I don’t think many folks were necessarily clamoring for a dodgeball video game in 2021, so expectations were low when EA and Velan Studios opened the closed beta version of Knockout City on Steam. This probably played to the game’s advantage though because now my first impressions of Knockout City are that it’s a fresh and frenetic twist on a cross-platform shooter. It has a lot of potential to tweak the existing framework and implement new elements that could continue to keep the gameplay from getting too stale.
Let’s break down some of the things that stood out from the limited amount of time I had with Knockout City and consider how the developers can adjust the game prior to its release on May 21.
Knockout City Beta Impressions
When I was a kid an indeterminate amount of time ago and we would play dodgeball out in the schoolyard, the rules of the court were if you got hit and eliminated, you would become a “cow” and try to hit the opposing team from behind them. In essence, this meant your team could essentially attack from both sides. Then came the movie Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story in 2004, which aside from teaching us all the valuable 5 D’s of dodgeball, also brought with it a set of rules that were to new to me that featured players bringing back an eliminated teammate by catching a ball.
All of this is to say that Knockout City isn’t your grandfather’s brand of dodgeball. Though the basics may be the same, there are a lot of exciting new rules and maneuvers that need to first be learned and then honed in this game.
Yes, there’s still a ball and there are still teams, but things get a little crazy from there. The main online mode in the beta had people playing in squads of three across a few different rotating maps. There are several spots on the map where balls are located at the outset, and they will respawn in these same locations once they fall off a map. The first team to 10 knockouts (which are essentially kills that will have the knocked out then respawn on the map) wins the round, and best two out of three rounds wins the match.
What might be divisive among some players is that balls are aimed automatically at opponents when they are thrown, which inherently eliminates the skill of lining up a shot that many have become accustomed to employing from playing shooters over the years. You can’t go around gunning balls willy-nilly though. You still need to be somewhat judicious about when to unleash the fury as balls can easily be stopped from hitting their target by all of the walls and obstacles scattered throughout the various environments.
Aside from powering up your shot and slinging balls at others with reckless abandon, the other key component of the game is catching. It’s this element that really allows the game to transcend its shooter roots as it would basically be like if you could actually catch bullets when they were fired at you in other shooters — there’s even a “perfect” timing window on catches that allows you to rocket throws back at opponents at increased speeds. The core of the game, and it’s one that that works remarkably well, lies in the cat-and-mouse play of trying to hit someone without them catching it. It’s imperative to use some stealth, deception, or teamwork when launching balls at an opponent.
A helpful cursor tells you when a ball is coming at you and from which direction, but it can still be a challenge to get yourself squared up to the ball to catch it in time before it nails you. Also, the window for catching the ball when you press the button is not that large, so you can get into trouble when trying to anticipate someone throwing a ball at you from close range. In these situations, you may end up just leaving yourself vulnerable if you’re spamming the catch button too much. As you might imagine, there’s really not much you can do sometimes when you find yourself at the wrong end of a gang attack and have two balls being hurled at you at the same time.
Knockout City would probably be pretty boring and forgettable if all you could do was throw the ball and catch it. However, this is where the magic of Knockout City starts to come into play, and it makes the “lock on” targeting a deceptively smart way of getting people in the door. The core mechanics of dodgeball are easy to understand here — as they should be — but there’s a lot under the hood here.
There are plenty of tactics that you can use to help hit people and avoid being hit. In fact, it will probably take you some time in the helpful training tutorials to grasp all of the different maneuvers before you feel comfortable enough to jump into a match. The most useful and innovative move in your arsenal is the ability transform yourself into a ball, allowing other players (hopefully teammates) to pick you up and use you as a dangerous weapon. If the person holding you fully charges his or her throw, you’ll become a tracking missile of sorts high in the air — think of the Doomfist ultimate in Overwatch as another comparison — as you try to smash down and deal a knockout blow.
It’s a fun mechanic that encourages communication and teamwork, coming in especially handy when there aren’t any balls nearby but a teammate can do instead in a pinch. The added beauty of it is there are clear downsides to becoming a human dodgeball. You can be caught and then thrown off the map, or you can be thrown back at a teammate and cause a self-KO.
In trying to evade being hit, you have the ability to do a couple things in addition to the option of catching the ball. You can dodge, flip, and spin. The neat thing about these is that you can throw the ball while flipping and spinning to perform some trick shots in order to curve and lob throws around and over walls as needed. When you have the ball, you can also pass the ball between teammates to help charge your throw even more and make it harder for anyone to catch that ensuing laser.
Another fun move you can do is fake a throw, which really broadens the strategic options when you’re in front of someone with a ball and you know they’re going to be looking for a catch. You can simply use the fake to bait them into going for that catch and then you (or a nearby teammate) can nail them with a real throw when they won’t have time to prepare for another catch.
As you can see, things can get complicated when you have so many options at your disposal while trying to deceive and attack your opponents, which makes me mention again why it was so smart to do lock-on targeting and leave the strategy for everything leading up to the throw itself.
Graphics & Environments
Knockout City has a fun cartoon style and third-person perspective that lends itself well to the kind of chaotic action that can play out in matches. There’s a tongue-in-cheek playfulness suitable for something as ridiculous as combat dodgeball, but it also doesn’t manage to undermine the serious business of competition that players require in order to log on in the first place. The speed of the game is relatively fast, but it thankfully hasn’t been ramped up to the point where matches are routinely overwhelming or hard to follow. It’d be easy to say that the look of the game owes at least a little something to Fortnite in the same way that many games seem to subtly be aping the style and format of that huge hit. There’s even a glider that you can unfurl when leaping through the air.
There were a couple maps available to play during the beta, and they all brought enough of their own character with them to open up different strategies. These included rooftops where you could glide from one building to another to try and get the drop on opponents, a construction site where you had to avoid a swinging wrecking ball and navigate a moving elevator, and a cityscape where you could leap around on ledges to survey the action from afar.
Though they may have their individual quirks and unique layouts, they all offer spots you can utilize to try and gain the higher ground on the other team and attack them from where they are least expecting it. I would say the one downside here is while the maps have some unique quirks, they could go even a bit further with them and build even more character into the scenery. Nothing really felt “iconic” about the maps beyond the slightly varying strategies. And since part of the appeal of the maps should be using them to avoid being hit — or using that map knowledge to gain the upper hand — there could be even a bit more flavor to the maps.
Each match also has a special ball that’s not dependent on the map but will certainly factor into strategies and how matches are decided. The first is a bomb ball on a timer that will detonate and destroy anyone in its vicinity — even if it’s unfortunately still residing in your hands. There is also a trap ball that imprisons people when hit with it and allows opponents to pick you up and chuck you clear off the map if you’re not careful. There’s also a moon ball that has you defying gravity while holding it and sending people to the moon when hitting someone with it.
Much like the maps, these are a fun little quirk, but they don’t feel necessarily “iconic” or memorable. To put it another way, the core mechanics of Knockout City still feel like the thing driving play, which is overall a good thing because the mechanics here are strong, but means match-to-match strategies don’t feel like they will change much depending on the “special” ball in play that round.
As with pretty much any game these days, there needs to be a way for people to set themselves apart. Though our time with the game was limited, and there wasn’t really a chance to find out what kind of items might be available once the game is released and you’re able unlock the full assortment of goodies, it was clear enough how it will work and what kinds of alterations you can make.
There are plenty of separate ways to make your player unique, from basics like face and body type to your attire and hairstyle. Additionally, you can also customize your player intros and post-match celebrations, offering enough to satisfy the need to add your own flair that you can show off to others.
Judging by the rather polished beta, EA and Velan Studios could very well have a hit on their hands with Knockout City. My impressions at this point are that the final stretch will depend on how much they’re willing to listen to community feedback and keep things fresh and interesting. There’s certainly plenty of room for them to adjust and tweak the gameplay by adding new kinds of balls and environments, or even just new obstacles within the existing environments, and this is where we think the focus should be. The throwing and dodging mechanics are on point, and now it just feels like the world needs to come alive a bit more and be a little more interesting to play in moment to moment.
It’s entirely possible that if the game is successful, EA could explore blowing up the size of the maps to incorporate some sort of Battle Royale mode, considering those seem to be all the rage these days. That could probably involve all sorts of different balls and power-ups that you find across the maps instead of the traditional array of guns. While that may look like a marketable route, the worry there would be that larger map sizes could potentially mean less actual interaction between squads. Personally, I’d like to see the game perhaps taken in more of a vertical direction instead with some jetpacks added to allow for more exciting aerial battles with balls flying through the skies.
One of the good things Knockout City has going for it is that there isn’t really anything else quite like it out there (Splatoon might be the closest comparison for its similar light-hearted mayhem), and yet it does feel familiar and intuitive enough for folks to grasp most of its intricacies fairly quickly. It’s a little early to tell, but it seems like the kind of game you could easily link up with some friends to grind as a squad for a few hours on a Friday night. Perhaps the greatest compliment I can pay the beta is that I was just as bad at it as I am with most shooters and got knocked out an awful lot (even falling off buildings regularly with no one around), yet I still was having fun and wanted to improve by playing more.