Rocket League is the most moreish multiplayer game since Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. Psyonix's vehicular soccer simulation adeptly illustrates the idea that simple concepts can succeed when expertly executed. And while it may have taken an entire generation for the seeds sewn by underrated PlayStation 3 exclusive Supersonic Acrobatic Rocket-Powered Battle-Cars to truly take hold, we suspect that this leftfield local and online team-based hit will be boosting into some Game of the Year lists once the final whistle blows on 2015.
But what is it that makes this PlayStation 4 outing so entertainingly addictive? In essence, it's the pitch perfect blend of accessibility and depth. The free-flowing rules of football are dialled down, doing away with boundaries and off-side traps, meaning that anyone can learn how to play. However, this ease of understanding is enhanced by a skill-based control system; the game's fleet of frivolous vehicles are simple to pilot, but few will master the art of aerial play. It means that, like Infinity Ward's first-person shooter, there's something here for everyone.
But the car-cum-soccer smash has one other trick up its exhaust pipe: it manages to make proceedings entertaining even when you lose. The simple act of controlling your car – which does away with input lag due to a silky smooth framerate – means that even when you're chasing teams ten times better than you, there's fun to be had. Identical vehicle classes – bodywork changes are purely cosmetic – and symmetrical arenas mean that the title is perfectly balanced; it never feels like the game is conspiring against you like so many others do.
And that means that when you do get on the score sheet – be it courtesy of a lucky long ball punt or a brilliantly timed boost-powered bicycle kick – you'll always feel like you're responsible for the goal; there's no number crunching or rubber banding going on beneath the surface. However, the game's real genius is the way in which it acknowledges every effort on the way to a win: goal line clearances can be just as spectacular as aerial shots – and even the way in which the screen rattles as you strike the ball provides a sense of sublime satisfaction.
All of this would, of course, be meaningless without net code to match its expertly honed mechanics – but, while the game has sadly fallen foul to the Instant Game Collection kiss of death, it's started to stabilise nicely. You can pick between ranked and unranked playlists ranging from two to eight players, with the matchmaking working in the background while you spend time on the training pitch if you like. Games are found with Call of Duty-esque speed, and players are funnelled in and out almost invisibly to ensure that there are no breaks in play when someone inevitably quits.
Considering how many titles get this crucial aspect wrong, it's refreshing when a release just works – when the servers are online, of course. Once you're in a match, you can pretty much stay there indefinitely, allowing the netcode to introduce new players as you hop from round to round. And, after dozens of matches, we haven't noticed any instances of severe lag; even in the hectic eight-player match-ups, proceedings remain smooth – a marked improvement over the slightly shaky days of the pre-release beta.
There is an offline option for those that want it, but it's clearly not the package's primary appeal. Season allows you to create a custom team using a variety of rudimentary options, where you'll work your way to the summit of the, er, Rocket League. The artificial intelligence can be a bit dumb on lower difficulties, but it steps it up when you reach the All-Star tier. Still, you can't ever account for the unpredictability of a real-world human, and while it's relatively fun lifting the fictional cup, it's probably not something that you'll come back to after winning the championship once.
The training minigames are, secretly, probably the more entertaining solo option. These are divided into three categories: defence, offence, and aerial play. Here you'll be tasked with either saving, shooting, or flying respectively in a selection of random scenarios, and it's quite fun playing through these while you're waiting for an invitation from friends or the servers to connect you to a match. You'll also be levelling up and earning cosmetic items as you progress, the latter enabling you to kit out your car with personal flourishes such as flags and flowery effects.
Performance is paramount in a game like this, but great image quality and slick artwork help it to succeed from a presentational perspective, too. There aren't an enormous number of arenas available – though post-release additions will be free – but they're all buoyed by attractive features. Some are fitted with AstroTurf which sways in the sun, while others are equipped with shiny hard courts. Meanwhile, some locations are lashed with light rain, while others overlook futuristic city skylines at night. There are some minor anti-aliasing issues, but nothing worth shouting about.
If there's any presentation flaw it's the soundtrack, which employs forgettable trance tracks – a couple of which boast unexpected vocals parts. When you're on the pitch, the sound effects take centre stage, but while these are generally strong, it's the type of title that practically begs you to construct a fitting Spotify playlist before booting it up; fortunately, all of this functionality is built directly into the PS4. We'd also point to the menus – which are forcing some formats to sound like aircrafts – as another problem, but we're nitpicking a little bit.
Rocket League is a good idea that's been expertly executed. While you may roll your eyes at the idea of a vehicular adaptation of America's least-favourite sport, this is a title that's hard to put down once you give it a try. Flawless controls and a frightening amount of depth ensure that both casual and hardcore players will have fun on the field – and the generally excellent online implementation transforms it into four-wheeled crack. Not even a lacklustre single player option and an out-of-place soundtrack can stop us from declaring this the beautiful car game.