It didn’t take long to have fun with Knockout City. As my friends and I were launching a volley of balls at our opponents in an attempt to catch them off guard, one of them shouted, “Can’t catch two!” He’d go on to shout this so much, and it proved so infectious, that I eventually joined him. As a matter of fact, after we won that game, I backed us out, made a crew and called it Can’t Catch Two. It’s dumb as hell, but as we continually threw two balls at unsuspecting victims of ours, shouting innocent taunts to no one but ourselves, I knew I loved this game already.
Knockout City from Velan Studios is what they’re calling a “dodgebrawl” game. It’s as simple as dodgeball, where you catch and throw balls, with a lot more physicality to it. In this world, guns were never made, so (naturally) if you’ve got beef, you squash it with a hard rubber ball to the dome. That or a hard tackle. It’s not pacifism, but it’s probably the actual next best thing in this world, and it’s wonderfully fun
You’ll face off on rooftops, alleys, and Knockout City streets packed with cabs ready to ram you and more. The maps typically include a small gimmick, like the aforementioned cars or a wrecking ball on a construction site, which are meant to keep things fresh while you hurl balls, or yourselves, at each other. They’re fun distractions but hardly ever game-changers, though accidentally being violently thrown to the side is never not funny.
The designers have taken the time to ensure that the basics feel good. Catching has a wide and forgiving enough window that it excels in casual play, which is probably the best way to enjoy Knockout City. Throws have a good contact to them and charging them speeds up the balls, which offers a natural difficulty ramp. Unfortunately, that ramp may prove ultimately inaccessible to many who aren’t lightning fast on the triggers. Successful catches only amplify the speed of a ball, which often leads to really tense and incredibly quick 1-on-1 matchups where you are essentially trying to outdraw your opponent. The one time a team steamrolled us, for example, it seemed to come down to a speed we couldn’t muster, and that I’m sure plenty of folks won’t be able to keep up with.
The modes are basic stand-ins for the typical multiplayer suite, and different kinds of balls spruce things up in silly ways. The moon ball lets you defy gravity, and sends the person who it hits flying. Bomb balls are pretty self-explanatory, and the cage ball (which has an uncomfortable and tone-deaf cop siren visual and audio effect) turns your opponents into balls. You can lob balls and curve them around cover, too. You’ll excitedly yelp seeing an enemy outline get conked by a curveball on the other side of a wall or building. If you want to get really crazy, you can turn into a ball and let your friends throw you at other people. The point I’m getting at is there’s a lot of fun to be had no matter what you elect to do in the game, and it’s all quite simple to do.
The game’s intuitive enough to recognize how chaotic this all is and goes out of its way to help you parse it. The edges of the screen glow red when someone has locked onto you, for example, and a distinct sound follows when a ball is flying at your head. Pair that with the generous catch window, and just about anyone has the tools to make a great play at any time. Catching a ball you just barely saw only to launch it back or towards someone else is a reward unto itself. Additionally, when a super ball (where you fully charge a player in ball form) is coming down from the sky, the game gives you very noisy feedback as to where they will land in proximity to you, which gives you more than enough time to dodge out of the way. It all makes for a game where you know what happens when it happens. In my time with it, Knockout City rarely ever felt unfair.
To complement the fun is a character creator that I’ve also enjoyed toying with, even if it’s a tad lacking. Every character is built jock-y and also like 5’3”, so it’s basically a city full of Wolverines. You are encouraged to make your own avatars out of these molds, though. Much like the character creator coming to the future Harry Potter game, your avatar is not assigned a sex and nothing is locked behind such a choice, so you’re encouraged to use any body type, voice, article of clothing, skin tone, hairstyle and face type to build whatever character you want. I like this a lot, and I’m sure it will resonate with a diverse audience exhausted by the tired binary and looking to express themselves. Disappointingly, though, there are only two body types available, and while they lack designations, one has broader shoulders and the other has more pronounced thighs; it’s not hard to read them for what they’re meant to stand for. I’m chubby now and was chubby when I enjoyed dodgeball as a kid, so I don’t entirely get why this unrealistic game about a dodgeball city couldn’t get a hint more adventurous in this regard.
While I feel nitpicky bringing attention to this, it feels appropriate to bring up considering this game’s whole progression system (and, seemingly, its longevity) rests on these customization options. Knockout City is a service game, complete with free seasons, complementary season passes, events, unlocks and everything else you associate with that model of game. Level up your Street Rank throughout the season and you’ll unlock even more customization options. Look at the store and, yep, more customization options. And while I’m a fan of the outfits and hairstyles and all the ways I can make my guy look cool, I still wish the guy I made could look just that much more like myself. I don’t think that’s a crime.
Aside from this weird constraint in its character creator, and how inaccessible its main mechanics may prove to be at the highest level, Knockout City is an absolute blast to pick up and play. It’s inexpensive to boot and simple to keep up with, making it markedly less of a chore to log into, have fun with for an hour or two, and hop back out of unlike most service games. It’s got a fun style and look to it that makes it all the more inviting, and solid enough mechanics to master that I feel satisfied coming back to practice. Straight up, it’s also just fun as hell to play something that isn’t so grim or serious, making Knockout City a success in my eyes.
Knockout City was developed by Velan Studios and published by Electronic Arts. Our review is based on the Xbox Series X|S version. It’s also available for the PlayStation 4 and 5, the Switch, the Xbox One, and PC.
Moises Taveras is a former intern for Paste Magazine and the managing editor of his college newspaper, the Brooklyn College Vanguard. He was that one kid who was really excited about Google+ and is still sad about how that turned out.