I’m rollerskating at maximum velocity and still a sniper’s laser sight is pinned to my torso. I wait for the final moment, just when they’re about to pull the trigger, to dodge the incoming bullet and fire my shotgun – right at the brute swinging a spiked club at my forehead. After beelining for the nearest half-pipe, I spin a nose grab mid-air to replenish my pistol ammo, and land on a grind rail – heading straight for the marksmen.
Now it’s just a case of shooting a few homing rockets out of the air, engaging slow motion, and unloading my dual pistols – all before wall-grinding to safety. I feel like a gun-toting martial artist on wheels. I look like a high-speed jumpsuit of death. And I’m having an amazing amount of fun.
This is Rollerdrome, an upcoming single-player arena shooter from Roll7 that signs you up to the titular fictional bloodsport. Made up of a series of deathmatches that string together into a complete single-player narrative campaign, Rollerdrome challenges you to fight waves of enemies across combat arenas strewn with skatepark paraphernalia. With nothing but a slim arsenal of weapons in hand and a pair of rollerskates on your feet, you’ll be pumping up combos, ticking off challenges, and performing a whole bunch of sick tricks worthy of the most extreme sports games.
While lead producer Drew Jones pithily describes Rollerdrome as “a shooter on rollerskates”, studio fans might recognize it more as a mash-up of two of Roll7’s previous releases. Combining the fluid cell-shaded skating of Olli Olli with the frenetic arena survival of Laser League, the game’s taken a strikingly odd premise to what could be its zenith.
“The goal was not just to create a game that’s a blending of genres, so much as to create a game that’s its own genre,” says head of QA David Jenkins. “And not to have a game that is just, ‘Oh, it’s a skating game and you can shoot people in it’, or ‘Oh, it's a shooting game and you happen to be wearing roller skates’. It’s very much its own separate sort of system.”
After spending several hours playing the game’s first six levels, it's the skating half that’s really taken me. Rollerdrome is robust enough to hand you a range of tricks to perform – spins, grabs, and grinds – and intuitive enough to make even the most advanced techniques a breeze to pull off – like acid dropping down a quarter pipe or extending your air time. It’s all buttery smooth, too, with a fluidity that sells the magnificence of your violent performance.
Gunplay isn’t left out of that equation, either. With proximity mines to dodge, laser sights to shake off, homing missiles to avoid, and flaming beams of ionizing energy to think about, Rollerdrome’s freneticism is made manageable by a generous lock-on targeting system and nifty bullet time. Your reticle will automatically shift to enemies when you’re in close proximity, and slow motion can be engaged to let you rain down hell on your opponents while nipping about at furious speeds.
“It’s kind of gung-ho; throw caution to the wind,” says Jones. “These enemies are out to get you and you’ve got to take them on. If you try and play it a bit more conservatively, you’re not going to get as much [from the game] as you would if you just take the fight to the enemies.”
A slick ammo and health system incentivizes that aggression further, as you’ll need to dispatch enemies to replenish your fragile health bar, while performing a variety of tricks to refuel your limited ammo supply. Starting with a pair of pistols, I soon unlocked a shotgun and grenade launcher to take into fights, and was impressed by the mileage the game was able to wring out of even this small array. You’ll need to think carefully about your weapons, switching between them at pace to bypass each enemy’s defenses.
It’s simple but elegant. Rollerdrome’s gunplay struck me as a rudimentary imitation of Doom Eternal, as you dance between enemies, swap weapons on the fly, and barrel forward to keep your health and ammo afloat. Add to that the set of skill challenges that come with each level – which range from performing a particular trick, to wall-grinding a specific object, to beating a set score – and the scope for mastery is huge.
Where Rollerdrome starts to fluff its performance, however, is outside of the deathmatches. Set within a retro-futurist dystopia, marred by monopolistic corporations that quell civil unrest by televising hypnotic bloodsports, Rollerdrome punctuates its levels with snippets of worldbuilding. Between each set, you’ll walk around empty locker rooms and sports halls, reading newspaper clippings or listening to radio segments to get a whiff of the world beyond.
“There’s such an obvious well of inspiration in the ‘70s genre films, such as Rollerball and Running Man,” says Jones. “So once we had the bloodsport element, a lot of the setting, theme and time just slotted into place.”
Not that it made much of an impression on me. The main plot is fed to you so sporadically and with such little fanfare that I largely zoned out of the narrative entirely. I found myself more intrigued by my latest high score than the fate of this fictional world. A series of rollerskating deathmatches may well be fertile ground on which to tell a story of corporate moral turpitude, but with that story so divorced from the main events of the game, it amounted to little more than a forgettable aside. Hopefully Rollerdrome’s narrative promise blossoms in a full playthrough.
The most surprising thing about Rollerdrome is its single-player exclusivity. The idea of a rollerskating, cell-shaded arena shooter sounds like the perfect starting ground for the next hit battle royale or left-field competitive phenomenon in the mode of Rocket League. With Roll7 already packing some multiplayer development experience, why did it approach Rollerdrome as a single-player experience?
“The trap that we really didn't want to fall in was to go too wide on a new subgenre of video game,” says Jones. “We had enough on our plates, and enough to figure out with the core idea of the game and the single-player idea that we started off with. We really wanted to pick a focused experience and just push that as far as we possibly could.”
For the most part, it looks like Roll7 has done exactly that. Rollerdrome might stumble over the tricky launch ramp of sprinkled storytelling, but offers such a finely balanced mix of skating and shooting that you’ll find yourself engrossed anyway. It might be time to dust off those rollerblades that have been sitting in the garage, because by the time Rollerdrome releases on August 16, you’ll want to hit the skatepark.