Video game developers love chasing trends.
It’s why we’ve seen so many battle royale games pop up after the success of Fortnite. But many of these lack the charm of Epic Games’ smash hit and quickly flop or are forgotten.
These trend-chasing games have consistently tried and failed to meet Fortnite’s high bar in the multiplayer space. An underwhelming multiplayer game that tries something new and fails, like Predator: Hunting Grounds, is more intriguing than yet another battle royale just trying to get a piece of the Fortnite pie.
Knockout City is one of those multiplayer games that felt very refreshing when Inverse went hands-on with it earlier this week ahead of its February 17 reveal during a Nintendo Direct. Velan Studios and EA’s visual aesthetic will be familiar to fans of games like Overwatch and Fortnite, but its gameplay couldn’t be more different.
It’s all about throwing a dodgeball back and forth with other players, honing your timing to toss and catch with the utmost precision. Knockout City is an accessible multiplayer game but has a high skill ceiling for those that excel at it.
While original, the long-term prospects of success for Knockout City are questionable. It’s good to be different from Fortnite, but you’ll also have to compete with the free-to-play titan head-on.
Knockout City has a “try before you buy” pricing model, which will see it launch with a Free Trial for a short time before going up to $19.99. This could cause a huge drop-off in players, so it’s not clear how long the game will stay relevant and popular once it starts costing money, even with the months of planned post-launch support.
Knockout City is a competitive dodgeball game that trades bullets for balls. Players can find these balls scattered around the maps and damage each other by taking down opponents like in Call of Duty. It’s a very simple concept to understand, but there’s still a surprising amount of depth to it.
Players can fake, curve, or lob shots with the proper button inputs. Special balls with unique abilities include a Bomb ball, a Cage ball that will trap whoever it hits, and a Moon Ball that manipulates gravity to send people flying away. You can even turn yourself into a ball and be thrown by your teammates for an instant kill.
As this is dodgeball, your opponents can still catch the ball you throw with the right timing. This turns every match into a deadly game of catch — the ball gets progressively stronger and faster with each consecutive throw, leaving you less time to respond. This leads to some very intense matches h and a kinetic feeling that few games outside of Windjammers have achieved.
Velan Studios co-founder Karthik Bala is proud of this uniqueness in a game genre that can sometimes lack creativity.
“There are aspects that have clear inspiration, but we really wanted to create something with a new kind of play feel,” Bala told Inverse during the demo event. “It was all about creating a game with a play feel that was very accessible but has a lot of deceptive depth to it.”
That design philosophy comes across clearly the few hours of Knockout City we played across three different modes. While some have clear analogs in shooters like Call of Duty, they do feel rather different with throw-and-catch gameplay.
The main mode was Team KO, a simple 3v3 team deathmatch that gets you used to the game’s primary mechanics. This will be the mode featured in a Closed Beta that is happening on Steam and Origin from February 20 until February 21.
Diamond Dash is a Kill Confirmed style mode, where players must collect Diamonds that drop when a competitor is killed. My favorite of the three was Ball Brawl, where the absence of balls on the map leaves you with no choice but to throw other players.
This was the most unique of the three modes, and hopefully, the two other unrevealed modes at launch as well as the ones getting added later this year feature the same creativity. For all of this to work though, the game needs to have a substantial, engaged community. That’s what’s worrying.
The Price of Dodgeball
While it’s possible for major franchises to put out full-priced multiplayer games, the most successful ones like Fortnite and even the mobile version of Among Us are casual-friendly and free-to-play. Knockout City is fun to pick up and play but does get repetitive after just a few hours. This is forgivable in a free-to-play game meant to be played in bursts, but less enticing for a premium game, even if it has a full sampling of modes and maps.
Knockout City won’t be traditionally free-to-play, but instead, have a free trial across all platforms when it comes out in May. This free trial will give players access to everything like you’d expect from a free-to-play title, and you’d think it would stay this way. Instead, at a yet-to-be-revealed time after launch, the price will go up to $19.99 and only as-of-now vague “additional cosmetic rewards”.
This shift just doesn’t seem sustainable, even if Knockout City does well during the free trial period. People probably won’t want to pay for a new IP that they already got for free, especially if there aren’t any enticing incentives to pay after you’ve gotten your fill.
Bala says the team is taking this approach because it doesn’t want to be pay-to-win and insists the game will never introduce loot boxes. “Knockout City is about skill and style,” he explains. “We strongly believe that skill shouldn't be monetized because nobody should be able to pay to get an advantage over the competition.”
Despite Bala’s comments, there will be microtransactions for cosmetics, though none featured in the shop in our demo seemed particularly enticing. There isn’t a battle pass system planned right now, though there will be additional items to unlock for free through weekly challenges. With this setup, Knockout City feels like it should be free-to-play.
That means you’ll still be paying $20 for a game with microtransactions that used to be free and seems like it still should be. Fortnite has found a successful, free-to-play model that isn’t pay-to-win. To take it on as a brand new franchise that isn’t chasing a trend, half-stepping into free-to-play won’t cut it.
Risk-taking games like Knockout City deserve to find an audience and be successful. But with a confusing rollout in an industry already filled with casual free-to-play games, we’re doubtful Knockout City will make a splash.
Knockout City will be released across all major platforms on May 21, 2021.