Rocket Arena Review — Remarkably Unremarkable
Rocket Arena is a hero shooter that tries to make a mark, but doesn’t do nearly enough to help itself stand out.
The hero shooter subgenre is an odd one.
It’s not an oversaturated market, at least not yet, but instead, one that’s so dominated by a select few successes that it’s an uphill battle for any new game to come in and gain a foothold. For every Overwatch or Apex Legends, there’s a Battleborn and LawBreakers to match.
Rocket Arena — a debut project from Final Strike Games that released Tuesday under the EA Originals line — is the latest hero shooter looking to make its mark. But with minimal fanfare leading up to launch, a questionably high price of admission, and time spent playing a game that feels so derivative and uninspired, it’s a title that will have a hard time catching anyone’s attention, much less maintaining it.
Rocket Arena’s foundation is built with an amalgamation of elements from other games. Online shooter with a colorful, Pixar-esque art style? That’s Overwatch. A K.O. meter that fills up and sends opponents flying off the map after taking so much damage? That’s Super Smash Bros.
The 3-v-3 team setup? Although it’s likely a means to help differentiate from Overwatch (6-v-6) and Valorant (5-v-5), the format, and the name Rocket Arena in and of itself, brings it awfully close to Rocket League. Hell, there’s even a handball-like mode to bring it closer with a sports-focused angle. And while we’re still at spotting influences, one of the playable hero’s special abilities feels like it’s pulled right out of Splatoon.
There’s nothing necessarily wrong with taking inspiration from other games. It’s just that Rocket Arena doesn’t do anything new or interesting with the ideas it’s pulling from. The aforementioned gameplay mechanics and rules function almost exactly like they do in the respective games that established them, leading it all to feel like they’re just included because they’re popular and familiar, not because the development team saw a way to expand or put a unique spin on them.
That isn’t to say Rocket Arena doesn’t try to do anything original. Its biggest selling point is that it’s a rockets (i.e. projectiles) only shooter, which on paper might sound cool. In practice, it’s quite literally hit or miss.
It takes some getting used to when you first start out. Most shooters make use of hitscan for the bulk of their weaponry (rifles, handguns, shotguns, basically anything that uses bullets), having hits register instantly so long as the aiming reticle is on target when you fire. Then projectiles (rocket launchers and grenades) are added in to help break things up, usually as secondary or special weapons that carry a blast radius, but need time to travel to their target. It’s risk vs. reward. If you connect, you can do tons of damage to one or multiple opponents, but you throw or pull the trigger knowing you might miss completely since they’ll have time to get out of the way.
Since Rocket Arena forgos hitscan almost entirely in favor of all projectiles, every shot has to be deliberate in order to consistently hit anything. At launch there are 10 playable heroes of varying skill sets, who each have their own weapons that come with different levels of forgiveness. For some, all you need to do is put a rocket within an opponent’s general area to connect, while others I’ve found you need to be dead-on with. And in the case of one hero, Plink, his automatic weapon is the closest that comes to conventional hitscan, which I found myself falling back on a couple times when I felt like things really weren’t going my way.
There is a practice mode where you can take all the time you need firing away at bots to get acclimated with the game’s mechanics and find the hero or heroes that best suit your playstyle. I still found myself going back and forth on whether the rockets-only approach was a good idea or not once I jumped into online matches.
Small maps, the 3-v-3 format, timers, score limits and relatively fast respawn times are all there to keep rounds moving quickly and players constantly involved. Genuinely interesting means of traversal help out on this front, too. Shooting the ground below you mid-jump will give you an extra boost, and firing downward at a wall repeatedly will send you climbing up it in a way somewhat similar to Mega Man X’s triangle kick. It gives maps an extra layer of verticality, opening up chances to do a quick survey of the area or get the drop on opponents.
It’s mostly in combat itself where things felt like they were falling apart. Trying to anticipate an opponent’s movements and lead shots often felt like it was slowing the action down, and perhaps because the game just launched (at the time of this writing, Rocket Arena has only been out for a couple days), I’ve seen shootouts tend to devolve into just firing away and hoping for the best.
The game launched with five modes. Knockout, basically the Rocket Arena variation of Team Deathmatch; Rocketball, the aforementioned handball-style mode where goals are set up at the opposite end of each map; Treasure Hunt, a two-part mode that starts with competing for possession of a treasure chest (in simpler terms a game of keep away), then turns into a scramble to collect as many coins as possible; Mega Rocket, where teams fight to capture control points across the map; And Rocketbot Attack, a co-op horde mode. There are multiple ways to play and find success without having to deal damage thanks to the mode variety. Still, it doesn’t absolve Rocket Arena from the issues I’ve had so far with its gameplay, and the modes themselves have been seen before in dozens of other multiplayer shooters over the past decade, to the point where playing them here hardly feels like anything more than going through the motions.
Rocket Arena will reward you for mastery. Gameplay-wise, you can pull off techniques like comboing opponents off the map without filling up their damage meter through consecutive hits (another note taken from Smash Bros.). And in terms of progression, every hero has 100 levels of rewards, with experience going toward cosmetic unlocks like outfits, VFX trails, and parts for customizable banners referred to in-game as totems. Time spent playing also unlocks and levels up what are called artifacts, of which you can assign up to three to a respective hero to either boost certain attributes or reduce respawn and cooldown times.
That said, if the core gameplay isn’t enough to keep you going, progressing the heroes won’t do much to remedy the situation. The roster consists of archetypes and character designs you’ve seen before and have been done more interestingly elsewhere. The story and lore put behind them also, frankly, is nothing more than shallow justification for how a world can have pirates, magicians, dinosaur hunters, and underwater kingdoms co-existing all at once.
Completing ranked and social matches also accumulates Rocket Parts, one of Rocket Arena’s two methods of in-game currency, which can be put toward purchasing specific cosmetic gear. The other is the paid currency, Rocket Fuel, which serves the same purpose. Yes, this game does have microtransactions.
On top of that, Rocket Arena has an upfront cost of $30 minimum for its standard edition (the base game only), and $40 for its Mythic edition, which comes with extra outfits, VFX trails, and enough Rocket Fuel to pre-order the game’s season 1 Blast Pass (a roughly $8 package that comes with more cosmetics and a temporary XP boost).
Maybe in isolation, there could be an argument to justify the game’s pricing model, and to its credit, the hero this season is adding will be free to everyone. The hang-up I have with it is that this game was published by EA, the same company that helped put out Apex Legends, one of the more popular hero shooters and battle royale games out there…and that’s free-to-play. By comparison, Rocket Arena is asking for way more for something that, to me, is way less exciting.
Rocket Arena isn’t a bad game, it works exactly as advertised — provided there wasn’t something else to it outside of that few minutes the game was given during the EA Play showcase a month ago — I just found it to be really dull.
It pulls from established ideas you’ve already seen elsewhere, and the one unique hook it puts at the forefront isn’t near stable enough ground for it to stand out.
The whole thing is just forgettable.