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Knockout City (XS)

By Lee Mehr 14th Jun 2021 | 3,541 views 

Certain issues are tough to dodge, but Knockout City's nuanced foundation still shows promise.

In my school, one of the easiest ways for a new guy to climb the social hierarchy was sports; one such example was dodgeball.  Middle school is a time of weird socially-enforced rules amongst classmates.  But there's something visceral about being the guy who lands the nastiest hit.  With the dearth of titles showcasing this beloved childhood pastime, Velan Studios (Mario Kart Circuit Live) decided to fill that void.  Knockout City is the latest EA Original with a focus on unique multiplayer action, and while its mechanical intuitiveness is able to revitalize wonderfully nostalgic memories, various issues currently damage its standing amongst its peers.

The concept is simple: your customized character is looking to settle scores in the “dodgebrawl” arena.  Whether testing your mettle while playing solo or grouping up with friends, the only goal is winning.  There's (currently) no background story to take in, which is to its benefit.

The basic dodgebrawling mechanics are simple to digest & surprisingly layered.  You pick up a dodgeball by walking up to it.  Getting within a modest range of enemies to prepare a throw enables auto-locking.  The velocity of your throw depends on your charge (RT button); instantly pressing and releasing results in a laggard homing missile compared to a faster full-charge.  Of course, the drawback to charging a shot is sluggish movement speed.  The flight path of a throw can also be the key to success: giving it some English can arch the ball to the left, right, or above.  Hiding behind a partition won't always cut it.

The defensive basics are mostly what you'd expect.  Naturally, catching a dodgeball (LT button) is a given, however this doesn’t count as an out against the thrower.  What makes it an interesting dynamic comes down to proper timing.  Although there's a generous half-second window to successfully catch a ball, there's also a slight cooldown post-catch to disincentivize button-mashing.  Falling for a feint throw is all the window someone may need to hit you.  Layered on top of this is a reflex reward: do you make an easier 'good' catch or split-second 'perfect' catch to get an instantly super-charged dodgeball to fire back? 

This option can be avoided in lieu of lunging towards the ball too.  Even if the ball hits you it doesn't take away one of your two allocated hearts per life.  This rule may seem unintuitive to many, after all dodgeball is about landing any hit without touching the floor, walls, or ceiling beforehand.  Dodgebrawling’s rules work differently.  You're technically not aiming for any part of their body; it's more about squarely hitting an enemy’s chest or back.  That's why you're able to lunge-punch a ball in mid-flight and that registers as a deflection.

Another interesting mechanic is each player's ability to roll up and act as a ball.  When thrown normally you're essentially an over-inflated dodgeball; when thrown fully charged, you're whisked above the map to act as an insta-kill airstrike on any enemy within the area of effect (AoE).  If thrown like a regular dodgeball, enemies can catch you too.  Should that happen, you start button-mashing to break free before they decide to hurl you off the map.

It's with this easy-to-learn baseline and some surprisingly good production values that Knockout City retains attention.  You're able to intuit the full breadth of its ruleset so easily that you'll want to dive deeper to discover new tricks.  Whether it's your wiles with fake throws or getting super-charged balls from tactical passing between teammates, there are slight nuances to unearth that can net you MVP in the winner's circle.  Even for someone like me who instantly clicked with the basics, I could sense the accretions in my skillset after a few hours.  My understanding of the strengths & weaknesses of special dodgeballs, such as a sniper or low-gravity variant, played into that as well.  There's a deliberately-paced skill ceiling from ball-tossing tyro to maven that compliments the shortened play sessions.

Such praises don't mean it's without annoying blemishes though.  For starters, I'm greatly suspicious of the AoE range of a player's bomb-drop.  There have been times I appear one or two meters outside the fiery impact radius and still die.  I'm heavily inclined to blame the netcode since this also applies to bad catches too.  Whether you strap me to a lie detector or put me under oath I'll swear to you the same thing: I know there have been several instances of perfect catches the game didn't count. Given I would intentionally hop onto other online games during the same day, I'm confident in saying server-side issues were to blame.  It's an annoyance that looms in the background when evaluating Knockout City's otherwise sound mechanics.

As someone who's occasionally been nice to games with slender launch content, I try to extend an olive branch where it's appropriate.  It's not the paucity of different modes or maps that got to me here, but rather the paucity of stuff that thoroughly engaged me.  Whenever I got outside the standard team-oriented play with regular dodgeballs it never sustained engagement.  Sure, 1v1 bouts can be tense battles in their own right; however, playing on the same expansive maps enables point-leaders to drag out the time limit.  Ball-Up Brawls with only teammates as dodgeballs went against the threat of variety.  Having a fusillade of regular, special, and human dodgeballs plays a substantial role in the fun.  Finally, Knockout’s Kill Confirmed variant, dubbed "Diamond Dash," has a bias towards player-bomb knockouts (5 diamonds per kill) versus regular ones (3 diamonds per kill).  There's a case to be made for risk/reward strategies, but since the race is to 30 diamonds the move is ripe for abuse.  Anything that gets away from balance & variety doesn’t keep my attention for long.

Similar to EA's Rocket Arena from last year, Knockout has a bright and expressive color palette.  Many arenas play off this mix of future-age tech with a 50s aesthetic.  Galaxy Burger is a neon-bedecked burger joint high in the clouds, Knockout Roundabout is a locale reminiscent of Back to the Future's past but also with hovering cars, and the newly-arrived Jukebox Junction appeals to the "Train Station of Tomorrow" art concepts imagined by industrialists of decades past.  Although it occasionally gets in your face too much, the melding of these disparate architectural epochs is a genuine delight for dodgeball fights. 

In regard to player characters, Velan's visual artists went too far in their neon-woven clothing line.  I understand the importance of concise visual information for a competitive multiplayer game; you need visual signifiers on such Fortnite-esque character models.  But when you reach the point of neon strips on the soles of feet, some restraint would've helped to avoid your bright art style from appearing garish and distracting.

Mixing different tones makes its way into sound as well.  The Soundlings' OST lifts from several different genres.  Baselines you'll hear in old-timey swing or jazz bands are often blended with synth burrowed underneath.  Sometimes experimentation slightly clashes with the expected tone, but it's a solid soundtrack nonetheless.  Sound design is less exotic but satisfactory for its intentions.  When paired with the clean UI, audio pulls its weight in providing appropriate aural information to the player.  Details like the ball whistling through the air as it gets closer and the solid THWACK! reverberation after hitting someone taps into my lizard brain the same way it does with the real sport.

Cosmetics is another important point to consider, but not exclusively for good reasons.  Velan has gone to great lengths to emphasize your individuality.  This breaks down into more than apparel: face configurations, hairstyles, pre-/post-game poses, your flying vehicles' paint jobs, emotes, and so on.  The panoply of different combinations was the game's most-expansive feature set at launch.  When you consider the publisher, it starts to makes sense as to why.  The dense battle pass structure, a pricier deluxe edition, and gratuitous micro-transactions at launch make you realize your flashy in-game expression comes at a cost higher than the modest $20 retail price.  It seems clear the extended, unskippable intro/outro scenes for both teams is a good psychological way to tempt you.  Then again, maybe I'm jumping at shadows because of EA's involvement.

Value arrives at a very strange impasse for me.  As previously mentioned, the starting price is quite fair.  But even if you remove the quandary of EA's avaricious behavior, there's still something that needles me about the full experience.  The ephemeral runtime for most best-2-out-of-3 matches can tempt you to play another round; then again, for modes I disliked it felt like an insignificant time-waster.  Though to a lesser extent, I felt similarly about a couple of maps tarnished with confused layouts.  Perhaps a lot of this will come down to how well you respond to such pros & cons with friends.

By any metric, a new IP like Knockout City deserves credit.  It's clear Velan Studios put in a great amount of work crafting a fatuous gameplay loop around dodgeball.  The production values, both during & outside of combat, are also noteworthy for something of this price range.  The problem is the piled-up auxiliary elements like an inconsistent netcode, unengaging modes, questionable design issues, and publisher interference that leave some matches feeling like an ephemeral waste of time.  It's because of that I'm less enthused to recommend an otherwise enjoyable core.  But if these complaints don't dissuade you from proving your worth in the dodgeball arena?  Perhaps it'll be worth your time.

Despite being one of newest writers on VGChartz, Lee has been a part of the community for over a decade. His gaming history spans several console generations: N64 & NES at home while enjoying some Playstation, SEGA, and PC titles elsewhere. Being an Independent Contractor by trade (electric, plumbing, etc.) affords him more gaming luxuries today though. Reader warning: each click given to his articles only helps to inflate his Texas-sized ego. Proceed with caution.

VGChartz Verdict


This review is based on a digital copy of Knockout City for the XS

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