A Belated Love Letter to Knockout City

Image Credit: Emma Lambkin

Rory Galvin gushes over the game that deserved better

If you don't know what Knockout City is, congratulations, you're like most people. For the uninitiated, this game can be summed up as an extreme dodgeball experience, but I can assure you it is so much more than that. It never got very far, but this sort-of indie-published by EA game deserves a lot more attention. This is my experience with the game, including what I adore from it, but obviously nothing is ever perfect so we have some complaints here and there. Before you go any further, I will say at the top: yes, I do recommend the game wholeheartedly, and I’d like to show you why, so here is my belated love letter to Knockout City.

After seeing this game for the first time, it didn’t leave the best first impression on me. The reveal trailer was dropped in February of last year and was immediately confusing, seemingly no different than most other games being released around the same time. The first thing you see isn’t a high-speed dodgeball, it’s an array of knockoff characters from other publishers talking about the game: like a SWAT member from Counter Strike and an orc from World of Warcraft. It didn’t get me interested in the game, it just looked cheap. What also didn’t help was the visuals we first saw - a Fortnite-esque presentation that everyone was trying because Epic Games was making the big bucks. It didn’t look awful or anything, just generic in a sea of developers trying to push the same aesthetic. The game’s open beta and launch were fairly successful, but it never grabbed my attention enough for me to pay for what I thought should have been a free to play game - even if the gameplay looked decent. Open betas nowadays are essentially glorified demos, so why should I waste my time?

Following a strong launch with millions playing, for one reason or another, the game fell pretty hard. Chalk it up to bugs and server issues at launch, as well as a slow drip of content. It launched with a decent selection of maps and balls, but with nothing much on the horizon. Each season usually brings in a new map and a new ball (this season had a UFO instead), and that just doesn’t feel like enough for the 90 days or so between updates. Knockout City didn’t go free to play, but through different services like EA Play and in turn Xbox Game Pass, the game was at least trying to get more people in the door. By the time the PS5 version was released, PlayStation Plus offered it for the month, and that’s when I finally jumped in - dragging my friends along with me. Beyond my expectations, we were instantly hooked, and part of me wishes I started playing sooner.

There is a certain dance performed in Knockout City, one between your character and the ball

There is a certain dance performed in Knockout City, one between your character and the ball. Velan Studios (the developer) clearly put a lot of work into the movement, and it’s the first thing I noticed when playing. What you first experience in the game is this rooftop hub: a playground to practice and mess around, with your friends or all on your lonesome. So, when I was dropped on top of the roof, the fluidity of the movement hit me in the face harder than any dodgeball could. It’s amazing. The smooth animations, the perfect speed, the responsiveness with the controls: it works in the way you want it to. Before I even got into my first match, I must have spent maybe twenty minutes in that hub just jumping around and figuring out the controls. Every kind of ball is left in spots around the map, so you can try everything and already start picking favourites. The training dummy (one of my favourite things to see in a game) was very useful for practising throwing and catching, or just knocking him off the building over and over.

I can’t not mention how you can roll up and have a friend throw you instead of the regular balls, we must have spent hours screaming ‘Bob throw me!’

Thank God the simple gameplay was done so well. You do two things: throw and catch, and it’s essentially perfect. Every time you hit someone, you get a satisfying bonk sound and send them flying too. It's extremely satisfying and doesn’t get old even after one hundred matches. You can mix things up with curve shots and lobs - I even found myself discovering my own moves which felt very rewarding. Each button does something important, and mixing things up makes the gameplay exciting, especially when you’re going against others who know what they’re doing. What’s more are the rallies you create against your enemy, if they catch your projecticle at the right time, the ball starts glowing a vivid purple, and the next time you throw the thing it goes at Mach Five - the same applies if you catch it. I think the game has a good skill ceiling (despite some differing opinions), all based around movement, mind games and reaction times. It’s one of the first times in a while when I felt really good at a competitive level, so much so that the ranked mode pulled me and my friends in to try and climb the ladder - we even considered entering competitions. I can’t not mention how you can roll up and have a friend throw you instead of the regular balls, we must have spent hours screaming “Bob throw me!”.

Not everything reaches the same highs you get with the gameplay, and there are a few reasons why Knockout City ended up floundering. The servers are still not 100%, and that problem is only exacerbated by the low population - and a choice to go for skill-based matchmaking instead of region-based. It’s a fine idea that just doesn’t work because there aren’t enough players - I could end up playing against people at my level, but they could be an ocean away. That leads to stutter, rubberbanding and getting hit when you swore you caught the ball. For the most part it’s playable, but I’ve had many matches that end up being a laggy mess - but that only happened as less people played. One other issue I have is that private matches are essentially pointless; you can’t pick what map you’re using, not every new mode is added to it and you get no XP. I’m sure it would be cool if you had eight people playing, but it’s hard enough getting two others for the standard 3v3 mode.

I love this game. Despite any issue or nitpick, there is so much to love here and I truly believe Knockout City is underrated and should be played by more people. How can the game get another shot of life? By getting a lot of new content, and by going free to play. It might seem radical, but EA should pour more money into the game (FIFA Ultimate Team can certainly pay for it) because the developers clearly care about what they’ve made. I thank Velan Studios for the special thing they’ve designed, and I’m impressed by how active they are still - even if it looks like they’re catering to dozens, not millions. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to keep rolling around like a ball until I reach 100km total, because, of course, it’s a trophy in the game.