Rocket Arena is a surprisingly modern take on a multiplayer classic

Rocket Arena is not the Rocket Arena many older PC gamers might remember. Back in the late 90s and early 2000s, Rocket Arena was the go-to mod for the Quake series, stripping away everything but each game’s iconic rocket launcher and having you do battle on a truly level playing field.

Now in 2020, those classic mods are little more than a hazy memory for 30-something PC gamers, and with SpaceX making rockets all kinds of cool once again, Final Strike Games have decided it’s time to bring Rocket Arena back. Or the name, anyway.

There’s a lot that is different here compared to those purist deathmatch mods, throwing modern gaming trope after trope into the pot and letting them all stew into something that feels completely different.

Two of the most fundamental points of Rocket Arena do remain: everyone is equipped with a projectile-based rocket launcher, and rocket jumping – that is propelling yourself through the sky using the force of your rockets’ explosions – is a key part to getting around. Everything else, however, is different.

You see the difference immediately as you load up the game. There’s no gritty Quake Marine here, but fun and friendly character designs that wouldn’t be out of place in Fortnite, and yes, they’re each a distinct character. This is now a hero shooter, and each one has their own rocket launcher – each with a unique rate of fire and damage output – and a secondary fire and special ability.

The very default looking Jayto comes with the most standard rocket launcher, his secondary fire being a swarm of mini-rockets, while his special boosts his mobility and gives him more powerful Skypiercer Rockets for a short time. However, it’s not always rockets with the game’s ten characters. Amphora can turn into a pool of water, move around and then cyclone upwards, Rev rides on a hover board that can be used to ram enemies and throw a mine for her secondary, but has a weaker, faster-firing main rocket launcher. Boone basically feels like he doesn’t shoot rockets at all, with a shotgun-like cluster shot, a scoped sniper rocket, and a wind vortex special.

The one unifying aspect is that they move at the same speed, have a triple jump, and their weapons are all projectiles, meaning there’s skill to leading your target and landing successive blows.

And you’ll need to do that, because taking out an enemy isn’t about dropping their health bar to zero in Rocket Arena. Instead, you’re filling up an Impact meter, each successive rocket imparting a great and greater force until the meter is full and you can send them flying out of the arena with a Megablast. Think Super Smash Bros., but where you can run away and hide to let it reduce back to zero.

Somehow it still works. There’s still something so satisfying about the skill needed to lead a target and hit them a few times on the trot. Putting the Rocket Arena name to one side, there’s a really inventive combination of gameplay ideas here that will appeal to a lot of people that give it a try.

Those gameplay mechanics are thrown into a handful of game modes at launch, each with a low 3v3 player count. The first and most obvious is Knockout, where it’s all about getting the highest number of knockouts as a team. The second puts a sportsball spin on things with a ball spawning in the middle that you have to try and snatch and score at the other team’s base, whether throwing it or running it in. Finally, we played Treasure Hunt, which alternates between trying to grab and hold a chest to earn points and sprinting around grabbing coins that spawn on the map. There’s more on the way, as well, with the game set to follow the Battle Pass model for rewards and a seasonal stream of new characters, modes and maps.

Unfortunately, that’s where I think the game could take damage from its own rocket. EA and Final Strike Games are charging for the game up front – albeit at a budget $29.99 price point – and then following that up with a battle pass model more typical of free to play games. Yes, we’ve seen examples like Call of Duty where this has seemingly worked, but let’s not forget that’s a game that’s always going to sell millions and millions of copies. By contrast Rocket Arena is starting from scratch, making this feel like a bigger risk to reaching a broad audience. Then again, it’s coming out for PS4, Xbox One and PC with full cross-play, and with 3v3 matches, even a small community should be able to sustain itself.

I think that anyone that does give it a try when it arrives in July will have fun with it. Going into the game with a ton of preconceptions from the old mods, I was surprised at every turn by Rocket Arena. Maybe change isn’t so bad after all?

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