I have to admit, the last time I even played dodgeball was about a decade ago during gym class in high school, and while I was enthusiastic, but I'll be the first to tell you — I wasn't exactly a star player. However, post-high school trauma didn't hold me back from diving into the dodgeball-obsessed world of Knockout City, the upcoming multiplayer game from Electronic Arts and Velan Studios, the developers behind the mixed reality game, Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit.
Debuting during Nintendo's February Direct, Knockout City is a multiplayer riff on dodgeball against the backdrop of retro-future inspired city, complete with bandstand music, greaser hairstyles, and flying cars. This weekend, I spent some time with Knockout City's cross-platform beta and got to try the unique shooter firsthand, and I walked away impressed. Knockout City has the potential to be a real knockout (sorry, I couldn't help myself).
Keeping things simple
The rules of dodgeball are simple — don't get hit by the ball, and Knockout City does an excellent job at keeping things simple. Throwing the ball is never difficult, thanks to a generous auto-aim, so players are free to focus on dodging and catching the ball. No ball in sight? Literally, become the ball and have a teammate launch you across the map for an instant knockout, but you can just as easily be caught and tossed back at friendlies.
Unlike other shooters, putting yourself in the line of fire can be beneficial, and the game does a good job translating the risk and reward associated with Dodgeball. When the opponent locks onto you, the screen flashes red and indicates what direction the ball is coming from, giving you a chance to react accordingly. Do you run? Do you stand your ground and try to catch the ball? Or do you risk it all and try to smack the ball out of their hand with a well-timed shoulder tackle.
In addition to the normal balls found on the map, a special ball is chosen at the start of the match that can prove to be a real game-changer when used correctly. The beta featured a Sniper Ball that can target people from great distances, a Moon Ball, which knocks the gravity out of those hit by it, a Cage Ball, which incapacities opponents and allows them to be used as a ball against their will, and a Bomb Ball, which blows up upon impact, harming friends and foe alike. I was partial to the Moon Ball, which sent players spiraling through the air upon knockout.
Knockout City may be a unique concept, but it's rooted in all the familiar trappings of third-person shooters. During the beta, I had access to three levels and three different game types: A traditional team deathmatch (the beta was locked to 3 on 3 matches, but the final game will support 4 player teams), a 1 on 1 mode, and a mode called Diamond Dash, where players drop diamonds when they're knocked out, which must be collected to win.
The Nintendo Switch difference
One of the biggest draws of the game is its cross-platform and cross-progression support. Knockout City is dropping on basically every platform available, and you and your friends can join up together and play no matter your system of choice. In my playtime, I connected with friends on the PC and the Xbox and encountered no latency issues.
Knockout City's party system was seamless, and it was easy to send invites to friends on other platforms. Knockout City also features an in-game store and tons of unlockable cosmetics for your dodgeballer, so knowing I'll have access to any gear I unlock, no matter where I unlocked it is a welcome addition (looking at you, Apex Legends).
Switch owners will be happy to know that Velan Studios has taken the time to optimize the Switch version. While the game's art style might be divisive, the simple, colorful visuals look good on the Switch in handheld and docked mode. The game also features a Quality Mode and a Performance Mode.
The Quality Mode aims for 1080p resolution at 30 FPS and includes extra graphic features like sunshafts, bloom, and increased Shadow Cascades. It also hits 720p in handheld mode. In Performance Mode, the resolution hits 810p docked but maintains a solid 60 FPS. Valen Studios recommends Performance Mode only to those with stable and persistent high-speed internet connections. I mostly played on Quality Mode and didn't mind the FPS drop.
Also, the game features gyro controls and voice chat without the need for the NSO app on your phone, though you do need Nintendo Switch Online to play. I didn't experience any lag during my playtime and never felt like I was cheated out of a victory due to sloppy netcode. With Monster Hunter Rise's silky smooth online on my brain, I'm happy to report that Knockout City's online worked perfectly in almost every match I played.
A few bruises
One of my biggest gripes so far isn't really so much with the game itself as with its art style. The characters seem to be channeling this rockabilly meets street punk vibe that doesn't always look good. Squid Kids, these are not. In fact, It's actually one of the uglier games I've seen in a while in this regard. Considering games like these are 50% skill and 50% looking cool, I wonder if the exaggerated characters might turn off potential players. The same can't be said for the levels, though, which were all interesting, inventive, and fun to play on.
I was also surprised to learn that the game isn't a free-to-play game, but instead will offer a free trial to all players at launch, and once that trial is done, it will cost $20 to continue playing. Interesting that they would buck the free-to-play trend that's proven itself so successful over the last few years. Will the content be deep enough to warrant the purchase? It remains to be seen. The friends I played with all enjoyed their time with Knockout City but weren't quite sold on the purchase, even if it's only $20.
A potential knockout
Knockout City seems to be checking off all the right boxes. The online play is smooth, the gameplay is fun, the controls are easy to master, and there's plenty of cosmetics to unlock and challenges to complete. Cross-play and cross-progression mean that there will certainly be a decent player base at launch, and I truly hope the game finds and maintains an audience.
Going into this, I expected something akin to Fortnite. Still, I walked away thinking Knockout City was more in common with Rocket League or even Splatoon — both wonderfully unique experience that works on almost every level, and the compromises made to the Switch version aren't too drastic. It very well has the potential to be one of the best online multiplayer games on the Nintendo Switch.
After its reveal, it fell off my radar, but after playing the Open Cross-Play Beta, I'm ready to play more of the game when it releases on May 21 for Nintendo Switch, PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X and Xbox Series S, and PC.