I wouldn’t expect roller skating and third-person shooting to be a chocolate and peanut butter situation, but Rollerdrome proves it can be just that. By essentially inventing a new single-player sport, OlliOlli World developer Roll7 has found enough ways to make both sides of this unique coin shine without getting overwhelming. Wrap that package in an intriguing world with more going on beyond the sport than you might expect, and I’ve found myself lost in match after match of skate-shooting mayhem.
The year is 2030, and you’re entering the Rollerdrome as a new skater, Kara Hassan. This brutally clever dystopian future bloodsport has participants skate and shoot for their lives against waves of “house players” – aka neatly identifiable enemy classes that range from easy melee combatants to mini-mechs with homing missiles. Most of the time you’ll be chasing high scores and completing optional challenges in each stage, but Kara’s quest to become champion of the Rollerdrome isn’t just set dressing between the action – in fact, that story reveals a compelling picture of the rather dark reality it takes place in.
First-person sections peppered throughout the campaign let you explore locker rooms, office spaces, and a couple other locations before heading into the arena. While they offer the stylish bonus of transitioning directly from first-person to third-person as you enter a match, these sections are also a chance to better understand the part you play in your corporate employer’s machinations. Rollerdrome doesn’t force you to sift through documents or overhear conversations – you can run straight through the door and get into battle – but I’m glad I chose to, because I found an unexpectedly sharp commentary on some pretty relevant topics like the surprising control over all aspects of life a few companies can wield.
However, if you are here just for the action, Rollerdrome absolutely delivers. Roll7 has a knack for crafting finely tuned mechanics tied to extreme sports (look to OlliOlli World as further proof from this year alone). Because the skating and the gunplay are happening simultaneously, the developers found clever and, frankly, necessary places to trim back on complexity in to order make sure those two halves mesh well. While skating, you don’t have to worry too much about your speed unless you stop yourself, or an enemy does. Conversely, aiming your weapons is relatively forgiving, too: as long as you’re within range and your crosshairs are pretty close to your mark, an auto-lock will appear. That doesn’t mean you can’t be precise with your shots, and even hit enemies from further away without the auto lock-on, but some smart concessions ensure both skating and shooting are fun and approachable while still leaving room to be mastered over time.
Rollerdrome isn’t aiming to be the most complex skate simulator or shooter around, but there’s still plenty of challenge. I consistently delighted in how it rolled out wave after wave of increasingly difficult enemies while I also tried to complete a list of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater-like optional tasks. That could be collecting a set of hidden tokens, landing a specific trick, or killing a giant enemy with your measly pistols… ok, maybe that last one isn’t quite like Tony Hawk. Gunning down foes is the bulk of what you’ll be doing, with each run serving as a chance to chain together cool kills and sick skating tricks as you learn how to improve your flow through a given stage with every try. Enemy placement isn’t randomized, so you’ll quickly find more efficient paths to maintain momentum and better ways to knock out some of those fun goals on subsequent attempts.
The arenas themselves are also gorgeous thanks to Rollerdrome’s bright and colorful art design. There are a handful of different types of environments a level can be themed around, all of which take place in somewhat pedestrian locations like an arid American desert canyon or a mall in the midwest. But that mundanity is by design if you come to understand Rollerdrome’s fascinating world, and their everyday nature doesn’t detract from the pops of color, hard angular linework, and intriguing retro-near-futuristic design. Those locales are also complemented by composer Electric Dragon’s rocking soundtrack, which never lets up as it takes ‘70s-era disco pacing, blends it with ‘80s synth sounds, and tilts it just enough to sound futuristic.
Rollerdrome’s focus on the momentum of the action pulls from the visuals and soundtrack around you and builds that tempo into its mechanics. Each kill notches up your score multiplier, and even just shooting an enemy will let you keep that multiplier from dying out if you’re not able to land finish them off. That most often happened to me because my clip wasn’t full, but Rollerdrome’s creative take on ammo refills meant more bullets were always within reach. Every trick you pull off refills your weapons, and all four of your guns share a collective amount of ammo (which did throw me off the first few times I switched between them). That means you can be grinding past an enemy, recharging your clip on the go so you don’t give them a chance to throw up a defensive shield or attack between shots. I was switching between pistols and shotguns based on enemy type, chaining shots together in between tricks, and falling into a rhythm that was almost zenlike in its flow. Even in failure you can learn how a different weapon choice or another path might have played out better.
Learning the level while constantly moving, shooting, and reloading is at the heart of mastering Rollerdrome, but there’s also plenty of room for improvisation as well. The campaign slowly but smartly doles out new enemy types with unique abilities, as well as new weapons, so that I never felt too overwhelmed as I progressed. It’s one thing to take on a guard with a riot shield that is weakest to a shotgun blast, but doing so while two bat-wielding enemies rush you and three missiles are closing in requires quick thinking, so it’s nice that Rollerdrome eases you into the deep end rather than throwing you in headfirst. To help you catch your breath, and look cool while doing it, you can also temporarily slow down time when you press in the left trigger to aim. Slo-mo may be well-worn territory by now, but boy does Rollerdrome’s odd combination of genres make it feel fresh again, turning nearly every slowed-down attack into a screenshot-worthy moment.
Even when you’re being pelted with sniper beams, homing missiles, land mines, and more, Rollerdrome offers a chance to dodge and enable a Super Reflex mode, which slows down time even further while boosting the power of your shots. It’s a consistently satisfying reward, but never feels too overpowering thanks to the limited (but fair) amount of ammo you have before needing to pull off some more tricks. You’ll certainly need to make good use of this ability by the end too – nearly all of Rollerdrome’s wide variety of enemies try to stop you in its last couple of stages, and I barely made it out of those bouts on my first couple of tries. There’s almost too much going on at first glance, but a replay or two later and I felt much more comfortable with those deceptively tough final fights.
The biggest diversions from its regular campaign levels are a pair of boss battles that are both a highlight and a disappointment. They put a clever twist on the usual mechanics, forcing you to contend with a single, massive enemy rather than waves of smaller ones, and tearing that first behemoth apart is a blast. But the subsequent boss fight doesn’t change that formula up much, so it didn’t feel like a substantially different challenge. Seeing the ingenuity on hand originally, I had hoped for a few more fresh spins in the second boss fight, or even other cool takes on larger enemies before the end.
But that’s more of a momentary blip in Rollerdrome’s otherwise thrilling experience. And if you’re having as much fun with it by the end of the roughly 5-hour campaign as I was (with another few hours already spent replaying levels), there’s a brutal and surprising new option that opens up afterward. The “Out for Blood” campaign offers remixed versions of previous levels with every enemy type available from the first battle (and a remix of the great soundtrack alongside them). I tried the first few and these are no joke, especially if you consider any of the base levels tough, but they should make for an even more rewarding proving ground if you can survive.