It’s surprising how long ago Roller Champions was announced. It already felt like Ubisoft were a bit late to the future sports game party when the game was revealed at E3 2019, but it was still something that I was looking forward to checking out. That opportunity came in early 2021 with a public beta test, before the game was shoved back by over a year to its 25th May 2022 release date – hey, that’s tomorrow! I don’t know why the game has taken so long to come together, as simplistic as its core concept is, but game development is hard at the best of times, let alone with an ongoing pandemic to contend with.
The core loop – heh – of Roller Champions is remarkably well thought out and put together. It lifts the general form of roller derby (likely brought to some non-Americans’ attention by a film like Whip It or Rollerball), but then fuses it together with ball games, most easily compared to basketball or… well, Rocket League. It’s a real hodgepodge of ideas, but Ubisoft Montreal has been able to pull them together into something coherent and relatively easy to understand.
Two teams of three skaters take to a long, pill-shaped track, fighting to grab a ball, take it on a full lap of the track, and then throw it through a hoop mounted on the side of the wall. You can pass the ball, you can tackle opponents whether they’re on or off the ball, and most crucially, you can take the ball on multiple loops to score bonus points – three points for two laps, or five points for three laps. When you just need to score five points to win the match before the seven minute timer counts down, you can see the appeal of utterly dominating the opposition.
Right away, you can see the inherent risk and reward in the game. If you feel you’ve got the upper hand, you can go for a second lap, but what if your opposition gets in a lucky strike to tackle you, snatch the ball and reset the scoring drive?
The other thing you realise pretty quickly is that there’s two ways to defend. You can either hare after the ball-carrier and try to tackle them from behind (likely having to get past or take out a blocker at the same time), or turn around and go for the riskier head-on tackle which requires better timing.
Once you’ve picked up the absolute basics of control from the opening tutorial, of how to ramp up speed by tucking in as you go downhill, of passing, and the general form of the game, it should quickly become clear how high a ceiling there is for team play and individual skill. Being able to weave down the straights continually ramping to maintain speed, coordinating with a buddy to slingshot and outpace rivals, communicating positions that can be seen through the glassy centre of the arena, and simply being able to properly time and angle a tackle or dodge, all of this will quickly become relevant.
That last point in particular will be what makes or breaks Roller Champions for a lot of people. While I know that some of the press players I was facing before launch will have quickly cottoned onto how to dodge, I also feel like I was being hit by people that I’d just passed by, that there was some lag-induced elasticity on show here. Some of that is by design, as someone whiffs past a timely dodge or thanks to the magnetism of passing throws. Hopefully this feeling can be tuned out as the game gets into public hands, because while acceptable for casual play, ranked and competitive play won’t be so keen on any kind of latency.
Speaking of which, there’s a good, quick progression to unlock all that Roller Champions has to offer. Through your first 10 matches, you unlock the different customisation areas for your character, and then eventually gain access to ranked play after that tenth match. It’s straightforward and effective, drip-feeding you new things to look at without locking ranked away for too long.
Roller Champions has a nice and chunky artstyle that lends itself well to the kinds of customisation that Ubisoft have come up with. There’s an array of cartoony body types to choose from, and then you’ll slowly start to unlock (or pay for) cosmetics from different clothes and sports kit parts, to great hairstyles, banners, emotes, and beyond. We’ve not played long enough to judge, but it might take a while to get to something that feels like it’s truly yours.
Having spent a couple hours with the final release of Roller Champions, it’s definitely a future sports game that’s got some juice to it. It’s reductive to say it’s just Roller Derby Rocket League, but that’s also how it’s going to get people’s attention so it can showcase the kinds of skilful play and team-based gaming that could make it a success. Will it stick around for the long-run? Well, for that we’ll just have to wait and see.
Note: This is a review in progress. We’ll keep playing Roller Champions as it releases fully on 25th May across PlayStation, Xbox and PC, and come back with a final verdict soon.