Rollerdrome review: Tony Hawk meets The Running Man

Rollerdrome review: Tony Hawk meets The Running Man
Josh Wise Updated on by

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Six months on from the release of OlliOlli World, we have Rollerdrome. Both games are made by the same developer, Roll7. Both feature realities that bear a passing resemblance to our own, with a surreal spin. And both prefer not to root us in these places but, rather, to have us rumble along three inches above them. The main difference between these titles is twofold: OlliOlli World was all about skateboards, and the blissed-out, brotherly radness of existence; whereas Rollerdrome is about roller skates, and our unslakable thirst for violence.

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The crux, according to an opening crawl, is that, in the year 2030, “A violent bloodsport is watched across the globe.” (As opposed to the peaceable kind, presumably.) This will come as an immense relief to those who associate roller skates with the lurid pulsations of disco. Instead, we get something more inline with The Running Man meets Tony Hawk—think spiked helmets, handguns, and arenas furnished with explosive barrels, ramps, and floors of lacquered maple. The art style, led by Antoine Dekerle, recalls that of Sable, in which the world appeared to have been washed in emulsion. But where you sensed, in that game, a will to soften and veil the realities of a course and shifting land, Roll7 just wants to get down. There is a fever to its colours: to the flash of fluorescent yellow that accompanies each victory, and to the tongues of funky blue fire, unleashed from some foes, that lick at your heels. Perhaps disco is alive and well, after all.

We play Kara Hassan, a newcomer to the sport. What that sport is exactly takes all of ten seconds to discern. You are set loose in each level, with a list of optional objectives (“Perform a 25x Combo,” “Dodge a GRUNT Bat Attack”) and a roster of enemies to slay. The judges reward your tricks by replenishing your ammunition. And each round ends when none more stand against you. As futuristic gauntlets go, I would place Rollerdrome in the upper reaches. Its savagery echoes that of Speedball and its masterwork of a sequel, Speedball 2: Brutal Deluxe, by The Bitmap Brothers; while its vision of the hard years ahead mirror the immaculate surfaces of Wipeout. Check out Civetta Summit, an alpine theatre clad in snow, and try not to think of the clean and crunching backdrop of Sebenco Climb, from Wipeout Pure.

Rollerdrome
(Image Courtesy: Private Division)

The coup of those series was that they gave us the kind of spectacle—clobbering depravity and howling speed—that made us wonder what kind of societies might crave such displays of fight and flight. Rollerdrome, on the other hand, is happy to sate that curiosity, and to stunt the power of its fiction in the process. In between each round of the tournament, Kara pokes around through rooms and halls, in first person, and we learn more of Matterhorn, the corporation that owns the International Rollerdrome Federation. To the surprise of no one, Matterhorn’s interests do not extend to the charitable staffing of inner-city schools, or to saving the rainforest. It does, however, make an offer to purchase the police force, and we glean that an activist force, the New Action Army is protesting the bid.

The narrative may lack suspense, and it’s about as subtle as a grunt’s bat attack, but it yields a couple of treasures. The first is the interior design of the OTV network headquarters, an explosion of seventies style: the clocks, the carousel projectors, the ash trays, the toffee-and-custard hues. I even glimpsed a VHS cassette, sheathed in a cardboard case. The second is the nod to those who were weaned on Jet Set Radio, the original roller-skating opus. That game—all about graffiti, and those who spray it in protest—was daubed in the toxically bright hues of its subject. Its heroes, itching to express themselves, rebelled against the establishment and were hounded by the police at every turn. Their discontents were under pressure. Not so in Rollerdrome, wherein Kara expresses herself as part of the establishment, with a spray of bullets, and the itching occurs in private.

Personally, I wouldn’t want Kara to slip her corporate shackles anytime soon. Not when we are able to grind along the rim of a half-pipe, leap, take aim, and slip into gluey slow motion while firing buckshot at a shield-bearing henchman. Your weapons include a pair of pistols and a shotgun, with more exotic hardware lying in wait for later stages. As with OlliOlli, the new game is at its most bracing when the action goes right by your brain and wires itself to your muscles and nerves. The carnage grows thick and fast, with an assortment of opponents—some toting sniper rifles, others with rocket launchers whose volleys can be shot and detonated in the air. Plus, you can never truly fall; Kara always somersaults back into a forward-lunging crouch, with a kind of graceful aggression. All of which means that Roll7 has made its most thrilling game yet; drained of the feel-good gnarliness of OlliOlli World, this is darker, more cynical fare, and I wouldn’t want it any other way. Indeed, the irony of Rollerdrome is that, whatever the moral of its message, its most exhilarating parts are brought to us by Matterhorn.

Developer: Roll7

Publisher: Private Division

Available on: PlayStation 5 [reviewed on], PlayStation 4, PC

Release Date: August 16, 2022