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Everybody knows the rules to dodgeball, right? Two teams race to pick up balls in the centre of a court, ready their throwing arms, and launch a volley of rubber ballistics at the other team.
If the other players can catch the ball without being hit, they can then return the favor until one team is eliminated. It’s a simple enough game, so it's surprising that the essence of dodgeball hasn’t been recreated in a video game on the scale that Velan Studios has tried to employ with Knockout City.
Boiled down to its most basic components Knockout City really is just a new take on that classic schoolyard game and it's in those scaled back components that make Knockout City one of those winning formulas – easy to learn and difficult to master.
Send your balls flying
But in its reliance on fast-paced reflexes and tightly contested back-and-forths, Knockout City can occasionally be let down by the scope of its ambition, when poor connectivity determines the outcome.
Knockout City is somewhat of an oddity. It borrows elements of competitive third-person shooters like Fortnite and Splatoon (particularly from an aesthetic standpoint) but manages to incorporate other genres that make it feel more like a sport or fighting game in its reflexive nature.
It’s difficult to put in a box and that’s what adds to its charm along with its colourful visuals, unique setting and smooth-talking radio host that acts as the game’s narrator/scorekeeper.
In a usual team deathmatch, players face each other on a handful of different stages three-on-three. Balls are scarcely dotted around the arena, forcing players to race around looking for ammunition to use.
Quite often, balls can be hard to come by and the only way for players to secure a ball is to knock it from their opponents or catch it midair as it's being directed towards them, which can lead to an ensuing game of hot potato as rival teams launch their dodgeballs back and forth at increasing speeds until one side falters.
If a player is hit twice, then they are knocked out before respawning elsewhere on the map. There’s enough room for error to right yourself but if you’re overwhelmed by other players then it's lights out for you.
Players can also be used as balls themselves, curling up Metroid-style to be picked up by an ally who can then throw you for one-hit knockouts, or charged up and launched into the air for a devastating aerial strike that eliminates all enemies in the immediate area. Balls can also be passed back and forth between teammates to power up a dodgeball and give it a much-needed power boost. Teamwork can be a great way to level the playing field as well as keeping yourself defended.
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Passing back and forth, firing balls, and tracking enemies sound like a frustrating exercise in situational awareness but Knockout City challenges players to rely less on accuracy and concentrate on speed, disruption, and misdirection in order to succeed.
When players charge up a shot and they’re within range of an enemy or group, the camera will automatically lock on even if they are behind partial cover. Giving aiming a backseat allows players to focus on these other three areas to outmanoeuvre their opponents.
Players can also throw curve balls and lob shots that can reach around corners or over tall barriers meaning that the terrain can be used to your advantage. Going head-to-head against another player and employing these tactics to exploit their cover is as deeply satisfying as it is frustrating to be on the receiving end.
One of the biggest challenges early on is acquiring the muscle memory to effectively return an opponent’s charged shot. There’s a cooldown on catch recovery so if a player successfully fakes you out and causes you to preemptively block and flinch, it can be the difference between winning or losing a match for your team.
Be prepared to catch plenty of balls to the face
Luckily there’s plenty of room to practice with Knockout City’s unique mechanics in the game’s lobby, which acts as a hub for parties to run around, change out their cosmetics, and practice before jumping in. There’s also plenty of tutorials that help explain some of the finer mechanics of the game in greater detail as well as dummies to use as target/catching practice.
Each stage presents its own unique challenges. While there are only four maps at launch, each one is centred around a unique theme that requires different approaches. For example, Rooftop Rumble joins two skyscrapers by a central plank with high winds on each side and Knockout Roundabout is densely packed with flying cars that need to be dodged but can also be used as momentary cover.
While four stages seem like very few (with the promise of more levels in further season updates) randomly generated power up at the start of each match gives players another level of variety to mix up the gameplay.
A special ball is chosen at random from a roster that players can hunt down to gain the upper hand. Some power-ups like the moonball can cause players to jump higher while other more unique power-ups like the cage ball can trap opponents for a brief time and be used as a weapon against their own teammates. While these don’t alter the state of the game to a great degree they certainly add some much-needed variety to an otherwise repetitive carousel.
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Where Knockout City fell short was during drops in online performance. In a game that relies on quick reflexes and making contact with physical objects over an internet connection, even the slightest lag could cause an inevitable defeat regardless of skill level which could cheapen the outcome of a match.
While matches are short, performance can vary from game to game but in a competitive game that punishes delay, it can be an unforgiving experience for those with low bandwidths.
Knockout City is a fresh take in the sphere of competitive gaming that takes a simple idea and runs with it leaving for some incredibly memorable online encounters though not necessarily for all the right reasons.
The game is available to play for free through Xbox Game Pass and EA Play. A free trial is also available from May 21st-May 30th 2021 and can be purchased on available platforms for £19.99.
Available at: Playstation Store, Xbox Store, Nintendo eShop, Origin, Steam, Epic Games Store
Version Tested: Playstation 4 version running on Playstation 5.