Tech

Velan Studios will launch Knockout City dodgeball game on May 21

Velan Studios and Electronic Arts will launch the team dodgeball game Knockout City on PC and consoles on May 21. Before that, the companies will launch a closed beta on Origin and Steam on February 20 to February 21.

Under the EA Originals label, this free-to-play game will debut on the Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, the PC via Origin and Steam. The 3-on-3 or 4-on-4 multiplayer game will be available on the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X/S through backward compatibility with graphical and performance enhancements.  The game will also support crossplay and cross-progression across all systems.

I played a preview version of Knockout City yesterday. It delivers some intense battles where you have to master the simple-to-learn but hard-to-master art of throwing, catching, passing, and dodging a variety of balls. I wasn’t very good at it, but I enjoyed myself as I occasionally drove a ball home and knocked out a rival player. It has a zany cartoon style that will make you feel like you’re in a Ben Stiller movie.

“We started with a deceptively simple mechanic that showed the promise of depth, skill, and something we’ve never gotten tired of playing,” said Velan CEO Karthik Bala in a press briefing. “About a year-and-a-half into prototyping, we had something that felt good enough to share. It’s intensely competitive, but also pretty hilarious and joyful.”

The backstory

Above: Brothers Guha (left) and Karthik Bala started Velan Studios in 2016.

Image Credit: Velan

Based in Troy, New York, Velan is an independent game developer started by gaming veterans Guha and Karthik Bala. The Balas previously founded Vicarious Visions, growing it from a basement startup (when the brothers were in high school) to the forefront of triple-A console development. They worked on landmark games such as the Guitar Hero series, the Skylanders series, Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy, and Destiny 2.

They started Velan in 2016, and their first game was the mixed-reality game Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit. Now the studio has grown to 85 developers. They wanted to make a game that anybody could play. They populated it with irreverent brawlers and set them loose.

“It’s intuitive and accessible to newcomers but it’s deep enough to give competitive players a lot of skill-based mechanics to learn and master,” Bala said.

Hands-on preview

Above: Knockout City emphasizes positioning, skill, and timing.

Image Credit: Velan/EA

In contrast to a shooter where aiming is what matters, this game requires skill with timing, positioning, and teamwork.

I played 3-on-3 and 4-on-4 matches in Street Play. The goal is to dominate the competition with deceptively simple mechanics. You can throw a ball at a rival. If they catch it, they can fire it back at you at a higher speed. But if you hit them, you can potentially knock them out of the game, winning a point for your team and knocking the player out for a short time.

I played with an Xbox controller on Origin on the PC. I could pick up balls or catch them by squeezing the left trigger. I could hold the right trigger and wind up my throw and then release the trigger to fire. If I pressed the B button on the Xbox controller while throwing, I could throw a curveball that would be harder for my opponent to catch or evade. You can also throw a lob to get over obstacles and strike an opponent unawares. You can also dash to get away from an enemy or knock right into them.

The game lets you use the environment to get an advantage. You have to avoid a giant wrecking ball on one map, and you are always at risk at falling off the edge of a building — or being knocked off. If you get knocked off, you get a chance to deploy your hang-glider to get back to solid ground. Another map takes place in the middle of a city with busy traffic, where you’re at risk of being run over by cars as you fight with enemies.

You can also fake a throw at a rival, prompting them to try to catch a ball. Then you can throw it, as catching only lasts for a few seconds. And you can charge up a throw for an Ultimate Throw advantage. I was a slow learner but I managed to do OK in some matches, getting the occasional double knock-out. But a lot of the time I could tell when our team was outclassed by rivals. If you have a single weak player on your team, it shows.

The game also has free-for-all matches and competitively ranked games in League Play or a hosted experience in a Private Match. It uses skill-based matchmaking so that you play with others who have similar skills and experience. I really enjoyed my short time playing the game, and I think it has a lot more promise than other small squad fighting games that have hit the market like last year’s Bleeding Edge.

Multiple modes

Above: The Rooftops level has a strategic plank bridge.

Image Credit: Velan/EA

I played 3-on-3 Team K.O. matches at the outset. We were on the top of a skyscraper, connected to other buildings by narrow plank bridges. A huge wrecking ball swung through part of the map, and it was easy to just fall off the edge by accident.

Next, I played a 4-on-4 match in the Balls-Up Brawl mode, where you can turn yourself into a ball and a teammate can catch you. They then launch a charged-up ball at a rival instantly.

Then I played Diamond Dash mode, which is like Kill Confirmed in Call of Duty. You can knock a player out, but you only get points if you collect the diamonds that fall from the player’s knocked-out body. You can also deny the enemy team your fellow player’s diamonds if you get to them first.

Even a player can become a ball. If you press the left bumper, you can roll up into a ball and your teammate can throw you. But enemies can grab you as well and throw you at your own team. There are six ball types such as bomb balls that explode on impact but also risk blowing you up if you don’t find a target quickly. There are also Moon Balls that knock your opponents further.

The danger comes from all directions. You see an indicator on the side of your screen when someone is aiming at you from behind. I got hit plenty of times by balls coming from behind. If you don’t have a ball, you can mash the X button and launch a melee charge at an enemy. But you may wind up going over a ledge if your target dodges, and if you hit a wall, you’ll be dazed for a bit.

Knockout City will have in-game voice chat, but I didn’t use it during the preview.

Customization

Four players are ready to play Balls-Up.

Above: Four players are ready to play Balls-Up mode in Knockout City.

Image Credit: Velan/EA

You can earn everything in Knockout City by playing. You can level up and get access to better skins, clothes, gear, body type, hairstyles, and emotes or taunts with attitude. There are 17 cosmetic slots per character that you can customize over time. There are three character presets, but you can choose your hairstyle, etc.

You can form a Crew and add up to 32 friends across platforms. You can get a custom vehicle to ride into battle. The game will have a new season every nine weeks. Those updates will include new maps, modes, balls, and limited-time events.

At launch, the game will have five multiplayer maps and one interactive hub where players can practice. The game uses its own custom engine.

Beta test

The Citycenter map in Knockout City.

Above: The Citycenter map in Knockout City. Watch out for the cars.

Image Credit: Velan/EA

Players in North America and across Europe will have the opportunity to play the game on PC during the first beta taking place this weekend, February 20-21 on Origin and Steam.

When the game launches on May 21, players will also have access to a free trial for a limited time across the platforms. The game will otherwise have an upfront price of $20.

You can pay to buy cosmetic items. There are no paid loot boxes, and no pay-to-win, Bala said.

“No loot boxes, ever,” Bala said. “Our approach is similar to other indie titles that deliver a ton of content at launch and beyond for a reasonable price upfront.”

Bala said the community will decide whether the title will become an esport or not. But the team designed the game in a dialogue with players so that it could develop a competitive scene if warranted.

“We’ll see where this goes,” Bala said. “The magic of Knockout City is deviously simple. It all starts with throwing and catching a ball. We hope that Knockout City in its depth, intensity, skill, and style will become your new obsession.”

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