In a world of extreme sports, one that often goes overlooked is roller derby. "What is roller derby?" some readers may ask. This is a contact sport that involves roller skating around a track and smashing into opposing players. Back around the turn of the century, the sport was featured on a cable show called RollerJam. A little over 20 years after RollerJam was canceled, Ubisoft and the team at Ubisoft Montreal are putting the spotlight back on extreme roller derby with its take on the sport: Roller Champions. The result is a fun distraction, but one that doesn't feel like it offers many reasons to return to the track.
(Roller) Skate or die
The concept of Roller Champions is a simple one. Teams of three step onto an oval-shaped track. Like a standard roller derby session, the idea is to skate around, but the Roller Champions gimmick is that there's a ball in play. Teams must maintain possession of the ball while skating across four different zones in order. After skating across all four zones while holding onto the ball, a goal ring will open up and the team must toss the ball through it in order to score.
The rules to Roller Champions sound more intimidating than they actually are in practice. The zones are clearly illustrated along with the direction that teams need to follow in order to open up the goal. In that sense, the game is easy. Where it gets competitive is that this is a full contact sport. The defense can come flying in with tackles and uppercuts, while also trying to intercept any passes. For the offense, the key is finding open teammates and keeping up momentum by using the "Pump" button to bend the knees and ride down the track's slopes. It all leads to fast-paced sessions that can easily be picked up and played with friends and strangers alike.
The intensity ratchets up when teams manage to complete additional laps without losing the ball. Scoring after two laps is good for three points. Scoring after three laps awards five points and essentially an instant win. Whether your team is lagging far behind or you feel confident that your squad is far superior to the other guys on the track, going for multiple laps often makes games more exciting. What's funny is, during my sessions, my teams would sometimes complete multiple laps either because they weren't paying attention or they forgot to shoot the ball, so scoring a three or five-pointer would wind up being a happy accident.
The core Roller Champions experience is a solid one and one that's a lot of fun to play. Unfortunately, it's the rest of the game's package that proves underwhelming.
Roller Champions is a free-to-play game. As such, the game's business model centers around cosmetic items for a player's custom character. On paper, that sounds fine. There's just one problem. The characters don't look particularly good.
Upon starting my Roller Champions experience, I was given a chance to create my character. First and foremost, the models themselves are unsightly. They look like something someone would slap together in the first week of a community college character design course. They're bland, they're flat, and there aren't many ways to customize them. You get to pick outrageous skin colors, milquetoast facial expressions, and a limited number of body shapes.
Worse, these things are almost omnipresent. They stare at you with their dead eyes at the start of every match and whenever you win, they flail their limbs in an alleged victory dance. It becomes funny for the wrong reasons.
That leads to a big problem for Roller Champions. The unlockable cosmetics look decent. I've been able to unlock hair styles, uniforms, pads, skates, and other items. At the end of the day, however, I'm still dressing this unpleasant-looking figure. There's only so much that one can do to polish this thing.
With cosmetics being a bulk of the unlockables, it leads to the question of what exactly users are playing for in the long-term. The game is fun enough to be a fun go-to for casual players every now and then. For those who want to get serious about Roller Champions, there isn't much for them outside of these players to aim towards. Leveling up does increase the amount of fans that attend games, which is a fun novelty. Just don't expect anything more than that.
Outside of the core Quick and Ranked Matches, there isn't much else to do in Roller Champions at launch. There's a Skatepark feature that allows users to practice their moves, but that wears thin quickly. There's a Custom Match feature that lets players assign a Spectator, which seems to bode well for a potential foray into esports. Beyond that, Ubisoft Montreal is planning to include more features over the game's first year. I would certainly hope so, because as it is, the game's offerings are sadly limited.
If it sounds like I'm harsh on Roller Champions, it's because I had a great time with it. It's easy to learn, it's fun to play with both friends and strangers, and the sessions are refreshingly quick. Games will often run for five minutes or less. On top of that, crossplay is available, so finding a session doesn't take too long.
Unfortunately, it's tough to center a game's progression around cosmetics when the skater that's being customized looks so bland. Add to that a limited availability of game modes at launch and Roller Champions gets off to a rough start at the track. Fortunately, the core experience is enjoyable enough that it could feasibly pick up some momentum and score some goals down the road.
This review is based on a Ubisoft Connect digital code provided by the publisher. In addition, a portion of this review was conducted via a private event with servers populated by other members of the gaming press, though time was spent outside of the confines of said event. Roller Champions will be available on Wednesday, May 25 on PC, PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X|S, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One as a free-to-play game. The game is rated E10+.
- Fun and easy-to-learn core experience
- Crossplay makes it easy to find teammates
- Sessions are quick and competitive
- Arenas are gorgeously designed
- Spectator options are available
- Free Lootballs and other rewards don't gouge your wallet
- Bland character models
- Few character customization options
- Small number of game modes at launch
- Little incentive to play long-term