About 20 years ago, only online video games became a major factor in retail. You might expect boxed games ranging from $30 to $60 to be all about things like versus deathmatch arenas or MMO quests. That has clearly changed on modern PCs and consoles.
But what happens if a game publisher in 2020 tries to go back in time and charge $30 for one of these things? Can a paid, online-only game work in the modern, free-to-play marketplace?
We don’t get a conclusive answer from Rocket Arenawhich EA released last week on PC, PS4, and Xbox One for $30. There might be a brand new game in this era that can handle the task, but this one is more of a cautionary tale.
That Rocket Arena† Did you mean Rocket League†
Since this is Ars Technica, we have to start by distinguishing the name of this new game from the popular, long-running mod of the same name. “Rocket Arena” is also the name of a nice 1v1 tweak for games like Quake III Arena that gives two players every possible weapon at the start of a match and then puts them in a lightning duel. Apparently that mod’s name was never trademarked, and the developers of this new game at Final Strike Games dived in to get their hands on it in 2017.
From here, any italicized mention of Rocket Arena refers to the new 2020 game. And yes, before I hit ‘publish’ I had to make sure I didn’t accidentally type Rocket Leaguethe name of a hugely successful 3v3 car soccer game.
EA’s new game, admittedly, leans more towards the title as a concept, as it revolves almost entirely around rocket launchers as weapons. Choose from 10 fighters, each with their own specialized missile launcher as their primary weapon, and engage in online 3v3 battles. There’s no offline mode to speak of outside of a simplistic practice mode; if you want to fight the game’s AI, there’s an online option, tucked away in a few menus.
Things start awkwardly thanks to the tutorial’s focus on “rocket jumping.” For the uninitiated, classic quake games revolve around the idea of shooting yourself to a higher jump by launching a rocket at your feet. This quick maneuver comes with a damage trade-off: jump further, take blast damage. In Rocket Arenano one can hurt themselves, and this fact, coupled with the tutorial’s insistence that you learn the move to climb walls, might make you think the whole game is an explosion-to-jump motion frenzy.
The problem is, the EA game’s versus arenas are mostly open-air battlefields with floating platforms, not lined by corridors. quake old maps; there is rarely an organic wall or corner to bounce against for any strategic reason. Worse, one might hope that a rocket jump would provide a useful speed boost on these maps, as the game modes emphasize movement (which I’ll get into). But these bounces offer the same speed as the built-in “triple jump” mechanism. So…why all the emphasis on rocket jumping?
Have I not already paid?
Before the game tries to answer that question, Rocket Arena punches you in the face with an interface that looks straight forward Fortnite† Buy new outfits! Buy a Battle Pass! Buy decorations for your ‘totem’, a flag that appears briefly between games. the ways Rocket Arena urging you to spend real money, after already paying $30 to start the game, would be hilarious if they didn’t feel like a slap in the face to the consumer.
If the UI had been redesigned to reflect how the in-game economy works, EA would have left a different impression. A new player can earn a ton of in-game currency simply by playing one match with each of the 10 characters, which can be spent on certain cosmetic unlocks. In addition, most of the launch game’s cosmetic options nothing but are earned through gameplay. And once you’re in the game, all modes are available; there is no gameplay behind further payments.
Maybe, just maybe, EA should have removed all real money ties in the “launch period”, forcing players to explore how the natural act of playing the game leads to new outfits and embellishments… before trying us out. to squeeze everything for a few bucks more.
Let’s just say EA has somehow rectified its coverage of money and respected players. Is there a game here worth recommending? Almost.
Rocket Arena offers a few versus modes, all broken down into 3v3 face-offs. Two of these modes offer traditional versions of team deathmatch and king-of-the-hill; two offer somewhat unusual spins on capture-the-flag and zone control; and the last one is a “horde” mode against waves of AI bad guys. (Without any adjustable difficulty or other options for) RAI can’t recommend it in horde mode though.)
The problem starts with a cast of 10 characters who are clearly not designed to shine in every mode. One example is Plink, the preteen wiz kid who can absolutely devastate enemies thanks to his standard barrage of mini-missiles that sort of hit targets. If you have to move the “rocketball” (the version of a flag in this game) from one side of an arena to the other, he will not be able to snort because his “teleport” ability is not a movement option. But he’s an unbalanced damage machine that can instantly turn the tide in a team deathmatch. Worthless in some modes; necessary in others.
A good “hero shooter” works when his series of classes encourage teamwork and coordination, making any team cadre viable in any mode. But Rocket ArenaThe mechanics revolve around dealing damage and picking up temporary items scattered around the map (speed boosts, throwing bombs), not setting up things like buffs or zone control boosts. Out of 10 fighters, only two have the ability to conjure “shields” of any kind, and only one of these shields benefits teammates by slowing down enemies’ attacks in a given zone. †Rocket Arena buries this problem, in part by not letting players tap a single button to view character abilities before or during a match.)
At launch, I’ve only had success with damage-healing characters like Plink and the pirate Blastbeard that don’t require reloading, and the super-fast Rev character for objective-based modes. I’ve had no fun experimenting with less capable damage-dealing options.