You should start downloading Knockout City right now if you're reading this at launch. Yes, I'll go into more detail about what I did and didn't like about my time with the dodgeball combat game, but EA and developer Velan Studios have made my basic job of recommending whether you should give Knockout City a go absurdly easy; they're offering a 10-day free trial across all platforms, complete with cross-play and coinciding with the game's release date, which should honestly be the new industry standard for online multiplayer games. The question is whether this unique take on multiplayer combat will stick around on your console or PC once you have to pay to play.
Release date: May 21, 2021
Platform(s): PC, PS4, PS5, Nintendo Switch, Xbox Series X, Xbox One
Developer: Velan Studios
Knockout City is a game about gangs of young folks who settle their differences by beaning each other with dodgeballs. The overall vibe is like if The Warriors and Splatoon loaded into their hover cars then had a big rumble in the parking lot of a '50s-themed diner. The electro-swing, big beat soundtrack is an instant bop, and I loved the unique aesthetic of the cosmetic options, with pompadours and poodle skirts well represented alongside futuristic visors and gold studded jackets. You can keep three "Brawlers" ready to go at any time, each with their own customized cosmetic loadouts, which will be especially clutch for the dodgeball fashionistas out there.
Your characters can look as unique as you like, but they'll all play exactly the same - and so will your teammates and opponents. Knockout City doesn't have any classes, or skill trees, or customizable hero abilities. There are two fundamentals to its third-person battles: throwing and catching. When you hold down the right trigger, you start charging a throw, and you'll automatically lock on to any opponent near the center of your screen; you know if somebody else has you dialed in by a red border that appears around your screen, with a slight bulge pointing toward offscreen attackers.
If a ball's headed your way, your best move is usually to stand your ground and grab it out of the air with the left trigger. Steel your nerves until the last possible moment and you'll pull off a perfect catch, giving the ball an extra burst of speed when you volley it back. Master those two fundamentals, keep your positioning in mind, and you'll do alright. Then add in dashes which can be used to knock the ball out of an opponent's hand (or avoid one you don't want to catch, like a ticking bomb ball), passes to set up your teammates, flips and spins which add obstacle-avoiding arcs to your shots, and rolling into a ball yourself to provide instant ammo for a teammate, and you have the Knockout City experience.
The highest compliment I can pay to Knockout City is that I never left a match without a raised heart rate. Each session usually takes five to ten minutes, and every one I played had at least one lean-into-the-screen moment - like the time I faced down all three players on the enemy team in a flow-state blur of catching and throwing, ending only when I accidentally backed into a bottomless pit. Even at lower points, like when my team of randos was outmatched by a well-coordinated group, I found moments of joy in a heated volley here and an unexpected "thwack" against a preoccupied foe there.
Keeping the ball rolling
I never stopped wanting one more match during the review event, but will it be another matter once thousands of players have dipped, ducked, and dodged in Knockout City for weeks on end? Well, if you ever get tired of the basics in Team KO, you can also queue into a rotating selection of playlists for other modes. During the review event we got to try Party Team KO, which swaps out the standard dodgeballs for all special variants (like the aforementioned bomb, or a sniper-like football), and Diamond Dash, which is Kill Confirmed with giant gems instead of dog tags.
As someone who usually loves goofy extra-random modes like Mystery Heroes in Overwatch, it pains me to say that I did not like Party Team KO. Every ball in the match doing something weird messes with the basics too much. Still, it isn't vanilla Team KO or go home for me; the way Diamond Dash encourages mid-to-short-range brawls so players can scoop up enemy diamonds makes it my favorite of all three. A ranked league mode is also on the way, though I didn't get to try that out myself. Whatever playlist you're in, you'll earn XP and unlock cosmetic rewards as you play.
That's the other way Velan Studios intends to keep players brawling long after the free trial ends: stuff. There are hundreds of Street Rank tiers to level up through, offering a set collection of cosmetic items in a randomized order for each player. There are daily and weekly challenges to complete for extra XP and special rewards of their own. There's also a cash shop, where you can use the Holobux you buy for real money or earn in the course of play to purchase revolving rewards. Yeah, it's another premium game with microtransactions, but at least it's all cosmetic and you have a bunch of other ways to unlock stuff.
Each new season of Knockout City will bring in new playlists and maps, and if you're playing in a Crew you'll even have special weekly challenges to complete as a group, with rewards for every member who was active that week. Crews are a big deal in Knockout City: each member will display your Crew's icon via a holographic projection on their back, and if your whole team is part of the same Crew, you'll even roll up to matches in your own hover car. I started my own Crew called the Rubber Ballers (later Rubber Brawlers but I might change it back), and I made a side game out of trying to recruit every decent brawler I got matched with. It was always a good time when the matchmaking system paired me up with my fellow Ballers for an impromptu Crew outing.
Velan envisions a game full of rival Crews, each developing their own infamous aesthetics and playstyles, and I'd love to be part of something like that. But that will only happen if Knockout City can carve out enough of a niche in a very competitive online space to cultivate its own online community. I don't know if that will happen right now, but I can say that Knockout City feels unique to play, look at, and listen to. It's not the first time dodge ball has been recreated in video game form (props to Kunio-kun and the rest of the Super Dodge Ball gang), but it is a unique fusion of arena combat and the original gym class contest of champions. Most importantly, it's a hell of a lot of fun to play.
Reviewed on PC with code supplied by the publisher.