In elementary school, there was very little that I clung to like dodgeball. While most of my friends ran scared from the game and the balls being flung at them, I was beside myself with joy whenever the occasion came up to play it. Maybe it’s because it didn’t necessarily require athleticism to play or maybe the thrill of it just inspired the little athleticism contained within me. Either way, I loved it, and while I haven’t been dying for it to come to games in some shape or form, I’m happy with what I’ve seen of Knockout City, an EA Originals title coming by way of Velan Studios, the developers behind Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit.
Knockout City, Velan’s latest effort, is a competitive dodgeball game set in a futuristic city seemingly run by dodgeball crews. Yes, it is the logical conclusion of Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story. No, Ben Stiller’s character is not going to be a part of things. Instead you will create your own avatar and join or form your own crew of up to 32 players, though only six players can face off against one another in any given match. The goal of any given mode is to knockout the enemy team in the ways that you would eliminate anyone playing dodgeball: you throw or catch the ball.
Mechanically, the game isn’t dense at all; it seems purposefully simple. The developers stressed that they didn’t just want the game to feel like a shooter with dodgeballs and the extent of the mechanics afforded to you account for that. For example, throwing is not done by aim, but by locking on; meanwhile catching is all about timing a button press right when the balls come at you. You won’t really find the standard shooter “stand here, point and click to win” and I appreciate that. For Velan, the idea was to make a game more about timing than positioning, which feels true to dodgeball.
The developers from Velan did note though that they wanted to mine dodgeball for its inherent hilarity and absurdity and I think they’ve done an admirable job capturing that. This includes the ability to pass the ball to a teammate, which will power it up, allowing the teammate who caught it to do an instant KO attack where they fly into the air and come crashing down on your enemies. It also means that you can become a ball if there isn’t one around for you to throw and be flung by your team. If you dodge into an enemy you will lunge at them and knock them back, and you can even fake a throw in order to lull your opponent into a false sense of security before nailing them with a straightforward throw or maybe even a trickshot, of which the game contains several. This kind of stuff reminded me of the fun I used to have, while obviously playing it up for dramatic effect. Mostly though it reminded me of when I’d play dodgeball and we’d throw one ball up for someone to catch and while they were distracted, you’d fling one directly at them.
For all of this to be able to go off without a hitch, Knockout City apparently needed to have its own engine and language to be made from the ground up. This would account for latency and take into account such things as the physics of the ball and everything it could touch, affect or be affected by. The way it was described, it almost sounded like the kind of talk you hear surrounding fighting games and rollback netcode, which was invoked at least once by the developers.
In order to mix things up some, there will be different modes and balls available to play. There will be five “playlists” or modes, split between casual Street Play and the more competitive League Play (and both will employ skill-based matchmaking), and the modes are about what you’d expect. One developer teased a mode ala Kill Confirmed from the Call of Duty series and the base modes are some derivation of classic Team Deathmatch. The different ball types seem like the most drastic changes in spots, with there being bomb balls that appropriately explode when they collide with someone, chain balls that restrict the people they hit, and moon balls, which look to affect gravity. The game will launch with six ball types, but the developers were hesitant to give every last detail about the remaining few.
Lest you think Knockout City isn’t prepared to take your life over, it’s fully fleshed out with a Street Rank progression system which will unlock tons of cosmetics over the course of your in-game career as well as an item shop where you can use Holobucks, an in-game currency you can earn through play or microtransactions. There will also be seasons of content that will roll out over about nine weeks, and you don’t need to pay for them. Yes, access to further seasons is there from the second you buy the full game. It also comes with daily and weekly crew contracts, which you will complete with the crew you ultimately ally with. Crews even have a hideout where you can hang around and wait for lobbies while also practicing your game, and the hideout is one of the six locations that will be available at launch, as well as five standard maps to play on.
There is a full cross play and cross progression, though there is no cross buy, unfortunately.
This weekend, you’ll be able to get your hands on a closed PC beta that gives you a taste of what will be there when Knockout City launches on May 21 for Origin, Steam, PS5, PS4, Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One and Nintendo Switch. At launch there will be a trial version of the game to dip your toes into, though the exact length of the trial period itself is unknown.
Perhaps the most promising thing about Knockout City is that it proves that EA is willing to explore new ideas with its Originals label. That arm of EA is known for publishing smaller games that have trended more towards moodiness and an emphasis on story, making this and their most recent release, Rocket Arena, a swing in a different and welcome direction. At 23 years old, I already feel too old to be running around like I used to when I played dodgeball, so I’m really looking forward to being able to pick up a controller, play it with some old friends and see if our old strategies still hold up.
Moises Taveras is an intern for Paste Magazine and the managing editor of his college newspaper, the Brooklyn College Vanguard. He was that one kid who was really excited about Google+ and is still sad about how that turned out.