Knockout City Review – (Dodge)Ball is Life
Knockout CityMay 21st, 2021
While not designing the first home AR iteration of Mario Kart, Velan Studios was quietly at work trying to find a way to turn Dodgeball into a micro-transaction driven competitive shooter. Knockout City is the team's second game release and couldn't be more different from their previous work with Nintendo. Sporting a brutal future look at 1960's American where playing dodgeball on dangerous skyrises or in front of oncoming trains is the best way to rep your street crew, Knockout City brings a new spin on the 3v3 competitive shooter scene. Does Knockout City hit its mark, or has this ball already been deflated at launch?
After a small amount of onboarding with the various tutorials, players are thrust right into Knockout City's menus to browse the in-game stores or join a match either with friends or on their own. There's a small hub area to run around when players first boot up Knockout City, but it's little more than a training playground to reinforce the core mechanics and teach players how to throw their balls around more effectively. If you want to show off some newly purchased threads, you're going to have to jump into a game with your crew.
Knockout City's variety of modes all focus on the very obvious concept of the game: Dodgeball. No matter which of the various competitive modes you opt to play, the name of the game in Knockout City is getting in some hands-on time with balls. Knockout City's core mode is a best-of-3 affair where teams of three work together to score ten knockouts to win the match. Other modes include the typical Free-For-All brawl, a mode where balls refuse to spawn in and teams need to sacrifice one of their own in ball form to fling a hit, and another mode where players knock diamonds loose from the other team and collect up to a specific threshold. More modes are slated to come on a regular rate with Velan Studios promising a new playlist to come every week for the foreseeable future.
So, how do you score a win in Knockout City? Just like the real life counterpart of Dodgeball, you'll have to hit the enemy by way of throwing a ball their way. Simply rolling up on an enemy player and throwing a ball their way sounds simple enough but Knockout City gives players a wide array of skills to avoid an unexpected knockout. Catching a thrown ball is the simplest method of defense and timing a perfect catch instantly charges the ball up in power for a quick relay. When you get targetted by an enemy, the border of the playfield turns red to alert the player and get them ready for a defensive play but it's rarely that simple. You can only catch a ball when your hands aren't actively occupied with carrying a ball so in instances like that, dodging is the best tool you'll have access to. Despite an enemy knowing that you've got eyes on them, baiting them into trying to catch your ball early and leaving themselves open to attack is a very viable ability to play around with. Players can charge their shots to give them more velocity or even perform a quick spin on the Circle button to give their balls an arcing lob that can layer in an additional mind game by changing the timing of your throws in a variety of ways.
To keep each match from falling into the same old routine of rushing for the balls and throwing them as quickly as possible, Knockout City mixes up the various maps by randomly deciding which of the five currently available balls is that match's special ball. From balls that cause massive explosions on contact to balls that trap your enemies within so that they can be used as a weapon (or simply flung off the side of the stage), these special balls do change up each match even a little bit. I do look forward to seeing what other unique balls and modes Velan Studios has in the works to keep the game feeling fresh.
In a move that shouldn't surprise fans of free-to-play games, Knockout City is heavily invested in microtransactions and unlockables at the very least. Each season of Knockout City offers players a battle pass with 100 ranks to unlock new cosmetics, currencies and various other ways to show off in every match. One thing that Velon Studios has done to genuinely make the battle pass more appealing is by randomizing the order that new goods are unlocked. Each unlockable good funnels back into the cosmetics that help your character stand out among the competition. From gloves and attire to emotes and explosive designs, Knockout City is explicitly designed to showcase the player's goods as often as possible. While Knockout City doesn't allow the player to purchase items directly, EA is pretty up front about offering players the chance to purchase Holobux, the same single currency that's doled out at regular beats for completing stages in the battle pass (and EA even offers a 10% discount on currency to those with an active EA Play membership).
Velan Studios' focused so heavily on the Neofuturistic 1960's vibe and microtransactions that so much of the game feels paper thin by comparison. With only a handful of maps and modes, you'll quickly see all there is to Knockout City in the first afternoon. The few voice quips are repeated ad nauseam throughout every match that you might want to mute the game and switch to Spotify or group chat to keep yourself from jumping in front of an enemy ball each and every time the score gets tied. If it weren't for a needlessly robust customization and cosmetic system, Knockout City wouldn't have nearly enough content to keep players coming back for more.
As novel as Knockout City is, I found myself bouncing off the experience quicker than Rocket Arena, no pun intended. The core gameplay loop makes for one of the snappiest competitive shooters I've played that offered players something more child friendly than an assault rifle and I do see this one as being quite popular to pick up and play once in a while (especially if Velan Studios and EA keep the game free up to level 25 as in its current state). But for a longterm competitive title that brings players back in match after match, only time will tell if Velan Studios can keep the tempo up and entice players to keep Knockout City in their online rotation with friends.
Reviewed on PlayStation 5 (code provided by the publisher).
Knockout City plays with some interesting ideas to turn Dodgeball into a simple competitive shooter, but it's clear Velan Studios has spent more time building a robust microtransaction system than appealing content.
- Cross-platform play and progression
- Simple to learn, difficult to master combat system
- Accessible to players that want to enjoy a competitive game with their friends
- Frantic matches you can fit into a quick snack break at work
- Free trial up to level 25
- Battle pass randomizes the order rewards are unlocked
- Very few defensive tools when two players targetting you at once
- Limited range of modes and maps available at launch
- More microtransactions than actual content
- Announcer quips get really stale after the third match of the day