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Rocket Arena Review: A Fleeting Blast From the Past

First Strike Games's new arena shooter is briefly delightful, but it's unlikely to have much staying power.

This article first appeared on USgamer, a partner publication of VG247. Some content, such as this article, has been migrated to VG247 for posterity after USgamer's closure - but it has not been edited or further vetted by the VG247 team.

Sometimes I just like junk food. I know it won't be memorable. I know it won't be anything particularly special. I know I'll scoff it down and then immediately move on to thinking about something else. But I like it still, because in the moment it just feels really damned satisfying.

Rocket Arena is like junk food. It's easy to play and perfectly accessible for anyone as a basic entry point to your average hero shooter, with a brightly appealing color palette adorning basic character designs.

The game itself is a 3v3 hero shooter, where characters try to send each other flying out of an invisible wall all around the arena. Dealing damage to an opponent, I build up their "Blast Meter" with ranged projectiles and ability-based attacks, until said meter is full and I can deliver one final, decisive strike to send them shooting out of the arena like they've taken off on a rocket.

Rocket Arena sharing the same name as the Quake mod originating from 1997 is no accident. It's quite literally inspired by the fan-made mod that made its way to four Quake games over eight years, stripping away player abilities, weapons, health, and armor in favor of a rocket-fueled survival deathmatch. In 2020, First Strike's Rocket Arena keeps the rocket-based projectile weapons and level playing field for health, but adds in colorful heroes with unique abilities, shaking things up just enough to give the game its own identity, while also maintaining the level playing field the original mod established.

You'll use these rocket-based weapons as a form of traversal in Rocket Arena. Just fire your launcher underneath you to propel yourself up into the air, or fire it underneath your position next to a horizontal ledge to climb the surface itself. It's a neat concept, bundling traversal abilities into the sole weapon you're carrying throughout the game. It opens up experimentation for scaling to new heights in any one of the multiplayer maps, or even for rescuing yourself should you fall off the edge of a map. It's a design concept that speeds up how a match plays out: Rocket Arena wants you to constantly be moving. Not just horizontally, but also vertically.

No one "dies," they just get transported back into the arena. | EA/Final Strike Games

Nowhere is this more indicative than in the lack of an "ultimate" ability for any characters. None of the Rocket Arena characters have any major ultimate ability that's charged over the course of a game, like Tracer's bomb in Overwatch or Bangalore's airstrike in Apex Legends, because single games of Rocket Arena are so short. A typical game of Rocket Arena should be done in right around three minutes—rounds are engineered to be quick and easily digestible. The lack of a game-changing, all-powerful ultimate ability signifies this all-around speedy design.

Although there's no domineering "ultimate" ability, characters in Rocket Arena are equipped with two abilities that each have cooldown timers. These two abilities are all you've got outside of your ranged weapon, and they vary to a pleasant degree: one character batters enemies with her hoverboard, another fighter drops a barrel bomb on foes, and another summons a tornado-like spiral out of the ground to throw enemies up into the air.

The maps are generally designed with verticality in mind. | EA/Final Strike Games

Because these abilities are used so frequently, they're not that impactful on players or the overall game itself. The countdown timer for individual abilities varies, but it's never too long of a wait; at the most, it's 30 seconds. This again feeds into the idea of matches being purposefully fleeting in Rocket Arena, and although it's a good design concept for the game itself, it makes the characters themselves ultimately less memorable.

I hardly remember any of Rocket Arena's characters by their names or even looks, for example, but I remember them by their abilities. "Oh yeah, there's that one that's got a grappling hook," I think, or "there's that person with the mini-tornado thing from the ground." The characters aren't defined by their, well, character, but by their abilities instead.

The individual characters themselves all look a little anime-inspired. They've got garishly overblown facial features like purposefully bigger eyes or mouths (or in one case a large moustache), which sort of makes them look like Rosa Salazar in Alita: Battle Angel. The characters generally look like something out of a McDonald's Happy Meal, which gives them a decidedly tacky, plastic-like aesthetic, like they're hollow and lifeless outside of a few basic quips and snarky one-liners.

There's a horde mode for taking on bots PvE-style. | EA/Final Strike Games

Character customization—outside of store-bought cosmetics—and progress leave a lot to be desired. Each character has a total of 100 reward tiers to unlock through earning XP (think of it as their own personal battle pass), through which you'll gain a slew of new skins, decorations for your personal banner, and blast trails for when you're returning to the arena. The rewards are few and far between though, stretched precariously thin over the 100 tiers, with the vast majority of them being filled with Rocket Fuel, the in-game currency used for buying character skins in the store. It's similar to Destiny 2's Battle Pass in how rife it is with currency rewards, and it's just as frustrating and unfulfilling here in Rocket Arena as it is in Bungie's game.

Rocket Arena is at least enjoyable in the moment-to-moment matches: it's fun to zip around an arena vertically, rebounding off surfaces and to higher ground with your projectiles. The character abilities come fast and thick, decently balanced so one team never outpaces the other with a fast flurry of abilities.

The joy only lasts for so long, though. Rocket Arena is ultimately a pretty forgettable game, and it's hard to see this having staying power when all the characters look and, to a certain degree, feel quite underwhelming. The core gameplay is no doubt entertaining, capturing the appeal of the Quake mod from so many years ago, and the pacing is matched excellently with the rapid nature of abilities. Yet it's all too fleeting and bare, with a lackluster and lifeless cast of characters and little in the way of progression, feeding into Rocket Arena being a forgettable game once you're done with it.

ConclusionRocket Arena is an enjoyable up-tempo experience with genuinely fun traversal abilities to keep you on your toes and moving to the high and lows of the arena. It's largely undefined characters and lack of meaningful customization options, however, hold it back from being truly memorable. It's a fun arena shooter in the moment, but it'll fade quickly from memory after you've walked away.

3.0 / 5.0