Despite participating in little league sports up to eighth grade, I was not an athletic child. As the son of a football and track and field coach for over 2 decades, this incidentally ended up being a defining trait during my childhood. But my lack of passion for traditional sports didn’t mean I didn’t enjoy physical games, it just meant those games were never seen as “real” sports. I grew up running chariot races in Latin Club and participating in crabwalk races on several field days, but above all, my favorite “fake” sport was Dodgeball.
Throughout most of elementary and middle school, every kid knew three things about me: 1) That I was Coach Watkins’ kid. 2) That I was a kinda awkward nerd. And 3) That I was weirdly godlike at dodging and throwing rubber balls. But as I outgrew the summer camps and gym classes where these frantic battles took place, I began to miss the exciting energy that is unique to the game of dodgeball.
That was until Velan Studios revealed Knockout City a few months ago. Despite a confusing reveal trailer, I was instantly sold on its slightly more welcoming twist on traditional dodgeball. I was so full of hype that I was nearly in tears before even picking up the sticks, but after 2 pre-release betas and now, over a dozen hours with the final release, I am happy to report that the game delivers. It captures that competitive spirit that all of the best multiplayer games do while still being welcoming to newcomers and casual players. Even as someone who’s been anticipating it since its announcement, I’m surprised to see it being so widely adopted and enjoyed. But, at the same time, I get it, because there’s a lot that makes this game so great.
First off, this game is less of a direct port of traditional dodgeball and more of a loose interpretation. You’re still picking up balls from pre-determined locations and throwing them at people. But, it borrows a lot from other multiplayer games to give its unique gameplay its flavor. For example, you don’t spawn with a dodgeball in hand, but you have to pick one up from one of several spawn points on the map. It’s a design choice straight out of arena shooters like Quake, and it even has a power weapon equivalent through its special ball system. Each match will randomly have a special ball assigned to it, and they range from timed explosive balls to moon balls that reduce the gravity of the holder. These balls add a bit of needed unpredictability to every match, but since it only cycles through a set pool of five balls, you can still anticipate and strategize around them.
Another byproduct of not giving everyone a ball at spawn is that acquiring a ball becomes just as important as throwing one. This makes encounters with other players even tenser, and you’re given plenty of ways to play defense. With proper timing, you can catch a ball as it’s being thrown at you, dodge the shot, or knock the shot out of the air with a dodgeball throw of your own. Plus, if all of those options fail you, the fact that you can take a hit before getting knocked out means that you have just a little bit of forgiveness to get the defensive moves down. These elements make combat much more active than so many other multiplayer games and make matches feel more like the back and forth sessions of fighting games. In a traditional shooter, whoever gets the shot off first most often wins, but in Knockout City, the potential to turn those tables is so much greater, so everyone feels like they can come out on top in every encounter.
But what really makes the game fun is when you pick up a ball and start wailing on other players. Despite the fact that most of your time will be with the base dodgeball, they give you so many ways to use it. You can charge up a shot so it hits your targeted player faster. You can toss it without charging, which sometimes trips up opponents who have been trained to catch faster balls. Plus, you can even curve the toss, or turn it into an overhead lob, both of which can further throw off your opponent. And all of these tactics are easily accessible, as actually aiming your throw isn’t something you have to worry about due to a fairly generous lock-on system.
I could go on about how the movement mechanics are reminiscent of Super Smash Bros., or how the scrappy, improvisational nature of combat encounters reminds me of the frantic action of The Last of Us Factions, but I like to think I’ve painted a vivid enough picture. The verbs of the game are so simple, yet the ways to accomplish them are just deep enough to remain engaging over several hundred matches. Even the match structure itself lends itself to never getting old, with several breaks between matches and rounds to keep you itching to get back in the brawl.
The art style also helps to keep the mood light even when you’re getting rocked by the other team. The aesthetic of this game is best described as “space diner Jet Set Radio“. Think muscle cars right outta Grease, but with hover pads instead of wheels and varsity jackets with hologram accents. It might initially have a resemblance to child-friendly games like Fortnite, but the specifics of this aesthetic set it apart from its peers pretty well. The only critique I have about the art style is the character faces. They’re overly exaggerated, which is fine, but some facial expressions look a bit strange with this visual style. Like, sometimes eyes are slanted like angry eyebrows to the point where they look like they’re almost parallel with each other. There’s nothing wrong with this alone, but it looks just close enough to the movie Splice that it unsettles me ever so slightly. A totally insignificant nitpick, but hey, I gotta find some kind of flaw with this game, right?
I also want to make a note that this game would be incredible as a couch co-op game as well. The lighthearted yet intense nature of the gameplay would be such a perfect game to play alongside classics like Nidhogg, Overcooked, and Jackbox. However, theres’ no option for split-screen, nor have I seen any announcement that it’s coming down the line. I understand that this just might be too difficult to pull off, especially with the Switch version having a hard enough time running just one camera perspective. But with a next-generation version likely coming in the future for the PlayStation 5 and the Xbox Series, I hope that they’ll have enough power to implement that. The game is already set to be an online staple with cross-play and cross-progression is there from launch. this game could have an even bigger player base as a staple of conventions and gatherings.
Those are smaller slights against the game, but I do have one more. The game is clearly fun, and after 2 million players trying it in its opening weekend, it’s clearly getting players in, but I’m concerned about the future of the title. Games that put clever twists on the most popular multiplayer genres are infamous for dying out within a few years of release. Splitgate: Arena Warfare is Halo with portals, but despite playing excellently and getting plenty of buzz at launch, it struggles to maintain a player base today. Darwin Project was a fascinating twist on the battle royale genre, but its servers were bare until they were shut down months after release. Even another multiplayer, child-friendly, EA-published game released last year with little fanfare after launch, Rocket Arena, and I was a big fan of it at the time.
This game has aspects similar enough to those games that I can’t help but be a tad concerned about it. The game is only $20, so the asking price isn’t obscene, but free-to-play titles have a potentially unlimited player base. The game has both cross-play and cross-save, but games like Fortnite, Apex Legends, and Call of Duty Warzone are often going to suck the air out of the room whenever they have major updates. And Knockout City released as free-to-play for the first few ten days, but once that free period is over, I’m not certain it will remain popular. And even with the free trial that allows players to play through the first 25 levels, I still have my doubts it’ll keep players around. But I think the game is just so remarkable and unlike any other multiplayer title that I think it has the best chance of actually making it.
Velan has done literally everything right here. The gameplay borrows heavily from other titles but is still in a league of its own. Unlike Splitgate, it was on all current consoles and PC at launch. Unlike Darwin Project, it didn’t have a lengthy Early Access period where the hype for the game had the potential to die down prematurely. And unlike Rocket Arena, there were no monetary barriers to trying out the game at launch. Velan clearly has plans to continue supporting the game for a while, and season 1 of content has already released. All I can hope is that the game retains a player base large enough to sustain it.
As a Titanfall 2 fan, I’m content with only a few thousand, or hundred, players being around a few months from now. Plus, I’m sure that the game, for me at least, will be as fun as it is today as it will be years for now. I’m glad to see the game take over my social timelines, but even if I’m one of the only ones that stick with it, I think it will have been time well spent. I implore everyone to give it a shot, whether it’s on Switch, PS4, or on Xbox or PC through Game Pass. It truly is something special, and I still can’t believe something that feels so tailored to my interests is this good, let alone this well-received. Knockout City is the best multiplayer game of the year, and if it keeps a player base, it could go down as one of the all-time greats.