and forth with my wife, yelling and laughing and experiencing great joy. Even better, the game was free on PlayStation 4 with my PlayStation Plus membership. If you don’t pay for the annual subscription service, the game costs $US20. And if you’d prefer to play it on PC, that’s an option too — you can even play with friends on PlayStation 4 right from your computer. Sadly, there’s no version on Xbox One or Wii U.

The way you get it matters not. What matters is that you play “Rocket League,” and you play it soon. You won’t regret it.

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