Rollerdrome should be one of the year’s best games. It isn’t, but it really should be. I’m genuinely frustrated that I cannot give it top marks because it’s brilliant, from presentation to concept. Max Payne on rollerskates in a retro-dystopian future battle royal derby. And not a multiplayer battle royale, but a truly classic style Running Man fight to the death across eleven single-player maps.
Unfortunately, someone apparently forgot to tell Roll7 that difficulty curves exist for a reason.
ROLLING HEADLONG INTO PAIN
Rollerdrome’s gameplay is a mix of a lock-on third-person shooter and Tony Hawk. You perform tricks to generate additional ammo, with your variety rewarded by a larger restock to your clip. All four guns share one ammo pool. That ammo pool is only one clip deep. So you’re constantly alternating between popping tricks and shots – until you’re not.
That’s the kicker with Rollerdrome. The further in you get, half of its systems matter far less than they did at the start. You see, dodging enemy attacks at the right time rewards with just as much ammo as tricks. Plus, if you tap to aim at the right time, you’ll do extra damage to boot. This is initially a rarity until Roll7 has enemies firing a dozen rockets at your back while three snipers and a cryo-beam lancer keep you dodging so much it’s impossible to pull off tricks.
Did that explanation of gameplay escalate quickly? That’s just how Rollerdrome rolls! At first, it’s basic trick moves and navigation. Like, practicing grinding rails and learning that you can time your shotgun blasts for extra damage. Next thing you know, you’re fighting mechs that can melt you in seconds while you’re still trying to get protagonist Kara Hasan to just turn around, for crying out loud, why are you still going in the opposite direction AGAIN?!
Rollerdrome’s controls and mechanics are incredibly uneven. Some aspects work flawlessly, while others struggle to behave as intended. When it works, it’s a thrilling ride that I never want to end. You’re dashing between enemies, dealing out serious damage while being tactical in how you dismantle the opposition. Sure, sometimes Kara seemingly forgets that you can spin around in rollerskates and instead takes a long way, but at first, you assume it’s a balanced compromise. It’s not. That’s about half the experience of the initial five-hour campaign.
The other half of Rollerdrome is an irritating montage of taking damage because Kara won’t do what you want, being hammered into the ground by so many enemies that even three perfect dodges in a row won’t cut it, and trick inputs firing incorrectly. A game with this steep of a curve needs to be ultra-precise, and Rollerdrome falls apart under scrutiny.
It’s like if in an Arkham game, 25% of the time you hit dodge, you throw a Batarang that breaks your combo instead. You don’t know when the controls will turn against you, so you play far more conservatively despite the varied moveset. It works against Rollerdrome’s core focus of pushing yourself to the limit. I stopped trying to be creative when I should’ve been flourishing bombastically.
SEND IN THE HORDE
There’s also a lack of consideration for how to pace combat waves. Where Halo 3: ODST’s Firefight would throw in easier waves amid harder ones to give you breathing room, Rollerdrome regularly heaps in tougher foes. Space to think only comes from enemies spawning out of range. This can be particularly frustrating in its own right. Hunting that last foe can throw off your combo score and time bonus.
Given how intense yet sloppy the latter stages get – particularly the Alpine region – you essentially have to play with two completely different mindsets. Either you’re trying for challenge objectives to unlock the next stage, or you’re going in to get a decent score. That these are often mutually exclusive doesn’t feel like replay value but a clear dissonance in priorities.
ROLLERDROME AIMS HIGH BUT DOESN’T STICK THE LANDING
What’s further surprising is how messy everything is despite such a short runtime. Including multiple replays of every stage, my total playtime was a handful of hours. There’s a bonus campaign that throws new enemy patterns at you. Yet given they’re even more masochistic, can you really call that a bonus?
The room for additional content is certainly there. There’s existing code for target dummies and performing specific skills. Why not have a practice arena that runs players through all the moves? Or have players be able to set what enemies they face in a custom challenge on a map of their choice. Maybe let players share their challenges online, like in Hitman’s Contracts mode? Or at least local multiplayer for co-op or competitive matches for two? I’d have preferred all of these to fighting the same spider robot twice in a row.
I ADMIRE ITS PURITY
The surprise silver lining is a surprisingly well told dystopian sports tale during the rise of a corporate police state. It’s not going to sway anyone’s political views or anything, but it’s well told, with great voice acting and writing. The sound design across the board is superb, as is the brilliant synth soundtrack. By far, though, the most gorgeous aspect is the shader and texture work. Rollerdrome’s art direction pops off the screen, immediately arresting your gaze.
It’s just that for all that artistic merit elsewhere, the scenario designers dropped the ball. Seemingly in pursuit of a high skill ceiling, Roll7 has produced an experience that will irritate you well before it’s even granted you all of your arsenal. It’s a shame because Rollerdrome had the potential to be an all-time great.
If you have the patience to endure its roughness, there’s nothing like Rollerdrome on the market. Yet as I look back on it, I can’t understand how it’s received such perfect marks elsewhere. A concept this good, with artistic talent this potent, deserves to be appreciable by more than those with the will to overlook spikes of masochistic encounter design. The initial high is buried beneath, still there, begging for a more refined exploration in the future.
Yes, the assist features exist, and that’s great, but those shouldn’t be practically mandatory for the average player. I’d understand if this were a first time project or if the controls held up under closer examination, but neither is the case. As such, Rollerdrome scrapes its knees on the edge of greatness.