After the critical acclaim of side-scroller skateboarding game OlliOlli World, you might be wondering, where could Roll7 go from here? The developer has a solid grasp on “state of flow” games that are all about jumping, pulling off tricks, and chaining together incredible moves to record massive scores. What do you bring to that kind of game to create something new?
In the case of Rollerdrome, you take what might be the best possible video game decision: take the combination of skating, tricks, and high scores, and add a bunch of weapons.
Rollerdrome trades skateboards for roller skates and side-scrolling courses for 3D arenas, but many of the underlying ideas are the same. The levels are packed with half-pipes, ramps, and grind rails to give you the opportunity to do grabs, flips, and spins. The more tricks you do, the higher your score will be, so the idea is to keep moving and keep doing amazing moves to earn as many points as you can. It has the same feel as the OlliOlli series, or games like Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, giving you freeform opportunities to express yourself through airborne art.
The big twist is that you’re not alone in the arenas you skate on in Rollerdrome – they’re filled with enemies called House Players, whose goal is to assassinate you. Rollerdrome is a blood sport where your goal in each level is to kill every player in the house before they kill you, and look awesome doing it. Killing enemies also helps you maximize your score, because as you take out your opponent, you gain multipliers that increase the points you get from landing tricks.
We played the first six levels of Rollerdrome and found that once you get the hang of it, the game scratches the same high-score chasing itch that makes OlliOlli games great, with a side of violence and strategic thinking. Matches are filled with different types of enemies, none of which are particularly intelligent, but all of which require specific strategies to handle. He wishes to stay away from bat-wielding melee fighters, as he closes in on deadly snipers before they can fire. The best way to deal with rocket soldiers is to fire your own rockets from the air, taking them out before they can protect themselves with force fields. Each arena features more types of enemies and different combinations, and to maximize your score, you need to kill them all as fast as you can.
The idea that makes the whole formula work is the way that Rollerdrome integrates tricks and shootouts. Every time you perform a trick, you receive ammo for your weapons; the more advanced the cheat, the more ammo fills your magazines. To keep your combos high and knock out enemies, you also need to think about not only your next target, but also the grind or spin you’ll hit once they’ve dropped.
“We spent quite a bit of time on the project, especially early on, trying to figure out if it’s a rollerblade shooter or a rollerblade shooter,” lead producer Drew Jones said in an interview with GameSpot. “What are we? Primarily a shooter or primarily a skater? And we basically end up with being a shooter first. But skating is still an essential part of the experience. And really, if we’ve done our jobs, then the two parts of that really should complement and feed off of each other in various ways.”
Jones said that the Rollerdrome development team spent something like the first year of the game’s two-year development grappling with the question of shooter or skater. And while Rollerdrome may fall a bit more on the shooters side, it’s the balance of those two elements that makes the game feel like more than just disparate ideas combined. Linking your ammo to tricks you perform and linking your kills to increase the score you get from tricks creates a perfect bridge between third person shooter and high score skater formula. It’s an organic way for both halves of the experience to complement each other. A big part of what makes that balance work so well is the fluidity the game achieves.
Like OlliOlli World, Rollerdrome makes the mechanical execution of its shooting and skating relatively simple. The hard part of the experience is maintaining awareness of your surroundings so you can avoid attacks from house players and keep racking up points. To help you focus on the more interesting parts of the game, like planning your course through the arena, identifying threats, and preparing for your next trick, Roll7 keeps aiming pretty simply; you will automatically target enemies near you so you can shoot. Forward movement is also automatic, only requiring you to steer where you’re going, so you don’t have to continually tap a button or press an analog stick to maintain your momentum.
“A phrase that came up a lot during development was the term ‘cognitive load,’ the amount that we’re putting on the player to do all the things that need to happen in this blood sport,” Jones explained. “And we definitely didn’t want to overwhelm or overload the player. At Roll7, we pride ourselves on making games where we expect players to get into a state of flow. And if the player has too much on their mind, we know they’re not going to achieve that.” because they’re going to have to lean too far. And we need them at that sweet spot of not being too disengaged where it’s trivial, but not so far away that it’s stressful.”
That also meant removing elements that can break the flow. Early in development, Jones said, Rollerdrome included the concept of “bailing”: messing up a trick or landing awkwardly, causing the player to fall. It’s something that’s central to OlliOlli games, but an element that killed the momentum and thus the fun of Rollerdrome. If you land on your head in the middle of a somersault in an arena, your character just does a quick summer jump and slams their feet down again. Making sure you get cheats is still important from a scoring standpoint, but for the developers, keeping the momentum going for the player was essential to keep the game fun.
Although the entire game is fairly fast-paced, much of Rollerdrome’s challenge comes from trying to be aware of your 360-degree environment, even when you can’t see it. To help you deal with that, the game includes a short-term focus ability that slows down time when activated, giving you a few seconds to survey the battlefield or react to an incoming shot. Tricks are also fairly easy to complete, dictated by tapping different directions on the left analog stick while holding down other buttons to execute certain grabs or routines. But while the controls keep things simple, all the small, easy-to-perform actions add up to a complex whole.
The six levels of Rollerdrome we played took us through several different arenas, each with their own layouts, like a shopping mall filled with escalators and walkways that provide plenty of rails to grind, or a rooftop ski resort. with a large gap between its two sides. that you have to jump Each level also includes various Tony Hawk-like challenges, including snagging collectibles, performing particular tricks, and killing enemies in specific ways. Completing challenges paves the way to future levels, so you’ll need to manage a certain level of mastery of each of the arenas before you can move on to others.
Most of Rollerdrome is just about shooting enemies and keeping up the momentum, but behind your rise up the Rollerdrome championship circuit is a backstory of skater rivalries and corporate conspiracies. Unsurprisingly, Rollerdrome draws a lot from 1970s movies and comics – it’s a lot like the 1975 movie Rollerball, which is also about a roller derby blood sport. A large and ever-present force in the world of Rollerdrome is the Matterhorn, the cold-hearted corporation that sends people to their deaths in their skate-and-shoot competitions.
However, the narrative is generally understated, requiring you to get tidbits from certain scenes and see how they inform the competition you’re entering. The game is set in the near future of 2030 as imagined in 1979, as Jones said. and puts you in the role of a promising competitor. Between each new level of matches as you try to win the Rollerdrome championship, you’ll have short scenes in spaces like a stadium locker room or the green room at a TV station before a big interview. Those places are filled with items you can find, like messages left by other characters and clues about what the Matterhorn is up to and what the world is like in general.
As Jones pointed out, the narration serves to answer the question, “Why am I on roller skates, holding a grenade launcher?” But it’s also very optional, and it’s presented in a way that rewards your willingness to explore its nooks and crannies and discover as many clues as you can, but also allows you to browse through if you wish.
“In the same way that our levels are built in such a way that we never really want to interrupt your flow… we wanted the same thing with the narrative, largely not to interrupt the game, but to flow with it,” said David Jenkins, game director. Roll7 quality control. “So you have the option to stop for a moment and take a look and take a breath, I guess, too.”
If you’re willing to spend a couple of minutes exploring the story, Rollerdrome seems to do a lot with a little. Notes, news articles, radio announcers, posters, ranking lists – they all give you an insight into the personal stories of the other skaters and the fame and fortune they stand to gain by fighting so hard. But there are also groups protesting Matterhorn practices and skaters supporting them, and you can find gossip suggesting things aren’t going so well for those who speak out. In fact, the overall story seems to be one of a sinister Matterhorn tightening its grip on the world, and it does so with the spectacle and bloodshed of its popular competition.
At least in the first part of Rollerdrome, Roll7 creates an excellent mix of gameplay systems that are fast and fun, using some of the best elements of roller skating games to put a different spin on third-person shooters. Its ’70s aesthetic and understated mystery complement a deceptively simple shooter that’s great for building unexpected challenges and creating a compulsion to chase high scores. We’ll have to see how well all those elements come together throughout the game’s campaign, but this first part hints at an intense and promising skater-shooter experience.
Rollerdrome launches on PlayStation 4, PS5, and PC on August 16.
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