Thanks to VR, I’ve stood toe-to-toe with zombies, killer robots, giant spiders, and psychopathic killers, but none of them were as intimidating as Tri-Tip.
Knockout League’s first fight is with this Brazilian boxer. The match is a bewildering mix of both belittlement and empowerment. At first I cower at the site of this brute, sturdy as an oak tree with a glare that could send men running. He towers over me as he hops from one foot to the other, ready to strike at any moment. I’ve plunged swords into demons and survived swarms of armed goons, but in the face of a professional athlete I simply think: “How am I going to win this?”
It’s to developer Grab Games’ credit, then, that Knockout League got me to fight through that intimidation and find the fun in its splendid debut game, available now in Early Access on Steam and Oculus Home. Physicality aside, boxing games can be off-putting on a mechanical level alone, with the finesse required to play correctly seeming monotonous in a medium that otherwise lets you do amazing things at the click of a button. Why get in a normal boxing ring when I could be holding a lightsaber?
Knockout League, however, gracefully bobs and weaves out of the way of those potential issues to create a VR sports game that’s for everyone.
That’s largely down to the game’s accessible mechanics that leave a vital opening for mastery. Each of the four fights available right now are more like a traditional video game’s boss battle than they are a professional boxing match, which is especially true of some of the game’s more outlandish characters. It reminds me a bit of the Nintendo classic, Punch-Out!! Moving on from Tri-Tip, you’ll face a wolf skin-wearing warrior princess, a pirate that trades gloves for swords and hooks, and, uh, an octopus. This colorful selection of characters is one of the game’s highlights, and has me looking forward to what Grab will think up next for the full version.
Beating these foes requires patience, reflex, and memory. Each of them have a standard set of attacks that will leave small opportunities to get quick jabs in, and they’ll telegraph more devastating moves that you’ll need to steer clear of. If you bring the Vive wands or Touch controllers up to your face then you’ll guard yourself from most punches, though you’ll need to time it just right or you’ll leave yourself open to attacks for a few seconds.
It’s also possible (and in the case of special attacks, necessary) to duck and dive out of the way based on the direction of which a fist is being thrown. It requires a lot of trust in your surroundings to violently throw your head around, but successfully side-stepping a punch is one of the game’s most satisfying thrills. Grab Games also made the wise decision to ignore depth; stepping back to avoid attacks won’t get you anywhere, and moving outside of your assigned standing position will cause the game to pause. One day VR tech will be able to sustain a full locomotion boxing experience but, for now, the developer has been smart to avoid it.
It’s still possible to get a little confused with the tracking and end up with someone’s face uncomfortably close to yours, but I was impressed with how Knockout League’s systems kept these instances to a minimum.
When it comes to attacking, the game is forgiving in what it considers a punch (I couldn’t harm a fly), but places challenge in timing. You have to have confidence in your ability to immediately hit back, or interrupt an incoming attack, or you aren’t going to get anywhere. It takes courage to look out from behind the safety of your gloves and dare to press the attack but that’s exactly what it should feel like, and that makes Knockout League one of the rare VR games to capture even a slither of the real experience, no matter how outlandish it gets.
We won’t be seeing the full version of Knockout League until April at the very earliest (Grab predicts three to five months in Early Access), but there’s already enough here to warrant a purchase, especially considering the game is available at a discount. If you’re anything like me and the idea of a VR boxing game doesn’t completely thrill you, that’s exactly why you should give this a try; you might just end up having more fun that you’d think.