Skating of all kinds became a whole thing during the Covid lockdowns. As the pandemic put a pause on indoor socialising, parks became the new pubs – and what better way to escape shut-in misery than gliding around the green? In south London at least, it’s a passion that’s endured: every Sunday without fail, I’m greeted by a gaggle of boombox-toting skaters. Yet for game developer Roll7, this lockdown obsession seemingly took a less wholesome turn. If you ever thought that Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater would be more thrilling as a blood-drenched deathmatch, then this is your game.
Channelling the smudged colour palette of 80s comic books and the post-apocalyptic bloodlust of Mad Max, Rollerdrome is a giddying blend of murder and momentum. As in February’s brilliant OlliOlli World, from the same developer, forward motion feels sublime: performing mid-air grabs atop a ramp before dropping into a polished, gym-like court, the fluidity of your flow is entrancing. And then some other deadly derby competitor shoots you in the head.
The premise is that in the near-future – 2030, to be exact – the world has gone to pot (hard to believe, I know), and with the suffering populace in desperate need of distraction, a new televised bloodsport arises in the form of the Rollerdrome. You’ll trick and twirl to avoid a hail of gunfire from a small army of AI enemies, hitting back with your own bountiful barrage of bullets. In a nice touch, performing tricks reloads your weapons, ensuring that you flip, grind and grab across each arena like your life depends on it. And what would a dual-pistol shooter be without bullet time? Rebranded here as Reflex time, the ability to slow the world to a crawl allows the ponytailed protagonist to reign down death mid backflip, with elegance that Max Payne could only dream of.
Like all sports, your pregame mindset is crucial to on-court performance. Downtime between murder matches sees you roaming a suitably grimy locker room before tournament brackets, picking up everything from gameplay tips to snippets of story. You can even mess with your competition, should you choose, removing their crucial pre-game reminder notes, going through lockers and just generally being a bad sport. The paper-thin narrative does enough to justify the premise, but your real motivation is smashing that scoreboard.
While simply surviving each arena unlocks the next stage to skate across, advancing to the next bracket requires a bit more graft. In a nod to the birdman Tony Hawk himself, level-specific challenges range from achieving a high score to killing goons in a specific way, or performing a gnarly trick off a specific part of the stage. Initially, Rollerdrome’s insistence on locking your progress behind these challenges feels like the right call, as it forces you to really master the fast-paced mechanics. By hour 10, though, forced replays of the same levels have become frustrating.
As you edge your way closer to the finals, increasingly familiar-feeling arenas give way to the occasional behemoth-esque boss battle. In a nod to PS2 classic Shadow of the Colossus, you mount these mechanical monstrosities in order to take them out. As you wheel and weave your way through a sea of bullets and laser fire, a metallic arachnid’s legs become ramps, propelling you above its steel pincers until you can pump its weak spots full of lead.
But by the time you hit the third of Rollerdrome’s four cups, courses veer from challenging to downright brutal. Forced to replay these relentless and thematically repetitive levels, that early motivating drive towards mastery is soon replaced by frustration.
Rollerdrome is about getting lost in a giddy gameplay trance. As the hypnotic electro pulsed with each turn of the half-pipe and slow-mo bullets tapered out of a well-timed flip, I was grinning like a goon. Yet where OlliOlli World offered a bountiful buffet of levels to grind across, Rollerdrome’s stingy stage selection left me hungry. Much like a lockdown fad, Rollerdrome offers a thrilling way to pass an afternoon or few, but once you’ve got your kicks, only the dedicated will still be donning their skates.