HIGH Taking someone out with the ball they threw at me.
LOW Microtransactions in a paid release.
WTF Having a dedicated button for the phrase, “Throw me!”
One of the few pleasant surprises of 2021 (thus far) is that the most exciting multiplayer franchise in recent memory has actually come from EA, of all publishers. Despite a cringe-inducing announcement trailer and a visual style that clearly copied Fortnite’s homework, Knockout City is simple and elegant enough so that anyone can understand how it works in a matter of moments, yet also feels distinct from anything else on the market. That’s a crucial balance for a new would-be e-sport, and developer Velan Studios nails it.
Knockout City is technically a dodgeball game, though it bears no real resemblance to the version we had on the playground as kids, nor to titles like Super Dodge Ball that have made a semi-serious attempt to emulate it. It’s much closer in nature to a competitive shooter, albeit one that’s more focused on technique than precision.
Players are unarmed at the beginning of a team deathmatch and need to go looking for balls strategically sprinkled throughout each map, all of which are set in futuristic metropolitan areas. There’s no real aiming in Knockout City – players rely almost entirely on a lock-on system, and a thrown ball will automatically home in on the targeted player. It takes two hits to down someone, and the first team with ten kills wins. Simple enough.
On the defensive side, a red outline will appear around the edge of a player’s screen when they’re being targeted and an indicator will pop up when the ball has been thrown, clearly communicating which direction it’s coming from. Players can respond by running for cover or (obviously) dodging, but the riskier option is to catch out it out of the air, at which point the prey becomes the predator. Knockout City is a shooter in which ammo is a hot commodity, since there are only ever a few live balls at any given point, so turning the tables like this can be key to winning.
By default, a thrown ball travels through the air slowly, making it easy for an opponent to catch. Players can hold the trigger to charge their shots, increasing the ball’s speed but also slowing their avatar’s movement to a walk and potentially giving a target more of a heads-up. A caught ball is given an instantaneous (albeit temporary) charge, however, which means that players can gain a quick advantage with a well-timed catch. Teammates can also pass balls between themselves for quicker charges.
So while Knockout City looks like a run-of-the-mill shooter at a glance, in practice, it’s less reflexive and more psychological. A player only has one opportunity to deal damage at any given time – the moment that ball leaves their hands, they’re powerless – and winning is all about making the most of that currency by catching opponents off-guard. One of my favorite features is the ability to fake a throw, further intensifying the mind games at play here.
While there are only a handful of maps, they’re delightfully vertical in design and each hosts their own signature gimmicks like traffic that players need to avoid, or updrafts that players can use to easily glide between rooftops. Further spicing up the action is the addition of one ‘special’ ball per match, such as bombs that deal a wider radius of damage or footballs that can target players from a greater distance. My favorite is the cage ball, which briefly entraps and immobilizes a player, giving an opponent time to throw them either at another teammate or down a pit – a rather emasculating way to go.
Knockout City’s performance on Switch is surprisingly solid, and players have the option to trade some visual fidelity for a solid 60 frames per second.
Available at budget price with a generous free trial period (currently through the first 25 levels), Knockout City is a good deal even with only a handful of maps. However, after EA released a whole one paid multiplayer game with zero microtransactions, they seem to have reverted back to their old stance and are again charging money for quicker access to cosmetic items. No, there are no loot boxes or pay-to-win schemes, but it’s disheartening to still see this kind of monetization in a game that already has an entry fee.
Anyway who can stomach the presence of microtransactions, however, will be rewarded with what may very well end up being my favorite new multiplayer release of 2021. I don’t make this comparison lightly, but Knockout City almost reminds me of the elegance of Rocket League – it’s that combination of simple and fresh, where it’s easy to understand but offers a sky-high skill ceiling. Only time will tell if Knockout City has as long a tail, but it deserves a chance.
Disclosures: This game is developed by Velan Studios and published by Electronic Arts. It is currently available on XBO, XBX/S, PS4, Switch and PC. This copy of the game was obtained via paid download and reviewed on the Switch. Approximately 13 hours of play were devoted to the multiplayer mode. There is no single-player mode.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated Everyone 10+ and contains Fantasy Violence. This is a game about throwing balls at other players, and it’s as harmless as it sounds, with no blood, profanity, or anything else objectionable. Bombs occasionally come into play, but they’re cartoonish-looking, comparable to something you’d see in a Mario game.
Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: Subtitles are available for all dialogue, and players can adjust both the size of the font and the opacity of the subtitle background. Visual indicators will alert players when they’re being targeted and a ball is coming their way, and I actually found myself relying on those more than audio cues.
Remappable Controls: Yes, this game offers fully remappable controls.