Rollerdrome preview: Hands-on with the skating sensation born from a viral tweet

Rollerdrome screenshot
(Image credit: Roll7)

You never know when two very different activities might turn out to be harmonious. Take roller-skating and shooting, for example, the core ingredients of Rollerdrome. The potential of this combination became clear in May 2018, when solo game designer Paul Rabbitte tweeted a GIF of his latest spare time project, "inspired in equal parts by the old Tony Hawks and the new Doom." The short clip showed a shotgun wielding roller-skater flipping over a quarter pipe, then flying off a ramp and slow-motion blasting a sniper from mid-air. It soon went viral, taking off as quickly as the skater herself. 

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Four years later, Rollerdrome is the result that emerged from that prototype and the social media buzz that followed. The finished article could only come to fruition, however, once Rabbitte joined forces with Roll7, the London-based studio best known for their own skating series, OlliOlli. Roll7 took on the project with Rabbitte as creative director, and another kind of harmony emerged. "Paul basically needed a development team to link up with," Drew Jones, Rollerdrome's lead producer, explains. And once the two met, "it was pretty much a match made in heaven."

Hands on with Rollerdrome

I've now had a chance to play Rollerdrome, and it definitely feels like all the parts are pulling in the same direction. Protagonist Kara Hassan, a novice competitor in a brutal arena-based future sport, moves with slick style as she pumps herself forward, coasts in graceful arcs, and squat jumps to gain maximum air. That's before you start pulling off grabs, spins, and grinds, and sandwiching flourishes of gunfire into your skatepark routines. Not to mention the cinematic flair each time you trigger slow-motion and pop an enemy with a shotgun while gliding by on a rail, or launch Kara off a pipe, twist her body to train twin pistols on a nearby goon, then empty the clip before descending into a perfect landing.

Indeed, while you may be familiar with the trick controls of OlliOlli that carry over to Rollerdrome, the violence changes everything. Even performing show-off spinning grabs is a means to an end as it refills ammo supplies, allowing you to chain together quick kills of enemy 'house players'. What initially seems like OlliOlli in 3D, then, was very much a new challenge for Roll7. "We've made a conscious effort to go in different directions," head of QA David Jenkins tells me, "and push boundaries and try different things rather than making the same thing over and over again."

Rollerdrome screenshot

(Image credit: Roll7)

The shift is visible throughout Rollerdrome, in fact, not least in its lowkey backstory of corporate corruption and stark aesthetic, from sharp comic-book lines to the robotic tones of its stadium announcer. "Roll7's games to date have mostly been quite light hearted," Jones says, "But this game is more tonally on the level – there are no wisecracks." The obvious point of reference here is 1970s dystopian sci-fi cinema, with the largest nod of recognition aimed at cult classic Rollerball. "There's a lot of passion on the development team for this era," Jones says, "even though most of us didn't exist [back then]." Their aim was to create a view of the near future (the game is set in 2030) from the perspective of the '70s, and the period feel does add sinister grittiness beneath the pristine geometry. "There's an oppression within the society," Jenkins says, "so although we want everything to look cool, we don't necessarily want it to look nice."

It turns out the Moebius-style visuals are more than merely striking, however – their bold clarity is highly practical since screens are also a heck of a lot busier in Rollerdrome than in Roll7's other games. You'll soon be weaving between homing missiles, sniper shots, and mini-mechs armed with flamethrowers, all while trying to make time for tricks and keep your momentum going. This complexity is something the developers have tried to account for. "When we started playtesting and saw users that were totally fresh to it," Jones says, "we realised there was a fair bit to contend with in terms of the mechanics." It took a number of iterations to find the best way to introduce both the skating and shooting aspects so that they gelled for players. "That really was one of the biggest challenges on the project," he says.

Entering the flow state

Rollerdrome screenshot

(Image credit: Roll7)

Such challenges in part emerged because this was Roll7's first fully 3D game. "Flow state gaming is obviously our thing," Jenkins says, "and that's relatively easy with OlliOlli because you come at any given ramp from one direction, so there's a limited amount of leeway you need to provide for the landing. But in a three-dimensional environment, you can go in any direction across anything, and land anywhere." One goal in playtesting the multi-layered levels was thus to ensure there's always somewhere to move into, so you don't find yourself landing awkwardly in a corner.

Still, in practice, you might end up bouncing off the occasional wall, no matter how many rails and slopes usher you away (although at least your diving dodge move enables a handy instant change of direction). But that's more because Rollerdrome is a tough game by design, where plans for stylish manoeuvres can evolve into clumsy misjudgement under pressure from lasers, mines, and baseball bats. "We really wanted the gameplay to complement the narrative," Jones continues, "where you're a totally fresh competitor in an aggressive, brutal blood sport. It should feel like you're really up against it." Once the qualifying round of four stages is done, then, expect to have your hands full staying alive, let alone clinically dropping foes and completing bonus challenges. 

If that sounds ominous, you should be relieved to learn that there is also a suite of assist options to tailor your travails, from boosting your health to infinite ammo and full-on invincibility (although activating any of these stops you from uploading scores to online leaderboards). "We didn't want anybody to get through the game first time without failing," Jenkins adds, "but we also want everyone to see the whole game, rather than just a third of it, then throw the controller through the TV." At some level, this may sound like a contradictory statement – with assists you very much can get through the game without failing – but equally it's another form of harmony, between the game itself and all kinds of players.

However you decide to play it, then, there's no doubt that Rollerdrome seems to have its pieces aligned. It contains the initial impactful, showy essence promised in that prototype GIF, now refined and fleshed out by Roll7's knowhow. Now it remains to be seen how long the enjoyment lasts with those spinning mid-air kills and harsher challenges. Here again, Jones seems confident that there will be harmony – of sorts. "The game really starts when all of the elements are combined and mixed together," he says. "It's chaos, in the best way."

Rollerdrome is one of our most anticipated upcoming PS5 games and new PC games. Roll7 is set to release Rollerdrome on August 16, 2022. While you wait, why not check out some of the best shooters you can play right now. 

Freelance Games Critic

 Jon Bailes is a freelance games critic, author and social theorist. After completing a PhD in European Studies, he first wrote about games in his book Ideology and the Virtual City, and has since gone on to write features, reviews, and analysis for Edge, Washington Post, Wired, The Guardian, and many other publications. His gaming tastes were forged by old arcade games such as R-Type and classic JRPGs like Phantasy Star. These days he’s especially interested in games that tell stories in interesting ways, from Dark Souls to Celeste, or anything that offers something a little different.