We built this city on balls and holes
Last year, EA released Rocket Arena, an online multiplayer competitive shooter from developer Final Strike Games. If you don’t remember it, I don’t blame you. It dropped off the gaming radar faster than its price dropped in stores.
When Knockout City was first revealed earlier this year, I was pretty pompous in my assurance that it would face a similar fate. It just didn’t seem like something anybody would be talking about after it dropped. But now that I’ve played it, along with at least two million other people, I don’t think that’s going to be the case. I think this one has staying power.
Knockout City (PC, PS4, PS5, Switch, Xbox One, Xbox Series S [reviewed], Xbox Series X)
Developer: Velan Studios
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Released: May 21, 2021
MSRP: $19.99 (Free to try until May 31)
Knockout City is what Ninjala would be like if it had gameplay I actually enjoyed. Developer Velan Studios has taken the familiar sport of dodgeball and transformed it into an online battler complete with trick throws, special balls, and bountiful ledges. Depending on the mode you choose, you’ll either be teamed up with two or three other players as you try to eliminate members of the opposing team to score enough points to win the round. Win two rounds and victory is yours.
You have a few actions at your disposal that you’ll need to use wisely and master if you want to succeed in league play. The three basic weapons in your arsenal are throw, catch, and pass. With throws, you can hold down the button to charge your shot. The more a shot is charged, the faster the ball will travel. If your opponent catches a charged throw, they can direct it right back at you without having to charge it up. If you want to charge a ball quickly, catch an opponent’s throw or pass your ball back and forth between your teammates.
More advanced techniques include your dash function, which can be used to dodge incoming balls or tackle an opponent (or teammate if you’re uncoordinated). Tackling a player will knock them back, and with plenty of pits to fall into, you can push your opponents to their deaths with well-executed dashes. Then there’s the player-ball, which is when a teammate rolls up and acts as a dodge ball. If you fully charge a shot while holding a teammate, they’ll turn into a devastating bomb that drops from above. Any opponents trapped in its way-too-generous blast radius will be eliminated.
In the standard knockout mode, your team has to score 10 points to win a round. There are a few ways to score points. Obviously, hitting an opponent without them catching the ball is the most basic. Players will have to be hit twice to be fully eliminated unless you hit them with one of your teammates. You can also knock them off ledges or into gaps, take them out with a stage hazard, or hope they’re just not paying attention and walk into a hole themselves. Every elimination, no matter if it’s intentional or not, counts as a point.
In addition to regular dodge balls and your teammates, you’ll also have access to a special ball for each match that can give you a real advantage over your opponents. Some of the special balls include the moon ball, which lets you jump high and knocks opponents far back when hit; the bomb ball, which will explode after a certain amount of time; and the cage ball, which will unwittingly turn anyone hit with it into a throwable ball. If you manage to capture your opponent in one of these, you can simply toss them off a ledge for an easy point.
As unfair as that might sound, in practice, I think this is an incredibly well-balanced game. Yeah, it can be easy to get overwhelmed, but the basics of gameplay are sound and the stages are smartly designed. There are plenty of strategies you can employ depending on which map you’re fighting on. Each map will only have a few dodgeballs available at any time to keep proceedings from getting too crazy, and while these arenas may seem too large at first, trust me when I say more space is better.
The only issues I can really touch on in this review have to do with trick shots and charge shot cancellations. On the Xbox, pressing the Y or B button will let you do a floating flip jump or twist jump, respectively. It’s not a double jump like in Smash Bros., so don’t think you’ll be able to get back on a ledge if you drop too far beneath it. These buttons will also activate your trick shots — lob shot with Y, curve shot with B. It works for me around 80% of the time, and but that’s probably because I keep trying to press the jump and throw buttons at the same time, which is the wrong way to do it. As for charged shots, a charged throw can be canceled with a dash or by simply pressing down on the left thumbstick to hasten your character’s movement speed. Maybe I was a bit too aggressive in my time with the game, but many of my charged shots were accidentally canceled with an inadvertent mash of the left thumbstick.
Aesthetically, the art direction took a little while to get used to. The futuristic ‘50s setting is unique, looking like what you’d get if Metropolis had a one-night stand with Grease. It can be a little too sanitized on some stages, but overall, it’s an effective style. Character outfits are another story as they often clash with the environment. But the longer I played and the more fashion I was exposed to, the more everything started to jell. That said, the developers really need to do something about the characters’ lips. Everyone has a Steven Tyler mouth, and when they smile, it looks like they just got poisoned by The Joker.
I’m shocked with how well Knockout City turned out. It’s easily the biggest surprise of 2021, something everyone should give a go while it’s still free to try.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game downloaded for free from the Microsoft Store.]