The first hour of Rollerdrome absolutely fucks. I’m not sure I could name another video game I’ve played recently that’s delivered more white-knuckle joy than those first few levels, first couple weapons, first attempts at the beautiful bullet ballet, in so little time. Kara Hassan pirouetting with pistols in a sequence that would make John Woo cry felt like the absolute peak of video gaming. I couldn’t believe how perfect it was.
But Rollerdrome isn’t just that hour, it’s a few hours. And its in each additional hour that the seams start to unravel a bit. Not fully, the game doesn’t fall apart, but it definitely gets a bit threadbare.
The elevator pitch here is simple: Tony Hawk’s Pro Shooter. Jet Shoot Radio. OlliOlli: Shotgun Stance. The control scheme will feel mostly familiar to folks who’ve played any or all of its extreme sport progenitors. Tricks are largely performed with a jump, then a combination of directional inputs and grabs on the way down. This combines surprisingly smoothly with the shooting as the aiming reticle is generous and you have ample slo-mo to help line things up. Levels end when all enemies are killed, but since the level gradually repopulates as you kill enough targets your first run will likely feel more like an arena shooter than anything else. It’s in replaying the levels that you’ll go for challenges, and because they don’t all require you to complete the level they offer a decent injection of variety.
So the gameplay is stellar, truly. But there’s also not a lot of it. I don’t mean that there aren’t sufficient levels (11 plus an unlockable hard mode that remixes them) or challenges (10 per level), I mean that the actual content of Rollerdrome is fully revealed by the halfway point. Enemy types are few because they need to be easily identifiable, weapons are fewer and the last one you get is frankly a bit annoying to use on controller, the level aesthetics are reused, and the total of two boss fights are basically the same fight twice with different enemy placement. When the levels themselves are largely kept simple because the focus of the game is shooting and not tricks you had better leverage the hell out of the combat, and by the time I finished my initial playthrough I found that wasn’t entirely the case.
The problem with Rollerdrome‘s combat is that it’s the most simplistic part of the puzzle. You shoot guns and tricks reload guns, but performing more complex tricks doesn’t do anything to assist this beyond racking up a bit more score by the end. The real moneymaker in terms of points is maintaining your combo for a level’s entire duration, and that’s purely a matter of pacing your kills to reset the ever-ticking timer and getting shot as little as possible. Your tricks can’t fail since you always action roll if you don’t quite stick the landing, so that’s never a concern. Dodges are pretty easy to time to the point where it’s optimal to bait enemies into attacking you so you can abuse the perfect dodge damage bonus to take out enemies that would otherwise take multiple ride-bys.
Once you fully understand the game’s combat and focus on what actually needs to be focused on, the game loses a significant amount of its appeal. Move. Dodge. Shoot. Do some kind of grab spin, doesn’t matter which. Repeat. It goes from exciting and impressive to methodical and repetitive. It almost works to support the in-game story of how the hosting company Matterhorn is focusing too much on making the events more extreme for viewership reasons only to compromise the sport itself, and if that’s intentional it’s an impressive bit of immersive storytelling, but did they have to make the gameplay suffer for it?
I worry that in dissecting Rollerdrome this way I’m being a joyless hack. This is the kind of game where I took no screenshots during my initial playthrough because I was too focused on enjoying what was in front of me, figuring out the systems, completing challenges bit by bit. I truly enjoyed it even though it dragged a bit by the end. It was when I went back for more, hoping to recapture some of that early magic in hard mode or challenges, that the shine wore off as its mechanics were laid bare. The game is good. I just wish it were great.