There’s an old Lohman and Barkley radio sketch about a guy at a McDonald’s drive-thru whose brakes have failed. He’s persistent, though. He circles the joint, racing along, getting his order out in bursts. One…Burger…
It’s a lovely joke, and a joke with a certain kind of shape to it. Something of the Doppler effect. You listen and you hear the arc, the sound of something coming very close and then swinging away again. You get to hear the sensation of a curve, a loop. Maybe he was just hungry.
Anyway. This week I asked a couple of people who are making Rollerdrome at Roll7 what an ideal Rollerdrome map should look like. I thought they might talk about arcs or loops, and they did, in a way. But only because of what arcs and loops do to players. The ideal Rollerdrome map is a churn, I was told. No corners, as such. Everything brings you back to the centre and once you’re at the centre, you never stop. Out again, but never too far. Always coming back. Always returning. One…Burger…
Rollerdrome is a skating game and a shooting game, and it’s both of these things in perfect, balanced proportion. You’re always skating and you’re always shooting. You have the expressiveness of something like OlliOlli, and the jabbing, cattle-prod violence of Not a Hero. Guns and rollerskates: together at last.
There is a game within the game, which explains the TV cameras scattered about and the way baddies are referred to as “House Players” or somesuch. But in truth I thought of that not at all as I played Rollerdrome. I didn’t think of how clever and kitsch the staging is with its 70s fonts and thin-lined comic book aesthetic – emphatically not Cel-shaded, I am told. An aesthetic that should invoke Moebius, but actually reminds me of old in-flight safety card illustrations with their serene, Valium-braced horrors.
And I didn’t try to have any thoughts about how Roll7’s embraced three-dimensions after the side-scrolling of stuff like OlliOlli and the top-downiness of the deliriously good Laser League. Instead I arced and curved and shot people and watched the points go up in a game that seemed to bring all of Roll7’s previous games into conjunction. And later, I reflected on how beautifully all this stuff you do in the game is knotted together.
Here is the thing, then. You are dropped into each Rollerdrome map to zip around and kill everybody inside. You do this with a range of weapons, each of which have their own quirks to master. But there are two steel-reinforced threads running through the game and they bind everything together and never change. One: you can only regain health by killing baddies. Two: you can only regain ammo by pulling off tricks.
Just think about that for a second. Even on paper, think about what it does for risk and reward and what it does for – that word again, always very important with Roll7 – expressiveness. You’re low on health and the baddies are all around: you have no choice but to commit to something dangerous. You’re low on ammo and sniper beams are trained on you: you have no choice but to commit to something stylish.
If you haven’t already guessed, Rollerdrome is brilliant. It reminds me of OlliOlli, sure, as I race around pulling off grabs and twists and wall-runs and scribbling a loose, looping penstroke through the world. But it reminds me of Robotron, too, as I find space for myself to survive in this arena, and learn to take down a bunch of baddies who all have their own gimmicks.
Examples. Standard melee fellows – the Jarvis fan in me was delighted to see they’re called Grunts – are straightforward at first. Keep your distance and then suddenly swing in close. Tanky sorts: get in a few shots before the shields come down and then disappear for a bit. Those snipers! Keep them alive! Keep them alive, as you can get a huge ammo refill bonus for dodging just as they shoot at you. There’s something great about killing a sniper with ammo that they effectively just gave you.
Oh, yes. That sniper-kiting thing works up until it absolutely doesn’t work, by the way, and that’s because of the different enemy types – the rocket guys, those simple melee Grunts – that you aren’t thinking about when you’re fixated by the laser sights that are following you, waiting for the second when you get the cue to dodge. But this is what changes in Rollerdrome, I think, from one level to the next: alongside the new geometry and colours and the steady creep of a plot, this is the progression. As new weapons turn up in your arsenal, as new enemy types spawn alongside one another, you’re really learning how to thread it all together in new ways.
Testify! You’re learning how best to use your trigger-squeeze-worth of slow-down, when to smash through the best splintering, sugar-brittle glass since Die Hard so you can move onto a new part of the map, when to take a risk for a collectible that seems just out of reach, when to take a second chance on that ramp that may give you the air you need to get the drop on somebody.
Clever arenas and enemies spawning in promising groups, great weapons and delirious movement options. And what really makes it irresistible, I suspect, is the list of challenges that greets you whenever you start a new level. Eliminate a House Player while wallriding. Eliminate 3 Warheads using only Dual Pistols. Perform a Melancholy Flip by the Trick Token. It’s Tony Hawk. It’s The Club. It’s emphatically Roll7 – every game the team has made. Finish the level, sure, and do it quickly, but also – why not look good along the way?