Fortnite must be going through its third awakening right now. I haven’t played a single round of Battle Royale for weeks, and that’s mainly because I can no longer make it past the starting menu without running face-first into a flurry of full-sized spin-offs framed as new game modes. Fortnite Rocket Racing, an arcade racer that mixes ideas from both Rocket League and Fortnite, is one of them – and while it’s very much in its infancy, this barebones first draft is fun enough to call it the beginning of what could become a great standalone racing game one day. But, even with 26 decently-designed maps, seamless integration into Fortnite’s broader progression systems, and easy-to-setup cross-platform multiplayer for up to 12 players, Rocket Racing struggles to stay fresh after you’ve seen through the cracks of its simplistic car handling and questionable multiplayer balance. Even with a great idea at the center of its circuit, it’s difficult to declare this a Victory Royale.
Don’t let the Rocket League tie-in confuse you; Rocket Racing only shares its association with the previous game developed by Psyonix in that it also features toy cars doing physics-defying stunts. Instead, Rocket Racing tastefully borrows inspiration from games like Distance, Rollcage, Wipeout, and GRIP: Combat Racing. There are 12 cars on the map, each trying to reach the finish line first – pretty standard stuff, but Rocket Racing’s twist on that formula is that drifting fills up your boost meter similar to Mario Kart, allowing you to zoom past the competition after gaining enough momentum. There are no items or weapons on the map like you’d find in similar combat racers; instead, your sole focus is on maintaining your max speed while selectively drifting, boosting, and generally avoiding other players or obstacles that would slow you down.
Fortnite Rocket Racing Gameplay Screenshots
This is a strong concept on its own, only made better by the added layer of depth jumping and flying introduces. You can tap a button to shoot your car into the air, and holding that same button down makes you fly (at the cost of your vehicle’s speed). Likewise, you can use your car’s jump and flight controls to quickly navigate out of the path of an obstacle by clinging to a wall or ceiling – kind of like in Distance. Keeping things interesting, it’s great that each map presents different obstacles and alternate pathways that force you to choose your approach carefully, since you can easily miss speed boosts placed on the track or drift into a hazard, causing you to explode and respawn somewhere behind the rest of the pack.
Speed boosting is the name of the game, and there are several ways you can quickly boost ahead of the crowd… at least in theory. All this boosting and thrusting feels and sounds good in action, but there are a few esoteric systems under the hood which don’t always feel transparent or fair – and that’s where Rocket Racing’s problems begin to appear. For instance, hitting the gas on the green light at the beginning of each match can give you up to 100% extra speed depending on your exact timing… but even when I timed it just right, it felt like I was consistently only landing 35-40% boosts.
It’s nice that if you get too far behind, Rocket Racing goes out of its way to help you catch up with everyone else near the rear without putting in much effort. But even when I’m clearly ahead of everyone else, it seems like my drifting and tight steering don’t go quite as far to keep me ahead. Other players will miraculously appear out of nowhere, taking the lead just in time to steal my first place spot before I reach the finish line. It’s understandable that there are protections in place to keep matches more interesting to the very end – especially considering the vast performance chasms Fortnite attempts to cover in its cross-platform matchmaking – but when Rocket Racing punishes you for doing well, it can speedily suck the fun out of playing competitively.
As with basically every other Fortnite game, there isn’t much story or setup to worry about. You just tap a button to begin matchmaking, and soon you’ll be off. To its benefit, Rocket Racing is one of those enjoyable casual games that sits comfortably in moments between other activities, seeing as how each match only lasts for three laps – or about three minutes. You’re definitely not committing to a 15 or 20 minute multiplayer match ala Fortnite Battle Royale (you can probably finish four or five races in that same time), and being tied into Fortnite’s popularity means you’ll rarely find yourself without a buddy to play against.
Unfortunately it’s seemingly not possible to play against another player locally, at least on the Xbox Series X, which is a bit of a drag since that feels like a staple of casual racers. It’s at least fairly easy to get around that since Fortnite is free-to-play, so I’ve already installed it on every platform I own. I’m also impressed at how well its performance scales between the Nintendo Switch and PC, where I could compete against other players at roughly the same level of competence no matter which hardware I was using. I didn’t feel as bad when I partied up with a group of friends across platforms as I might playing Battle Royale, no matter which system I or they were playing on.
Aside from a few network issues on my provider’s end – which were present on every system I tested Rocket Racing on, over the course of an entire weekend – it’s a smooth and tight experience no matter how beefy your gaming machine. I’ve always been impressed by the wizardry behind Fortnite’s multiplayer systems, allowing over a hundred players to coexist in the same map at once during Battle Royale matches, regardless of hardware. The chaos and high-speed action of Rocket Racing makes me appreciate that aforementioned wizardry even more, seeing as how hard it must be to keep everyone on even footing with this much stuff happening in this tight of a space.
The main problem with Rocket Racing is that there’s just not much to it right now. Even though it has 26 maps, most of them rarely make it into circulation, which leaves the impression that there is significantly less stuff to see. Softening that blow, Fortnite still lets you scroll down a list and select one map to play at a time – and this is especially useful if you’re sick of the popular rotation – but its current way of facilitating that choice isn’t all that convenient. The amount of time needed to find a match slows down dramatically if you have to manually select a specific map from the list every time instead of opting for general matchmaking, and it’s not like you can pick and choose a bunch of maps to plot out your own custom playlist.
At least those maps – even the ones on repeat – are well-designed and enjoyable to replay. For instance, Bone Cavern features a series of tunnels filled with obstacles that encourage tricky use of flying and wall-riding, and it can be a lot of fun to watch other players miss their jump and crash head-first into a hazard. Moments like this are so hectic, I’m instantly reminded of games like Mario Party or Fall Guys.
Car customization, on the other hand, is a total non-starter. Each of these unremarkable toy cars handles the same, and there’s absolutely no variation in performance to speak of – even if you do unlock different visual car designs. It’s genuinely unclear how to unlock new vehicles and cosmetics anyway, other than by earning the scant few cars available on the higher tiers of the Fortnite Battle Pass. I’m assuming I’ll eventually need to pay V-Bucks for the privilege of owning different and better-looking rides, but until then, it’s boring to stare at the same cars over and over again.
I’m ultimately left conflicted on whether I enjoy Rocket Racing’s integration into Fortnite’s progression and Battle Pass system. On the one hand, it’s nice that the levels I’m earning in Rocket Racing are contributing to my level in Battle Royale and vice versa; especially since the cars I do eventually earn can be used as vehicle skins in the Battle Royale mode. But on the other hand, it feels like most of my leveling to earn those cars will be done in other modes once I get bored with Rocket Racing – and after that happens, it’ll just fade back into being a minigame that I ignore in favor of everything else in Fortnite’s expanding armada of stuff.