Have you ever heard of a game called Supersonic Acrobatic Rocket-Powered Battle Cars? Neither had I, but upon watching Danny O’Dwyer’s documentary on Psyonix (check out his channel Noclip on YouTube – it is fantastic for full length documentaries on video games), I realised it has a lot of narrative similarities to a game that I really love. Released on the PS3, SARPBS was a flop that managed to gather a small, passionate following that appreciated it for its unique concept and engaging gameplay. Its main hook was on the premise of rocket-powered cars playing football and thankfully Psyonix would hold onto their belief that the game had promise. A few years later, after a free month on PS+ the spiritual successor to SARPBS, Rocket League, would become one of the biggest names in video game history.
From the creators of the OlliOlli series, Laser League is a 2v2 or 3v3 competitive futuristic sports game, in which the objective is to work together to eliminate your opponents and be the first team to reach a score of 3. There are nodes that you can activate that will project a laser the same colour as your team. If your opponents hit them they are down, but can be revived, and vice versa. There are six team positions to choose from – each requiring a different approach to be effective – which results in team composition playing an important role in the way a match will play out. My favourite was the Thief, who had the ability to steal opponent owned nodes, which turned each game into a fight for possession. Boxing the opposing team into a position that they could not get out of was incredibly satisfying for me and others found equally rewarding classes that worked for their individual preferences. It is a deceptively sophisticated and engaging gameplay loop and I can only imagine this would have developed going forward. The game was reviewed favourably, scoring well across the board and publications such as Eurogamer praising it as “an instant modern-day multiplayer classic” and Kotaku saying it was the best game of 2018 that nobody has played, but the same success was never found in concurrent player numbers. Even during the month that it was a free game on PS+, there were very few people actually playing the game, and being matched with AI opponents was a regular occurrence. The pull of PS+ that had given new leases of life to other titles in the past had failed to give Laser League the platform that it deserved.
I had stumbled across the game a while before it hit PS+ from watching the Eurogamer team play it on their YouTube channel and was very intrigued but for whatever reason – most likely an absence of marketing before launch – the launch passed me by. After downloading it I was instantly reminded as to why I was interested in the first place and was very surprised with just how much fun it was. I encouraged a number of friends to download it and give it a go and found a striking pattern in their behaviour. Every person who downloaded it would say that their first impressions were of being disorientated and very frustrated with the experience. They found the roles to be confusing, they struggled to grasp what was going on at any one moment, and going from no experience to taking on more experienced players or the very competent AI would leave them quickly wanting to write the game off. However, encouragement and gentle persuasion led to them investing a little more time and finding a position that suited them, and there would be the moment where it would just click. This initial hurdle or steep learning curve that players were faced with may be one explanation as to why the game struggled to take off despite being free through PS+.
Perhaps the future for Laser League would have been found on the Nintendo Switch. My time on the PS4 version was very online-centric, but I feel the very design and ethos of the game fits perfectly in a couch co-op setting. However, I fear that there the support and belief in the game is lacking, and the potential for the game finding its audience or a spiritual successor reaching the heights of the likes of Rocket League appears to be more of a dream than something that might happen. Since the release of the game the communication from Roll7 and 505 Games has been lacking, at times hitting near radio silence, and very little promotion has led to the game falling straight out of the public consciousness. Little has changed over a year after it originally released on console and even those who love the game have stopped playing it. And this is perhaps the saddest part of the story. Not every competitive online multiplayer game can reach the level of Fortnite, Rocket League or League of Legends, as games fight ferociously to hold our attention for longer and longer periods of time. But for a game this full of potential and fun to have not even found a small foothold in the market is absolutely heartbreaking.
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