Rocket League is a shining example of how a game can organically create its own success without expensive marketing campaigns or pre-launch hype. When it launched on the PS4 as part of Sony's PlayStation Plus subscription service it came with little fanfare – the title on which it is based, Supersonic Acrobatic Rocket-Powered Battle-Cars, drifted under the radar of many a player during the PS3 era and developer Psyonix admitted it had trouble getting publishers interested in the sequel. The game's incredible addictiveness – no doubt combined with the fact that it was totally free to PS+ subscribers for the first month of release – created a multiplayer monster which has since extended its reach to Xbox One and PC. Now it's the turn of the Switch, and rather than being the poor relation in this family, the Nintendo port could actually be the best way to experience the game yet.
Rocket League is, as developer Psyonix so effectively explains, "soccer, but with rocket-powered cars", and that high-concept pitch is as tantalising as it sounds. You drive your souped-up vehicle around a series of arenas which have a goal at either end. The objective is to shunt the massive ball into your opponent's goal while preventing them from doing the same; the team with the most goals at the close of play wins. While this may sound almost insultingly basic – Rocket League also keeps team sizes small, which hints at further simplicity – there's more depth on offer here than it's possible to appreciate in the first few days of ownership.
Getting the ball into the goal isn't as easy as it sounds, for starters. Because you're driving a car which is subject to its own momentum and inertia and can't turn 180 degrees on a sixpence like a footballer would, you have to plan each approach effectively – especially as you're trying to make contact with an object that's almost constantly in motion. The ball's large surface area means that it could potentially shoot off in many different directions depending on where you strike it, and with how much force. Working on your aim is of paramount importance and the game's excellent tutorial mode should be the first place newcomers head – it runs you through the basics but also allows you to master the more advanced techniques required to come out on top.
These include aerial moves, which are essential to success in high-level Rocket League play. Tapping the B button propels your car into the air, and it's possible to manipulate your vehicle when it's airborne; adding spin to your car at the right moment can give the ball extra speed should you be successful in making contact. The next wrinkle in the control system is the boost button, which not only gives you speed on the ground but can also be used to extend the height and pace of your jumps, keeping you in the air for longer periods of time. A double-tap of the jump button also triggers a dodge move which can be used not only to quickly block incoming shots but also give you extra power behind your own attempts on goal.
The Y button forces your car into a powerslide, which is handy for when you need to get back down the other end of the pitch after a failed scoring effort, but slides can be incorporated into other movements so you have full command of the pitch, which leads us to the next part of Rocket League strategy 101: harassing your rivals. During some of the more packed 4v4 matches it often pays to have one player who is practically ignoring the ball and instead ramming opponents out of position. With enough boost behind it, a crash can be potent enough to destroy the victim and place them out of action for a few seconds, which of course improves your team's scoring chances.
As all of these skills fall into the place you'll notice special tactics slowly but surely creep into your game. For example, boosting on the ground and hitting the ball usually results it in being struck too high and hitting the wall above the goal; however, press jump at the last second and your car will hit the ball dead-centre for a more accurate shot. Moves such as boosts, slides, spins, dodges and jumps can be combined in so many ways it makes every match different and unique.
If all of this sounds like an awful lot to take in at once, that's because it is – and because Rocket League showcases cross-platform play, it's not uncommon to feel totally outmatched in your first few goes, especially if you're experiencing the game for the first time on Switch and you end up facing a team of Xbox One veterans who've had the game since it launched on that system at the start of 2016 (cross-platform play also means you're never more than a few seconds from your next match as there are tens of thousands of Xbox One and PC players online at any one time – Sony, however, has decided not to allow PS4 players to join the love-in, which is a shame). However, after a few hours you begin to realise that dashing about the pitch isn't always the best option – keeping an eye on the ball and trying to anticipate where it's headed is a more effective approach. You can even toggle the camera so that it always points in the direction of the ball, rather than where your car is facing. This might sound awkward but switching between these two camera views quickly becomes a key component of your game; lining up accurate shots is easier with the "behind the car" view but sometimes you need a clear look at where the ball is, especially during an intense melee.
Nintendo's full suite of online features may not go live until next year but Rocket League on Switch doesn't suffer in the same way that EA's FIFA 18 does. Creating a party with people on your friend list is totally painless; just tap X on the main game menu and you're away. You can choose to buddy up as a team and face random strangers online or create private online matches which restrict both teams exclusively to your friends. There's no in-game voice chat but in its place there's a selection of phrases mapped to the left-hand Joy-Con's directional button cluster, and these are more than adequate when you need to make your intentions known. You can congratulate a teammate when they score, highlight a good pass and even express your annoyance or regret at a poor piece of play. Keeping with the online side of things, Rocket League's performance on Switch is superb. We did notice a few instances where the connection became spotty but the random nature of these issues makes us suspect it was due to the slow broadband speeds of other players rather than a fault with the game itself. Even so, this is certainly one of those times when you'll want to ensure you're as close to your WiFi router as possible when playing in handheld mode, just to make sure you don't succumb to any connection woes yourself.
Those of you who like to carry your Switch around with you will be pleased to note that local options are also available for those (perhaps rare) occasions that you can meet up with a couple of similarly-equipped pals for a quick match. It's here that Rocket League on Switch really sings; while playing people online is fun it's one of life's eternal truths that multiplayer gaming is dramatically enhanced when you're within punching distance of your opponents.
Rocket League's appeal naturally rests on its competitive play, and there are plenty of game modes available to keep you occupied for months to come. The game's "Casual" online mode has 3v3, 2v2, 1v1 and 4v4 match options, and there are Dropshot, Rumble, Snow Day, Hoops and experimental "Rocket Labs" modes if you fancy a change of pace. Boost your in-game rank and you'll gain access to the "Competitive" online modes, where the real glory lies. The game tracks your achievements and stats, and there's the allure of trying to improve your talents and scale the league rankings, as well as filling out the in-game garage with unlockable cars, parts and customisation options (Switch owners benefit from some cool Super Mario and Metroid-themed vehicles). In short, Rocket League has months if not years of gameplay in store; there's a good reason PS4 owners still log-on regularly, despite the game being two years old now on that system.
Rocket League is truly something special no matter the platform you choose to play it on, but developer Panic Button – also responsible for moving mountains by porting DOOM to Nintendo's console – has worked wonders here. While there are visual downgrades to speak of and the game runs at 720p, the smooth and silky essence of Rocket League has made the transition intact. In fact, after months of playing the PS4 version, we found ourselves totally forgetting that Rocket League on Switch is running on less powerful hardware. The visual experience – while ever so slightly diminished – remains faithful and it's hard to consider this a lesser version in the same way that people might cosmetically compare Switch DOOM to its obviously superior Sony and Microsoft siblings; Rocket League on Switch feels like full-fat Rocket League, and that's a real triumph.
One of modern gaming's true multiplayer success stories, Rocket League is an essential addition to the Switch's striking year-one library. Analyse every screenshot and video and yes, you'll spot visual downgrades when compared to the other console editions, but what's key here is that the spirit of the game has been transferred perfectly, with the added benefit of portable play which opens up the chance to host local matches with your Switch owning mates wherever and whenever you fancy. Developer Panic Button has done an utterly fantastic job with this port, but technical wizardry aside, what really matters is that the core game is so addictive, so compelling, so enjoyable and – perhaps above all else – so deep. Don't let anyone tell you that Rocket League is simplistic or lacks longevity; the vibrant community that has grown up around Psyonix's masterpiece renders that viewpoint wholly incorrect. This is a game that rewards skilful play and perseverance, and new tactics and strategies seem to flow from each and every match you partake in. Only the occasional network niggle throws shade on this otherwise sublime release; the Switch has yet another must-have release to add to its awe-inspiring 2017 pile.