Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Why Supersonic Acrobatic Rocket-Powered Battle-Cars Wins

It's rather appropriate that the inaugural post for my new blog concerns a video game with quite possibly the least punchy title I have ever seen. I have played Supersonic Acrobatic Rocket-Powered Battle-Cars for a few weeks now and I can safely say that there is a lot to be learned from its design.

Beyond its irrationally verbose title, Supersonic Acrobatic Rocket-Powered Battle-Cars is a simultaneously simple and subtle game. It rewards open-minded gamers and harks back to an era of PC gaming that emphasized practice, patience and creativity. This hodgepodge of conventions is one of the most unique multiplayer gaming experiences offered this year.

At its core, Battle Cars is soccer with cars... turbo cars. Well they aren't turbo cars exactly but rocket-powered cars. They aren't just rocket-powered cars, either. They can break the sound barrier and perform insane mid-air feats. And they battle each other for control of the ball. So I suppose to summarize they are supersonic acrobatic rocket-powered... oh! I see.

Two teams use their cars to knock a giant ball into oversized soccer goals. That's it. That's all it needs. By sticking with a simple premise, Psyonix was able to create a game that is simple to learn but has the capacity for great competition and skill. At first, the tools available to help you score seem limited. You have your car and the boost capsules scattered about the arenas. Soon it becomes clear that the combination of these two tools provides such a wide array of options that to include any other staples of the car combat genre (weapons, power-ups, environmental hazards) would overly complicate this game.

The most beautiful part of Battle Cars is how it marries its primary gameplay elements: the car and boost. Boost allows you to accomplish whatever offensive or defensive goal you are aiming for if you get creative. Using boost when driving foward does what you'd expect. You zoom ahead of the pack to score a goal or to catch up to an opponent's shot. However, boost can be used for much more. Is the ball near the opposing team's goal? With boost, you could jump and fly across the entire map to slam the ball into the goal at supersonic speeds or you could ram into a defender to carve an opening for a teammate. You could even ram an opponent into the ball mid-air to force him to score on his own goal. The possibilities are seemingly endless.

A constant risk vs. reward battle rages during a match of Battle Cars because without boost, the movement options available to your car are significantly hindered. Is it safe to go after more boost if it means taking your attention off the ball? Perhaps not but lacking boost makes it extremely difficult to compete against an opponent with a full tank. These challenges add a strategic element that encourages being prepared and taking advantage of down time during a match.

Don't get me wrong; this game has very little down time. It's downright chaotic at times. For the first week I owned this game, I spent the majority of my time getting accustomed to hitting the ball with my car. Scoring was accidental if I ever managed to make contact. In fact, many newsites gave this game poor scores citing this as a major reason. Online games during the first week looked more like destruction derbies than a skillful game of soccer. It's easy to understand what you need to do but it's difficult to accomplish in the beginning. After you get comfortable with the mechanics, an order becomes clear within the chaos and what was once aggrivating is exhilirating.

For this reason, playing this game reminded me of early competitive PC shooters like the Quake and Unreal Tournament series. The first time you play Quake III Arena, the speed alone lends the game a frustrating quality that is only matched by the irritation of aiming directly at opponents and constantly missing. It takes time to learn to predict movement and to shoot where the enemy will be. In this way, older PC shooters and Battle Cars are similar. Their core gameplay mechanics are easily understood but difficult to master. They require patience to reveal the nuances that make their gameplay rich.

So after I spent an irksome week with Battle Cars it all fell into place. Soon I was working on jumping into the ball for midair shots or smacking the ball in the middle of a flip for extra power. I started to turn an opponent's once-annoying smash into the side of my car into an advantage as holding down accelerate allows you to continue driving at your air speed once you land. And now I am working at the type of shots that practiced Psyonix developers pull off online.

To enjoy this game involved taking a journey that forced me to question a lot of prejudices I have about video games. By all initial accounts this game should be terrible. It contains many red flags that with any other game would signify a terrible purchase: a poor demo, terrible single player gameplay, a title that screams, "Shovelware!", unimaginative graphics and a relatively unknown pedigree. Yet none of this turned out to matter. In fact, the saddest part about Battle Cars' flaws is that they make the game easy to write off. Sometimes it feels like the developers buried their gaming treasure behind countless traps to prevent anyone but the most dedicated from enjoying it as some sort of bizarre masochistic metagame.

But I understand in actuality that it probably will never be a widely-appealing game. Beyond the extraneous modes and unreliable netcode, it is not a game that excites on the first few outings. In such a crowded market having upfront appeal seems like a necessity. It is disappointing to me because I believe that if players invest a little more time into Battle Cars and try to see it as an online-only game, they will find one of the most rewarding online experiences of the year. The depth allowed by its simple concept creates a uniqueness and longevity in
Supersonic Acrobatic Rocket-Powered Battle Cars that are often absent in modern multiplayer gaming.

I suggest you give it some of your time. Online, please!

1 comment:

Dave said...

I'm one of the developers at Psyonix and I really appreciate what you said about the game here.

We created the game originally for ourselves and because of that it ended up evolving over time as our own skill did. Unfortunately that made for a game that takes some time to get into.

I'd love to get your opinion on how we can make the game more accessible to new players sometime. I'm Psyonix-Dave on the battle-car forums.