Only about a year after the lack of marketing and a confusing launch model impeded the interesting Rocket Arena from making a splash, Electronic Arts tries to push another small multiplayer phenomenon, trying to create their own success story akin to Rocket League. This time, it’s with yet another class-based arena shooter, but perhaps shooter is the wrong term, since there’s no weapons of any kind. It’s a fast-paced, acrobatic session of… dodgeball. Knockout City’s the name, and throwing balls is the game! Will this finally be it?
If Electronic Arts wanted to avoid replicating the confusing launch of Rocket Arena, they didn’t quite manage to do that. Once again, they chose not to opt for the popular free-to-play model that brought titles like Fortnite Battle Royale and Apex Legends to success, but to opt for a low entry barrier of 19.99 EUR/USD. But since the player numbers for Rocket Arena’s paid version were terrible at launch, the game received a massive 83% discount in its second week; for Knockout City, to get ahead of such a price slashing, Electronic Arts decided to… more or less make the game free anyway.
It’s included day one for all tiers of EA Play and Game Pass; subsequently they made the first 25 XP levels of the game free for everyone, which followed the first 10 days of launch being completely free for all players. Why didn’t EA commit to a F2P model at this point beats us, but the numbers this time seem to be on their side: 5 million players in a week and a half. No idea how many of those are paid customers, however.
But what about Knockout City attracted millions of players in such a short timeframe, in a market where unique multiplayer titles have low chance of surviving long? When even free-to-play titles often fail to make a splash? Visually, it’s certainly nothing out of the ordinary: slightly cartoony visuals not unlike in Rocket Arena or Overwatch, customizeable characters that players get to watch from their back in third person view, colourful vistas – stop me if you’ve heard this one before. But the gameplay loop, while sharing some mechanical similarities with the aforementioned Rocket Arena, is what truly stands here.
In the game’s standard modes, two teams of 3 players join a classic arena that mimics the shooters of old, usually with a handful of choke points, intersections and some dynamic element in the middle, like a train or a wrecking ball that can cause havoc. In these maps, you will not find weapon crates, ammo or health packs, only balls to pick up from the ground. On a surface level, the gameplay loop is simple enough: find the balls, hit the opponents twice to take a life away, whoever gets 10 kills first wins the round, with a best of three to reach the goal of taking the match home.
In reality, the game’s movement system adds a surprising amount of depth, making Knockout City somewhat closer to a fighting game than a traditional shooter. Oncoming attacks can be parried or dodged, there’s a glide system reminiscent of Fortnite, balls can be intercepted mid-air, players can even use acrobatic moves such as spins and mid-air boosts, which in turn can unlock the option to give the thrown balls curvy angles and lobs. Shots can even be faked, and players can roll up into a ball themselves to let a teammate throw them for a lethal team-based takedown. Passes are very much encouraged as well, as chaining many can also increase the ball’s power, rendering shots even more devastating.
For these reasons, it will be interesting to compare the current state of the game to what it may become in a few months’ or years’ time. Around Rocket League’s launch, players were driving slow, giving slight nudges to the ball and accidentally hitting each other all the time. Now, the community learned to flick the ball at crazy speed mid-air, intercept dangerous shots by boosting upwards or fly off the ceiling to hit the ball from above. Similarly, these launch weeks for Knockout City have mainly seen people playing it slow, going for simple shots, standard dodges and parries and not much more – there’s even handy on-screen indicators for upcoming balls that help handling more complex scenarios even for newcomers. But the skill ceiling is high, as the strategic and acrobatic options are rather impressive, and I’m honestly excited to see how the average match will unfold in some months.
To further add spice into an already rich mix, power-up balls can also appear on that map. Multiballs, explosive spheres, even a cage that can put a player into a ball-shaped prison for a handful of seconds, denying them the chance to attack and move in any way that isn’t rolling. Even players can, so to speak, be powered up: charging a rolled up player for a few seconds allows the player to launch him as a devastating air assault, capable of eliminating multiple unsuspecting opponent at once if they are too close together. It may not seem like it watching an average stream, but the gameplay’s notably deep.
Variety, on the other hand, leaves a lot to be desired. As of now, there’s only a handful of game modes rotating in and out, most of them serving as slight variations of the core loop, like a powered-up variant where only special balls exist or a more chaotic 4v4 battle. Recently, a free-for-all mode was thrown into the mix, and Diamond Dash is Knockout City’s version of the iconic Kill Confirmed formula, but it’s not enough, even if anything can be played in custom matches, ranked and casual matches alike. Likewise, the game currently only features about 5 maps, which means that the strategies for each zone seem to be cemented already, with matches already starting to feel a bit same-ish after only two weeks. We sincerely hope the developer manages to keep the formula fresh enough in the next months by introducing more elements.
Fortunately, customization of the characters seems to be meaty enough to get players to come back for more. A free battle pass system allows players to unlock new clothes, explosions, gliders and more, alongside the standard paid MTXs to acquire premium skins where pricing is mostly on par with the F2P games in the market, for better or worse. A wide array of challenges make levelling up quite a breeze, so at least the relatively limited variety is compensated partially by a generous rewards system. And with short matches, even a round or two negatively impacted by lag or toxic players (both seem to be moderately present at the time) is certainly a smaller obstacle to overcome, compared to lengthy matches in RTS or MOBA titles for example.
We chose to take our sweet time to review Knockout City because a multiplayer title can hardly be judged on its opening day, it needs to stand the test of time. Perhaps it would be late to assign a rating when the game’s past its prime, but we’re certainly curious to see where this journey takes us. Knockout City’s gameplay loop is strong, exciting and it offers a high skill ceiling. If the developers manage to increase the variety and fix the few shortcomings it has, we’re potentially looking at one of the multiplayer hits of the next few years. It’s a bit dangerously low on content for it to last, so they need to act quick to deliver. Ball’s on their court now!
Interested in Knockout City? Check out the free trial or the full game on Game Pass and EA Play, and feel free to hit me up for a couple matches!
|Reviewed on||Xbox Series X|
|Available on||Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, Playstation 4|5, Nintendo Switch, Windows PC|
|Release Date||May 21st, 2021|