Beaning people in the head with textured, too-hard rubber balls is pretty fun, but perhaps cruel, and not something I've had the opportunity to do since I was a teenager (at least, not legally). Announced today, Knockout City offers a virtual alternative to the real thing: a 3v3 dodgeball game that turns the sport into an arena shooter, roughly speaking.
Knockout City is coming this May from publisher EA Originals and Velan Studios, an upstate New York-based developer that you probably haven't heard of unless you're a big fan of its first game, Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit. That game is well outside of my area of expertise, but yesterday, EA and the studio invited me to play a few matches of Knockout City to see what it's all about. There'll be a closed beta this weekend, too, if you're interested in giving it a go yourself (you can request access on Steam).
One important distinction between Knockout City and the typical arena shooter is that precise aiming is not involved whatsoever, so mouse and keyboard players shouldn't have any serious advantage over controller players. That's crucial, as the two types of players are expected to mingle: Knockout City will feature crossplay and shared progression among Xbox, PlayStation, Switch, and PC when it releases.
Instead of aiming, you only need to look in the direction of an opponent while holding a ball (caught or picked up from around the map) and your prey will be auto-targeted. Left clicking hucks the ball at them, or you can hold and release to charge up and let loose a faster throw. Add a twirl or front flip by first pressing Q or E and you'll throw a curveball or lob the ball upward like an artillery shell, clearing obstacles such as pillars and bridges or just messing with your target's timing. You can also tap F to fake a throw.
All that juking is important because, if you aren't able to fool your opponent, they'll just tap the right mouse button to catch your ball and then huck it back at you. Or, they'll try to, at least—I biffed plenty of easy catches while I was learning. Even for good players, though, things get hairy at close range, where the catch animation has to be initiated just moments after an opponent starts throwing their ball.
It's also possible to pass a ball to a teammate, which in my experience was an effective way to trick opponents, who are always expecting an offensive throw first. There are special balls, too, such as bomb balls, and players themselves can roll up into balls and be thrown by their teammates. It's an instant KO if a player-ball hits an opponent, but if they catch you instead, they can use you against your team, or just overhand throw you off the map.
Get knocked or tossed off the map, beaned once with a player, or twice with a regular ball, and you're KOed, and have to wait a few seconds to respawn. The most basic mode is a team deathmatch mode, where rounds are won by hitting a certain number of KOs. I also played a mode in which KOed players drop diamonds which must be collected for points, and there's another where no balls spawn on the map, so players are forced to throw their teammates or ball up themselves. That covers three of the five playlists that'll be available at launch. There'll be five maps, too.
The matches of Knockout City I played (with a bunch of press and streamers who were also learning) were at their best when I got into brief stalemates with opponents, hurling one ball back and forth, faking and double-faking. I found it hard to nail the catch timing at first, so these 1-on-1 duels didn't last for more than a few throws, but at a high level of play, Knockout City should involve lengthy rallies.
Can another take on the arena shooter succeed?
I'm assuming that there will ever be a high level Knockout City play, of course, and that's hardly a sure thing. It's not uncommon these days for multiplayer games to get a brief launch spike, and then plummet to sub-100 player counts. Rocket Arena, another game published by EA Originals, only peaked at 1,102 concurrent players on Steam and, at the time of writing, there are just 32 Steam players in the game—it's on other platforms, too, but that's not a great sign. Other recent arena shooters have had limited success. Even an established name in Quake Champions didn't quite break out amid the battle royales, CS:GO, Rainbow Six Siege, and more recent FPS hits like Escape from Tarkov and Valorant.
If Knockout City does take off in any significant way, it will do so as an exception, given how many perfectly good arena-style games have flopped in recent years.
There are also things I just don't care for in Knockout City. The levels and characters are a stylistic mashup of futuristic art deco, '50s greasers, and '80s graphic design, with Overwatch tones and some of Fortnite's smug dance moves—it's the sort of thing that seems aimed at young people but which, as far as I can tell, contains little about them. (Unless the kids are all about pompadours and bowling shirts these days, and I'm the one who's out of touch.)
The interface is somewhat unappealing to me, as well, especially the way it loads into a practice area at game launch—that's going to be an annoying waste of time for experienced players who just want to get into a match.
A few things may help Knockout City be the exception. One, while not totally unique, the throw and catch dynamic does feel novel at the moment—it isn't 'just another arena shooter,' at least. (Although I wonder if it'll really be better than the great, perhaps under-appreciated, ball-based combat of Lethal League.)
Two, Knockout City is releasing on consoles and PC with crossplay, which'll clump the players into one big mass, keeping matchmaking as populated as it can be. There's a bad loop that can happen where low player counts keep people from playing a game because of long queue times, and so no one plays, and so queue times stay long. Crossplay helps avoid that.
Finally, it may help that the full game will be temporarily free-to-play when it launches, so there'll be no barrier to giving Knockout City a try. After that free period, it'll get a reasonable $20 price tag. (As for in-game spending beyond that, it'll be possible to buy cosmetics, and only cosmetics, with real money, but the developer says they'll also be unlockable through play.)
Knockout City will release on May 21 of this year, and the PC version will be available on both Steam and Origin. If you're interested in trying it before then, there'll be a two-day closed beta starting this Saturday, February 20—as I mentioned, if you want access, you can request it from the Steam store page. (It's nice to see that new Steam feature put to use!)