Set in a dystopian future straight out of the cocaine haze of the 1970s, Rollerdrome takes two of gaming’s most cherished pastimes—pulling off sick combos and murder—and mashes them up into an audacious spectacle that is definitely not Norman Jewison’s Rollerball. Taking control of mysterious rookie Kara Hassan, it’s skate or die for players as you’ll have to grab, grind, flip and twist your way to high-score combos while gunning down enemies hellbent on stopping you. Kara clearly has the skills to be the next Rollerdrome champion, but with the corporation behind the sport plotting against her, she’ll have to use every trick in the book to survive.
Again, this is not Norman Jewison’s Rollerball. With most of the social commentary pushed to the background in favor of that sweet, deadly arena action, it’s more like John McTiernan’s Rollerball. But, you know, enjoyable.
Developer Roll7 cut its teeth on the skating genre with its celebrated OlliOlli franchise. The work the studio put into that series is paying dividends with Rollerdrome. This is an incredibly smooth and user-friendly skating experience, one that would rather see you pull off some wild trick combinations than worry about sticking the landing. Kara is quick and agile and comes fully stocked with a wide array of grabs and grinds that players will have no issue pulling off with its intuitive control scheme. There are simple tricks people of all skill levels will be able to perform, but for those eyeing the top of the online leaderboards, more advanced techniques await your discovery.
Each stage provides ample opportunities for running up that score with ramps, grind rails, halfpipes, and other staples of the skating genre. I really dig the look and layout of these arenas, and the hip, minimalist cell-shaded art direction is a fantastic expression of stark ‘70s dystopian design aesthetics. It’s unfortunate then that Roll7 settled on so few different themes for these arenas. It would have made for a more eclectic affair if each of the game’s few stages had a setting and design that was all its own rather than revisiting the desert, mountaintop, or hardwood rink concepts.
Despite that lack of diversity in stage settings, I gladly returned to each arena to hone my skills and try to push my score closer and closer to that two-comma club. Repeated run-throughs also gave me a better understanding of how best to weave my stunt skating skills with my bullet-time kills. Rollerdrome uses a kill chain system that ties your combo multiplier to your ability to dispose of each arena’s batch of house player goons. The more kills you’re able to chain together while also performing stunts, the higher your score will be at the end of your run. In the early stages, this is pretty manageable. The grunts you face are limited in number with attacks that are well-telegraphed and easy to dodge. As you get to the later rounds of the tournament, more and more enemy types are thrown at you, creating chaos that can be overwhelming.
Rollerdrome has a limited but varied set of goons it’ll unleash on the player. Some can snipe you from nearly anywhere on the map, others have defenses that must be whittled down before you can kill them. You are given access to new guns that help with the process, but they can only do so much. When I reached the late stages of the game, and I was facing guys in mech suits, guys dropping land mines, guys shooting blue laser beams, and several other enemy types, I found myself dodging attacks more than anything else. I wasn’t really pulling off stunts, and it was nearly impossible for me to chain together kills for a big multiplier. All I could do to stay alive was spam that circle button to ensure I took as little damage as possible.
If you have the time, it has the payoff
Now, if I were younger and didn’t have to split my waking hours between so many different responsibilities, I would have simply taken the time to 'get gud' at the game. Back in the ‘90s and early 2000s, I could pull off incredible runs in Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater that were far better than anything my older brother could manage (that being the barometer for success in gaming at the time). In those days, I could sink hours of my day and weekends into a single game. Today, that's just not a possibility for me, which is why I appreciate that Roll7 went ahead and added the assists menu to the options.
If you hit a wall like I did or you simply need a break from being bulldozed by your foes, Rollerdrome has a selection of assists you can activate. These range from extremely helpful, like infinite ammo, to those designed to level the playing field a bit, such as reduced damage or slowing the speed of the game. Activating any of the assists will keep your scores off of the online leaderboards, but it doesn’t affect anything beyond that. For me, lowering the amount of damage Kara received made it so I could actually complete the game. The assists are a great accessibility option for anyone who struggles with the skating genre or those who just need some help with Rollerdrome’s more trying challenges.
I kind of feel like, with the popularity of the skater genre and the endless appeal of competitive shooters, a game like this was an inevitability. It's too perfect a combination to not work, and I'm just glad Roll7 got to it first with Rollerdrome. This is an exceptional and welcoming game, one that takes the best elements from both genres and combines them into a sophisticated and unabashedly cool experience.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]