OlliOlli World might look like sunshine and sweetness, a Cartoon Network-designed sugar rush, but hiding beneath that exterior is the beating heart of a series that is known to demand perfection. The series made its name via precise platforming that just happened to be on a skateboard, and this delightfully unexpected sequel knows that's what the OGs (original grinders) will expect, even if it's not what new players might. So how did Roll7 craft a balance so fine, that it's hard not to see how everyone will be happy when this pushes off in this winter?
If that's a bold claim to make for the pre-alpha demo we went hands on with, that's because it already feels like OlliOlli World has nailed the "flow state" that it wants to achieve, managing to generate challenge without ever tipping into pad-snapping frustration. That comes from one of the game's major tweaks, where if you land without pressing X, you'll no longer bail and end your run. If there's any worry that might reduce the complexity or rush from conquering a level, then some of the optional challenges squirreled away in levels – such as trying to avoid a gaggle of blue frogs who sit awkwardly at the bottom hills where you want to land – promise to be hard as any personal Everest you've conquered in this series.
All of these feelings come into sharp relief towards the end of the levels that are available in my demo called Branch Heights. The warm russet tree that I'm skating down is filled with new additions and opportunities to try out advanced tricks. From quarter-pipes that change the direction I skate in and give me enough air to try out the new grabs, to billboards that keep combos going by wallriding across them, it's a medley of all the new systems that create a focused rush of adrenaline as you slip into the 'zone', that sense of the outside world blurring into the background as your focus becomes total. But more importantly, it's because OlliOlli World feels like it wants you to enjoy the game, rather than best it.
This significant change is something creative director John Ribbins highlights when I ask him about the game's more welcoming tone. "We did a bit of soul searching when we came back to the series. I think one of the key things that we wanted to change was… in the earlier games, if you did something wrong, we punished you, basically. Whereas this time around, if you do something wrong, maybe we don't punish you. Maybe we'll reward you for doing the right thing. So you're not just going to fall on your face the whole time."
That reward comes in the form of finding that rhythm and flow through levels, one that has been sharpened thanks to the game's myriad new additions. Top of the list is the ability to switch lanes, which creates denser levels with more depth – both in the literal and figurative sense. Early on, we play a level in Sunshine Valley where skidding into a different lane gives us a chance to meet Sloshtar, the fortune telling fish. He sets us an objective on a different level before we carry on skating, but it's an early sign that Roll7 will use these different paths to not only offer differing objects and obstacles to tackle, but ways of broadening how you interact with its world.
For such a fundamental shift in how OlliOlli has usually played, Co-CEO of Roll7 Simon Bennett explains how it initially came from an idea for a different game: "We were in very sort of early stages on the project, and prototyping a number of different parts of the game. John [Ribbins] had always had this other idea – it was this wacky idea, and I think it was maybe even going to be a mobile thing. It was like: it would be cool if there was a game that basically replicated the way that competition street skating actually works; the tour that runs worldwide and has for years, it runs on exactly the same format. What if you had a game that has OlliOlli-style lines, but then you can switch lanes, and kind of come back on yourself?"
The team went away and started prototyping, with the idea of turning OlliOlli on its head. By allowing you to switch lanes, to skate from right-to-left, the studio would be able to lose the linearity the series had been known for and expand the scope of play. As Simon continues: "We'd already decided that the game was going to be called OlliOlli World, but it was at that point that the word "world" actually had real meaning. Building the characters, building the art and everything, that in itself is a world. But making it actually feel more 3D and giving you more choice for exploration within the world, it's this key pillar to the title. I think that, for me, that was the bigger shift."
The visual design of OlliOlli World is also a striking departure of what's come before. If previous games were 2D, the move to 3D has also brought along an effervescent new art style that feeds into the game's aim to embrace all types of players. As Simon describes it: "If Pixar made a film about skateboarding, where the entire world was inhabited by people on skateboards that just live and go about their daily business as skaters, that's the world that OlliOlli World is. That's what we kind of wanted to build."
That's not hyperbole either. In motion, levels are humming with background detail, from the sanguine wave of an octopus's tentacles in Sunshine Valley to the frequent flutter of giant bees in the forests of Cloverbrook. These are environments you want to manuel right into, a world that is throwing its arms open and inviting you in.
This tone also comes from the cast of characters you'll be skating through Radlandia with, a diverse bunch who offer you challenges as well as encouragement throughout levels. There's Dad – not your in-game Dad, just what people call him – who is clad in protective gear and always on hand with some kind words. Joining him is Gnarly Mike, who loves to set you optional challenges, the pithy Suze who always has a camera in hand, and Chiff, the Skate Wizard who is on hand to save your checkpoints through levels (another break from OlliOlli tradition that helps ease in newcomers).
Roll7 wants to reflect how skateboarding is an inclusive and welcoming sport and show a side of the culture that sometimes isn't highlighted in other more realistic takes on skating, and that's why this crew are a friendly bunch. As Co-CEO Thomas Hegarty explains: "That links back to the idea of the part of skateboarding that OlliOlli World is trying to get across. So it's more about hanging out with your friends. It's more about trying things out. The crew are kind of there in a supportive way. Having said that, they've been through several iterations. At one point, Suze was very cutting and dark, [but] it didn't quite work. It feels much nicer now that they are more warm and welcoming, and they encourage you as you go on your journey."
OlliOlliOlli, oi oi oi
That vibe can also be seen in OlliOlli's calling card the, as Thomas describes it, "swazzy music" that has set the tone for the series. While skating games are usually associated with punk, rock, and hip-hop, OlliOlli's soundscape has always been calmer, an electro-chill that you might not necessarily have expected. The reason though, as Simon and John explain to me, is that when developing the first OlliOlli, they did initially plan for a heavy, loud soundtrack, but as Simon says: "Playing a game, especially with OlliOlli 1, that wasn't actually hugely welcoming – when you layered over the top of that someone screaming at you in French or people just playing really heavy, heavy music, those things weren't congruous with one another."
When the team found out that people were playing the game listening to the 'swazzy' music that has come to define the series, they decided to make that an official part of the game, which has continued into OlliOlli World. As Thomas explains: "Hopefully when you sit down, and the first track comes on, you want people to relax. Shoulders untense. You get into that zone. And it really does kind of get you into the flow, and it gets you into that Zenlike mode. It really does help. We actually did some music testing recently, and there was one guy who they asked to commentate his whole music testing. One of the first things he said was, "This music is great. It's really got me into the zone." I was like, 'Yes, that's exactly what we're trying to do.'"
All these elements are coming together to create the most absorbing OlliOlli yet. If the game is about getting into that flow state, every tweak has worked in its favor, creating a melody of platforming action that celebrates the skating culture in a way that we rarely, if at all, see in games. The sensation of coasting through these breezy worlds, taking in the immaculate art that already feels perfectly suited to the series, and finding the groove through the lines you discover is exactly the sort of treat we deserve after the past year. OlliOlli might not demand perfection in the way it once did, but you'll still want to strive for it.