The people in the limelight at the pinnacle of sports are heroes and idols to fans growing up. Posters get thrown up on bedroom walls, branded merchandise is eagerly brought each season, and the playgrounds and sporting halls are filled with kids replicating the movements, style and iconic celebrations. As she straps on her roller skates, puts on her helmet and picks up her twin pistols to head out into the brutal kill-or-be-killed gladiatorial Rollerdrome, Kara Hassan is just following in the trails’ of her heroes.
Rollerdrome is a game that wears its inspirations on its sleeves. Heck, it’s about as plain to see as the full line up on a music festival tee. From the realms of video games you have Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, the iconic extreme sports series, thrown into the blender with the super slow-mo of Max Payne, but Roll7 has thrown in a hefty helping of 1970s dystopian sci-fi and blood sports drama like Rollerball for the game’s setting. There’s probably a little bit of Robot Wars in there too, if you look for it.
There’s a cunning blend between pulling tricks, avoiding incoming attacks and dishing out deadly damage in Rollerdrome. The core movement will feel generally familiar to many a 3D skateboarding game, making your way through stages that range from custom-built arenas to abandoned shopping malls and remote mountainous installations, all of which have got plenty of ramps and quarter-pipes to leap from, pulling tricks and spinning through the air, and rails to grind onto.
The skating controls are as simplistic as possible with just a few buttons to master and generally simple combinations for different grabs and grinds. Each stage has a handful of token to leap and grab, as well as a trick point, where you’ll have a challenge to pull off a particular trick. Importantly, you never have to worry about landing. Mash buttons, pull the most obscenely daft flips, and Kara will always land fairly gracefully, and keep on moving.
That’s important for two reasons, the most pressing of which is the menagerie of House Players who are out for your blood, as much as you’re out for theirs – each kill boosts your score combo, which is reset if it times out or you take damage. Some will just come and run at you with a spiked bat, but then there’s snipers, shield-toting brutes, rocket troops, mechs, jet-packs and more that you have to contend with. Every second you’ll be juggling the need to evade incoming fire, whittle down the enemy, and pull tricks to please the judges and earn more ammunition – the second important reason to flip and grab your way off every ledge you can see.
You’ll need to make judicious use of your ability to briefly enter Reflex time – Bullet Time to you and me – slowing the action for a few moments while you unload your clip of ammo into an enemy. Even better, if you time a dodge to the moment just before an attack comes at you and then Reflex, you get a souped up slow-mo that changes the colour palette and lets you deal more damage. Perfectly timed dodges also net you bullets so, you know…. it’s very useful!
Your arsenal of weapons is small, but thoroughly enjoyable, and each with a particular strength against a certain enemy. The Dual Pistol is great for taking out incoming missiles, the Shotgun deals bonus damage if you time the shot right, the Grenade Launcher has explosive area-of-effect damage, while the IL-2 charge rifle is a sniper with bouncing bullets that can nail a target from the other side of the map.
There’s a finely tuned ramping up of difficulty through Rollerdrome’s main campaign. Themed around a yearly tournament in which a few dozen competitors play through televised Rollerdrome battles, you start off against the lowliest of enemies, but it takes barely any time at all before you’re frantically dodging your way out of almost overwhelming odds. Sometimes they’ll get you, sometimes you’ll be left clinging to the last few percentage points of life, only for the opportunity to strike back coming to you, the House Player drops some health, you get a perfect dodge, enter slow-mo and quickly take another scalp.
It’s exhilarating once you get the hang of it, and the game pushes you toward certain feats to engender mastery. Use a particular weapon type, reach a certain combo chain, pull a particular trick, beat a certain score or time. Each stage has 10 challenges, and later levels are locked behind completing enough of them as you go.
Between rounds of the championship, little moments of world building and story come to the fore. Whether it’s a locker room, press centre or train, you can wander around in first person, listening to radio broadcasts, picking up newspapers and reading messages as you snoop around the environment.
It does, however, miss out on giving you a direct hand in the narrative. The events that occur in the world have little to really do with you, you just pay witness to news reports as Casper Ickx and Morgan Frey resume battle for the 2030 championship (you’re the plucky rookie, after all), and as greater dystopian plight is levied upon the world. After the main campaign is over? Well, it’s 2031 and the evil corp pulling all the strings ramps up the difficulty even further. It’s an ultra hard mode, throwing everything the game has got at you and remixing the campaign’s roughly 4 hours playtime into an even greater challenge.
Capturing the retrofuturistic zeitgeist, Rollerdrome is rendered in fantastic style, leaning on the sharp and precise outlines, colour palette and cel shading of 70s French graphic novels. It’s a look that I loved in the coming-of-age game Sable, but it feels even more apt here, given the game’s themes and tone. It’s almost distinguished, in a way, even when the sport it depicts has you murdering dozens of opponents in a round.
Meanwhile, the synth-led soundtrack of Electric Dragon. It’s full of driving beats and catchy riffs, constantly pushing you forward. Trying to view 2030s’ music through the lens of the 1970s has ended up in some darkly funky places.