Every Friday, A.V. Club staffers kick off our weekly open thread for the discussion of gaming plans and recent gaming glories, but of course, the real action is down in the comments, where we invite you to answer our eternal question: What Are You Playing This Weekend?
I’ve always been a fan of dodgeball, one of that rare breed of sports—like racquetball—where a large, slow, long-armed man with 30 years of daily hand-eye coordination conditioning can do a little work, without completely embarrassing himself in the process. So I’ve been watching EA’s new dodgeball-based Knockout City, the latest attempt to give the video game community a multiplayer shooter that doesn’t rely on putting bullets into other human beings, for a while now. I finally took the plunge this week, and (after wading through the sign-up for EA Play and all the EULAs and paperwork that come part and parcel with any new online game these days) I dove hardcore into Velan Studios’ brightly colored world of cool kids and their horrifyingly powerful throwing arms.
What I came away with was a profound sense of satisfaction, of the sort that I sometimes struggle to find in more typical multiplayer shooters. The reason was as simple as the most immediate difference between a dodgeball and a gun in the real world: If someone points a dodgeball at me, I have options to avoid getting murdered by it. (Guns, not so much.) Which is to say that Knockout City is one of the most pleasantly defensive “shooters” in recent memory, one where the player is given a wide number of ways to avoid damage, rather than just accepting that any enemy who sees them can begin to whittle down their health. The player’s blocking ability isn’t perfect—it works on a very short cooldown, and is especially easy to futz up if you’re working with a partner to barrage them with balls or a multi-angle strike—but it’s good enough that taking a hit or not can often feel like it comes down to skill. It can also create some genuinely thrilling duels, as you and an opponent jump, spin, and juke, trying to head-fake your enemy into an early, easily exploited block. That back and forth is the solid core that makes the rest of the package work.
Don’t get me wrong, the other little touches are all nice: The bright aesthetics; the generous auto-aim that transforms fights into battles of timing, not pure pointer precision; the gentle absurdity of mega-giant EA publishing a game so critical of gentrification or big business. But the addictive core of Knockout City is in the moments when you and your team are staring down your rivals, passing balls back and forth, and waiting for the perfect opening to strike. It’s the rare shooter that gives you a measure of control over whether you’ve been shot, and it adds a beautiful tension that I’ve rarely seen in this space, where the difference between life or death is often who walks into who’s crosshairs.
Also, you can pick up your teammates and use them as a ball to murder people. That part’s fun, too.