Bright, colourful, cartoony and full of characters, the Rocket Arena of 2020 is a very different style of game to the classic mods that it shares its name with, but retains one core pillar to the game design. Every weapon in the game fires projectiles, there are no hitscan weapons, and you can rocket jump by shooting at the floor or walls by your feet.
That fundamental principle is what gives the game its particular appeal. Your success relies entirely on your ability to land hits on your opponent, the game tapping into the innate satisfaction of leading your target and firing a projectile to meet them when they get there. You have to do this several times in a row, building up an Impact meter on them before being able to land a final strike, a Megablast that sends them flying out to the energy barrier around the battle arena – think of how Super Smash Bros. handles player knockouts.
From that basic foundational principle though, Final Strike Games have just gone all out, throwing game mechanic and idea after idea into the mix. Each of the ten characters at launch has their own particular rocket launcher, to the point that you can barely even call them rocket launchers. Rev has what is effectively a gatling gun; Topnotch has what’s basically a grenade launcher; Boone fires with Shotgun-like cluster rockets, with his alternate fire basically being a sniper rifle, and on and on. You have to learn the unique characteristics of each character’s weapon, the rate of fire, the speed of the projectile, if and how far that projectile will drop.
It doesn’t take too long to find your groove though, and figure out which characters work best for you, especially when considering their unique abilities. I gravitated toward Topnotch. He ditches the triple jump that all the other characters have for a jetpack, while he has more direct abilities than some, able to send a line of bombs out in a direction or lock on and target on an enemy’s position. You need to pick and choose when to target them because a moving target will be out of the blast radius before it lands, but it deals a lot of damage.
Other players might lean toward Rev instead, with her hoverboard letting her get around more quickly than others, or Amphora for her ability to turn into a pool of water, move around and then cyclone upwards. Or there’s Mysteen, who can create a shield around herself for a few moments and create an AI-controlled double, and the floppy-haired kid Plink, with short-ranged homing rockets and a teleporting device that’s great to get out of trouble.
As you can see, there’s a lot of contrasting characters, but behind their smiling family friendly appearance, there’s no real feeling of character to them. The theme of rocketry has been stretched so far as to be almost meaningless when there’s a magician, an Aztec-ish warrior and a pirate on the same team. It’s not always necessary to have a deep back story, especially not for a multiplayer game – see Overwatch’s disparate roster or League of Legends – but Rocket Arena’s roster feels a bit too scattershot and just didn’t really capture my imagination, even when the core gameplay is enjoyable.
Across the characters there’s an Artifact system, letting you select a trio of modifiers to your character stats. Finding it difficult to close in on enemies for Boone’s shotgun? Increase ground and air movement speed with the Gemstone Elixer and Boost Capacitor to make him extra spritely. Struggling to avoid KOs? Well, the Hunter’s Idol that reduces damage and impulse combined with the Rocket Radio to decrease the delay of health regen will surely help out. Artifacts have to be unlocked through play, and give decent percentage buffs from the off, but can be boosted further by levelling them up to level 3.
There are several different game modes in the game on day one, each with two teams of three characters battling it out. Knockout is the most self-explanatory, Rocketball is all about grabbing and delivering a ball to your opponent’s goal, and Mega Rocket is an explosive take on King of the Hill. Treasure Hunt is the most unusual, and arguably the weakest mode, alternating between phases where you try to capture and hold onto a treasure chest and where you run around grabbing coins that spawn all over the map. There are definite advantages to picking characters specifically for a mode and team composition.
The game could have a bright future, with an ambitious looking seasonal content approach that is stuffed with new ideas. Season One kicks off in two weeks, and through its run will introduce the eleventh character Flux, three new maps, a 1v1 ranked battle mode, and play host to a pair of limited time events. The one thing I’m not completely sure will work in its favour is combining the battle pass structure with a $29.99 price for the base game. Putting the battle pass to one side, there’s still plenty of character levelling and Artifact unlocking for those looking to unlock fancy new skins and tweak character builds.
Then again, even with a relatively small community, this game could thrive. There’s full cross-play between PS4, Xbox One and PC, ensuring that all players can play together. I found that I could be competitive with a gamepad against mouse & keyboard players, though the skill ceiling is high enough that you might prefer to turn this off on console and just play within your pool of players.