Before a single ball is thrown, I know we’re going to lose. In fact, I’m pretty sure we’re going to be crushed. This is only my fifth match – my induction into Knockout City thus far has given me an even win/lose split – but with matching greased-back quiffs, shades, and Letterman jackets – kind of like the T-Birds from Grease, only with considerably younger faces and less cigarette smoke – it’s screamingly obvious that this is a team that’s Taking Things Very Seriously Indeed. My trio of randos? Hmm. Not so much.
While I know that the skill-level of the players you match against can make or break many a multiplayer experience (I’ve been back on Destiny 2 lately, and have developed a love/hate thing with Gambit that ebbs and flows in direct correlation to the careful coordination of my opponents), there is no gentle learning curve in EA’s new dodgeball-inspired action game, Knockout City. Yes, there are a handful of insightful tutorials to get you going – work through them all, and you’ll learn not just the basics but also everything you need to know about trick shots and special balls and how best to move around the map – but nothing in those gentle training exercises will adequately prepare you for the frantic pace of a 3v3 deathmatch.
Consequently, the sooner you start, the sooner you die – well, ish; Knockout City’s family-friendly veneer ensures you never see anything unsavoury – and the sooner you die, the sooner you’ll realise that there’s nowt else to do here but just get up and try again. On-the-job is undoubtedly the best way to learn, and the quicker you acquaint yourself with each map’s unique oddities and spawn points, the quicker you’ll start clocking up those wins.
I suspect the game’s chief conceit – dodgeball – will appeal more to those who played it as kids, but don’t let stale memories of your terribly British P.E. lessons put you off (I’m afraid my lived experience extends only to netball and hockey, and I’ve spent my entire adult life suppressing the memories of them both). Essentially, though, Knockout City is a family-friendly shooter without guns and I promise I don’t mean that as an insult.
That said, it’s day-glo palette and cartoony presentation may look accessible – albeit nauseatingly tween-friendly – but don’t let that deceive you. Beneath the cringey voiceovers and neon metropolis is a surprisingly complex brawler that requires quick reflexes and an intense familiarity with the control scheme to succeed. You’ll learn not just to move around the screen but dance, darting and shooting and leaping and pirouetting to break line-of-sight with your enemies and quickly acclimating to the ball-spawn spots.
Scuffles are often intense and exhilarating, and not once did I experience stutter or slowdown despite the fury of the on-screen action. There are handy gusts to help you glide speedily across the cityscapes, and special ability balls that help diversify combat and keep you on your toes. Passing balls between you and a teammate helps charge the attack, boosting how far you can lob it. A well-timed dodge can not only get you out of trouble, but knock the ball out of your opponent’s hand, too, and you even have the ability to transform yourself into a ball that teammates can whack at other players or, charged up, detonate with an impressive AoE attack that can wipe out an entire team if you’re lucky. This is undoubtedly Knockout City’s slickest mechanic, and one that enables communicative teams to cunningly improvise when standard dodgeballs can’t be found.
Whilst I appreciate the bright and busy locations – many of which offer plenty of moving platforms and jumppads to encourage speedy attacks and verticality – they sometimes feel too big, though, especially when you’re racing around the place, desperately trying to locate a ball or someone to bloody hit with it. Each stage has its own environmental hazards, but they feel gimmicky and add very little to the gameplay itself. At times it feels all you’re doing is zooming across the screen to eradicate the tell-tale border around your screen that intimates someone has you in their sights, and unless you catch them entirely unawares, it can be incredibly difficult to successfully land a ball on an enemy player; they’re just as likely to catch and return the ball to you as they are to succumb to your shot.
Things are a tad easier when you’re playing with seasoned teammates, especially over a mic, but as there’s no map or radar, even when you are playing with pals there’s no easy way to tip them off on the location of your foes. Sadly, it already feels as though the PlayStation servers are struggling to keep teams balanced, too – several times I spawned in as a duo facing a trio and was once tasked with taking day a team of three all alone. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it didn’t go well for me.
The modes? It’s still early days, granted, but there’s not a fat lot of variety there, either. At the time of writing, beyond the standard 3v3 deathmatch there are three unranked modes up for grabs: KO Chaos, Ball-Up Brawler, and 3v3 Diamond Dash. The former is a four-player free-for-all where the first player to rack up 10 KOs wins. Ball-Up Brawler is also 4v4, but requires that players themselves transform into balls, while 3v3 Diamond Dash requires you to pick up an KO’d opponent’s diamond to fully secure the kill- uh, I mean the point. You can also tackle ranked games, too, and a 1v1 Face-Off is available for brawlers braver than I am.
“Essentially, though, Knockout City is a family-friendly shooter without guns and I promise I don’t mean that as an insult.”
Honestly, though? I can’t see me still playing this next week, let alone next month or next year. While fast, fluid, and undeniably fun, Knockout City’s mechanics feel a tad too shallow to sustain interest for long, and while it’s a tighter, more compelling offering than the similarly-structured Ninjala, it still lacks depth and longevity. I have no doubt the decision to drop Knockout City onto Xbox Game Pass will help firm up its future, at least in the short- and medium-term, but the £18 price tag for PlayStation players after the free trial expires feels steep and a tad unsustainable, at least until there’s more to do, anyway.
While it’s great to see a studio enthusiastically cater for a family-friendly audience so often over-looked by some developers, and it’s undeniably refreshing to play something unashamedly confident and colourful, beyond some truly worthless cosmetics, Knockout City offers very little to keep players coming back for more. Here’s hoping developer Velan Studios moves swiftly to clearly define a development roadmap before even Knockout City’s most ardent supporters tire of its repetitive gameplay loop and start looking for something else.