My crowning moment in Knockout City came as I was outnumbered and surrounded. Two opponents were circling me when I caught the first one off-guard with a feint, then sent a ball zipping around their side to finish them off. The next one took shelter behind some rooftop shrubbery, but the cover only concealed their doom as I sent an arcing shot over the planter and straight down onto their head. I noticed the red border around my screen showing that an enemy had locked on to me, and still deep within my flow state, I whipped around and caught the last enemy's ball out of the air without even looking at it. Then it beeped. I should have looked at it first.
See, most of the time you're better off dodging bomb balls than you are trying to catch them, especially if your opponent had the sense to run out the fuse first. By the time my kleine Jörg - more on him in a second - had exploded, ragdolled off the side of the building, and respawned, I was almost done cackling at the whiplash of being yanked down from dodgeball deity-hood by a Wile E. Coyote-worthy demise.
Knockout City is an online multiplayer game of dodgeball combat from Velan Studios, who you may already know as the developers of Mario Kart Live, and it's being published under Electronic Arts' EA Originals label. You play as young folks in the eponymous city who form up into crews and settle their disputes through a heavily modified form of dodgeball - it's a dodgebrawl, Velan explains, though most of the characters have the sense not to call it that. Each match plays like a hybrid of team-based arena shooters, dodgeball, and just a touch of Lethal League.
You play entirely in third-person, which a) helps you track incoming balls better and b) lets you appreciate your customized avatar. After some waffling early on, I settled on creating a young man named Jörg: a handsome Berlin transplant who loves the Knockout City nightclub scene, but not as much as he loves its dodgebrawl scene. Jörg's backstory lived entirely in my head, but I look forward to introducing him to the Knockout City roleplay community.
Most of the modes we played in our preview were 3v3, and they took place on maps all across the city: we played Team KO on a busy roundabout to see who could rack up the most knockouts first, we played Diamond Dash in a half-demolished high school to grab the most gems from fallen rivals, and we traded blows in Ball-Up Brawl on swanky rooftop suites. Ball-Up Brawl was the one 4v4 exception, but that's only because there aren't any dodgeballs scattered around the map in that one. You have to be the ball in more than just the transcendental sense.
Be the ball
Knockout City lets you press a button at any time to make your character tuck into a ball and start rolling, which lets your teammates pick you up, pass you, and lob you at enemies. It sounds rude, but it's a winning strategy when there aren't any regular balls nearby - or even if there are, since balled-up players do extra damage. It's risky, though: if the other team catches you, they can throw you right back.
Whether it's with a person or a rubberized ball, that basic act of throwing and catching is the core of Knockout City. The longer you charge a throw, the faster it will go, and you'll automatically lock on to any enemies that are within range. Your target gets an instant lock-on alert, which leads to standoffs full of head games: if you can catch them off guard with a feint or a curveball, you'll get an easy hit, but if you give them an easy lob they could do a perfect grab and send the ball soaring back at you with an instant burst of speed. This is where the Lethal League comes in, because then you can do the same, letting the ball steadily approach the sound barrier until it finally catches one of you right in the solar plexus.
My favored trick for tripping up opponents in the preview was doing a flip or a spin right before throwing the ball, adding a side curve or parabolic arc to its transit. You're supposed to use trick throws for hitting opponents around obstructions - which is supremely satisfying - more than you are for faking them out, and I could tell as the preview progressed that I needed to up my mind games. At the same time, teammates (and myself) learned to actually pass the damn ball, which - on top of being good sportsmanship - instantly charges the ball. If you're in a match where people are getting into position and passing back and forth, it feels like a proper team sport.
I can only imagine what playing with a well-coordinated, established team will feel like, and Knockout City will encourage players to find regular play groups with its clan-style Crew system. We didn't get to try it out in the preview ourselves, but we did see how your Crew will determine the special holographic icon your character wears on their back, and even the kind of flying car you'll all roll up in at the start of matches. Your Crew will have special collective challenges to compete as well for extra rewards, so you may want to rep a set even if you usually fly solo.
Knockout City is getting a closed beta this weekend, and the full version is planned for release on May 21, 2021. It will arrive with cross-play and cross-progression on PC (via Origin and Steam), Nintendo Switch, PS4, and Xbox One, including next-gen enhancements for PS5 and Xbox Series X and S. Launch will begin with a free trial for all players, then require a $19.99 purchase to keep playing once the trial ends, with seasons full of free new content to follow.
As with all games in its position, I'm worried about how Knockout City will fare as a premium game in an online multiplayer space dominated by free-to-play juggernauts. Hopefully, there's room for roving gangs of disorderly dodgeball youths in between all the high-profile crossover characters and military operators. I know I wanted to keep playing even after Velan shut the preview servers down for the day, and that seems like a good enough sign for the time being.