As I began to get acquainted with the world of Knockout City, one thing became abundantly clear — I needed to be prepared to get hurt. A lot. I hadn't necessarily expected that kind of emotion when I first caught wind of the new EA Originals title, which mixes competitive multiplayer gameplay, the rules of dodgeball, and a hyperactive cartoony world. But as I entered more matches, and was met ad nauseum with the comically dramatic animations of my avatar slumping over or falling to her death after being "KOed" by other players, I realized that Knockout City was going to be a different kind of multiplayer experience. Equal parts frustrating and rewarding, Knockout City might not be as robust as some of its competitors, but it makes up for that with a definite sense of style, and gameplay that really starts to grow on you.
Created by developed Velan Studios, Knockout City throws players into a neon-colored, cartoony world, in which they must use the mechanics of competitive dodgeball to emerge victorious from various gameplay scenarios. How you play is both simple and surprisingly complex — traverse around a map, pick up dodgeballs that have spawned in random locations, and aim them at opposing players, with two successful hits counting as a single KO. All the while, you attempt to dodge the oncoming dodgeballs, either by moving out of the way with a great flourish, or catching the ball at the exact right moment. This setup lends itself to multiple game modes, referred to in the game as "playlists" — in addition to a 1v1 "Face-Off," these include a 3v3 "Team KO" (which rewards the team that is first to win two 10-point matches), a 3v3 "Diamond Dash" (which operates similarly to Team KO, but awards players who collect the most diamonds that drop out of downed players Sonic-style), and a 4-player free-for-all perfectly dubbed "KO Chaos." There's even the 4v4 "Ball-Up Brawl," which takes out the physical dodgeballs and forces players to ball up and be thrown by their teammates. Almost all of the modes also spawn different specialty dodgeballs, ranging from a "Moon Ball" that lets players jump higher, to a football-shaped "Sniper Ball" that locks on a target from impressive distances.
Conceptually, that all sounds inherently ridiculous — and, to an extent, Knockout City leans directly into that. But that absurdity quickly mashes up with one other facet of the game — that the gameplay is surprisingly intense, and definitely has a learning curve in order to master it. Even after going through the training tutorials, it still took me multiple hours of gameplay to begin to feel comfortable enough in my blocking skills. Part of this might be due to the actual mechanics of the game, as pressing the block button half a second or so too early seems to render the move moot, which can quickly be the deciding factor between a cool move and having to sit through the dramatic wait until your character respawns. But part of it might also be due to the amount of quick thinking and focus that the game requires, even with such relatively simple objectives of gameplay.
As a result, there are some elements of Knockout City that might fall to the wayside for casual players, especially those who are spending chunks of time trying to get their bearings and not immediately be KOed. The bright and loud aesthetic of the game's world is fully realized in some creative capacities, both for mixing up the gameplay and for just immersing players. But the intricate details of the endlessly rotating Galaxy Burger or the different vehicles driving around in the Knockout Roundabout aren't able to be appreciated to their fullest extent, as there aren't a lot of opportunities to stop and smell the virtual roses within a match. The cartoony avatars — which look like CGI characters in a late-2000s kids' commercial, but in the best possible way — have a number of stylish options for customization, but there also isn't much of an opportunity to appreciate that, outside of the animations at the beginning and end of matches. There also aren't a lot of ways to express yourself mid-game, outside of emotes that players can have set to their character during those aforementioned opening animations, and an unlockable holographic emoji that can be briefly activated over your character during gameplay. Compared to the seemingly endless number of ways that Fortnite or even Apex Legends have to express yourself in the moment, it feels a little lackluster, and doesn't really help foster a sense of community with other players.
On a purely mechanical level, the "playlist" function has some flaws, as well, especially compared to other free-to-play games with similar setups. If you don't want to wait the minute-long gap to be automatically thrown into a new match, you can toggle the matchmaking option to move more quickly — but as a result, you might be thrown into a match that is already well in progress. (This resulted in a genuinely hilarious moment during my time playing, where I was thrown into an almost-complete match and immediately had the final, game-winning blow delivered at me by the opposing team.) The playlists largely randomize which game map and which specialty ball players have access to — something that makes sense in theory, but adds an extra barrier from players thriving on their favorite course or a certain weapon. To an extent, that randomization further incentivizes players to only play more and get better acquainted with every option — but again, that might frustrate those who aren't sure they want to commit that much to the game.
Knockout City feels like the video game equivalent of drinking a new soda — it's sweet, stings ever-so-slightly, and will leave you feeling just satisfied enough. By no means is the game currently perfect in its current state, but it still does an impressive amount of things right out of the gate, while creating a universe that can easily be modified and evolved to fix players' qualms. While Knockout City might not be the next Fortnite just yet, it does feel like a perfect fit for fans who love franchises like Overwatch or Rocket League — or anyone who is looking for a good, but chaotic time.
Rating: 4 out of 5
Knockout City is available now on Nintendo Switch, PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X|S. A review code was provided by the publisher for the purpose of this review, and it was reviewed on an Xbox One.