There’s few games as simple as dodgeball. You have a ball, and you try to throw and hit your opponent with it to knock them out of the game, except they can try to catch it and flip the script on you. It’s a game that, outside of American schools, is probably best known from the 2004 Ben Stiller sports film spoof, but Knockout City takes that simplistic concept and puts an edgy new twists on the rules of engagement, cooking up a surprisingly compelling multiplayer game.
At its most fundamental, Knockout City is still dodgeball. All you have to do is hit other players with a thrown ball and avoid getting hit yourself, but even within that there’s a delicate dance of mind games, team strategy and timing. Any thrown ball can be caught by your opponent with a properly timed catch, disarming you and leaving you vulnerable to attack in turn. Fake throws to draw out a grab animation, positioning to hit an unsuspecting opponent, ganging up on someone with a teammate and more all feed into the moment-to-moment gameplay, and that’s before we get to the myriad changes that have developer Velan Studios dubbing this ‘Dodgebrawl’.
Everything is souped up, taking advantage of the fact that you’re playing a video game and not actually throwing balls at other people. Your basic movements are augmented with a double jump to get to slightly higher vantage points, or you can whip out a hang glider like a Hyrulian Warrior and glide down to ground, and while you’re running around you can shoulder charge nearby opponents to stun them and knock any ball they’re carrying out of their hands.Throwing a ball can be charged up to fly faster through the sky (and holding it can be a part of waiting for the perfect moment to strike), but spinning through a double jump lets you throw a sweeping curve ball.
OK, that’s all fairly video gamey so far, but nothing too outlandish, right? Well, just wait till you figure out how to roll up into a ball and be thrown by your teammate, or powered up to become an explosive bomb that arcs through the sky, landing with a bang that can wipe out the whole other team if you’re lucky. There’s also a smattering of special balls you can find, such as the Moon Ball that affects the gravity of the holder and any victim, cage balls that bundle up their target in a ball, letting you grab and throw them off the map for a quick win.
There’s a lot of common ground through all of this with fighting games and the need to have low latency tracking of player inputs and actions. There’s no use trying to catch a ball with precise timing if it’s going to hit you through laggy nonsense. To that end, Velan have built the bespoke Viper game engine, doing so with a new coding language called V-Script that can be run both backwards and forwards as needed by the game, letting it rewind, fix the simulation around any lag and packet loss, wind the game forward and carry on. It’s based off similar ideas and principles as fighting games with rollback netcode, but accounting for the throwing ball physics and half a dozen players at once, all of which can become physics objects in their own right at any time.
It’s all quite barmy, and quite a lot of fun to play in the handful of game modes we got to sample. Team KO is as you’d expect, with two teams of three duking it out to be the first to reach 10 KOs and win the round. Diamond Dash is then equivalent to Call of Duty’s Kill Confirmed, while Ballup Brawl drops you into a map with no balls spawning, forcing you to throw one another as weapons. The last is a fun diversion, but seems to devolve into aerial bomb spam.
It’s all wrapped up in a thoroughly familiar graphical style evoking the likes of Fortnite, and fellow EA Originals title Rocket Arena, with its smooth toon-ish characters and environments. It’s fair to say there’s a bit more edge and grunge to it though. You have hundreds of cosmetics to earn, letting you customise the look of your character, pick unifying themes for icons for your Crew to fight under, and so on. It’s, without wishing to diminish the hard word of Velan put into the game to craft all of this, relatively standard and unremarkable in that respect. Visually, Knockout Brawl feels like it’s merely part of the crowd, meaning the game has to really let its gameplay do the talking. Oh, and the pumped-up electro-jazz soundtrack.
Thankfully Velan have done their damnedest to ensure there’s as few barriers to play as feasible. The game is coming to all major platforms – PS4, Xbox One, Switch and PC, with certain enhancements for PS5 and Xbox Series X|S – and there’s full cross-play and cross-progression. The one thing missing seems to be cross-buy, with Knockout City coming with an upfront $19.99 price tag. This… well, we’ll simply have to see how it pans out, but the upside is that there’s no loot boxes and the planned seasons of content and rewards are all free.
To try and convince you to part with your cash, Knockout City will launch on 21st May with a free game trial to get as many people playing as possible at the start. Before then, even, Velan will be holding a PC beta test with a limited set of content this weekend from 20th-21st February.