Roller Champions is 2019’s Rocket League and I’m already addicted

Roller Champions is a lot more fun than it has any right to be. Roller derby, the real-life sport the new Ubisoft game is based upon, is nigh-on incomprehensible to the average viewer. Two teams jostle around a small oval, pushing one another around and, presumably, scoring points somewhere among the chaos. I say presumably because I’ve watched 15 minutes of it since playing Roller Champions, and it just looks like a bunch of people tentatively shoving one another.

Fortunately, the only elements of this weird sport that have carried over into Roller Champions are the shape of the track and the rollerblades. Ubisoft has instead used it as a jumping-off point for its own unique virtual sport, which shares DNA with Rocket League but still does its own thing with impressive results.

In Roller Champions, two teams of three players are tasked with rollerblading counter-clockwise around an oval track. On one side of the track, there’s a goal ring, in which a ball can be thrown to earn points. The number of points that can be earned from scoring a goal is increased depending on the number of laps your team does around the track. The first team to reach 5 points wins the match.

Rocket League was so successful because it was a simple concept executed perfectly. While newcomers can immediately dive in and understand what it is they’re supposed to do, high-level players can boost through the air, perform dazzling tricks, and score impressive goals. Roller Champions is more unorthodox and therefore more difficult to understand than “it’s soccer, but with cars,” but after you get the hang of it (and stop racing around the track backward, which is a recurring theme among new players), it can be just as engrossing and addictive.

Roller Champions Preview | Filling the donut

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In order to carry your team to victory in Roller Champions, you must master the fine art of forcefully throwing yourself into opponents in order to knock the ball out of their hands. This is achieved with a press of the X button, while the ball-holder can also press X to evade your advances. This results in plenty of fake-outs, with you baiting your rivals into lunging for you in order to dodge them and carry on to victory.

The direction in which you dodge doesn’t matter; after hitting X, you’ll briefly turn untouchable, a simplification that helps to make Roller Champions accessible for the first-time player. However, the invincibility they provide does make them feel a touch overpowered when compared to the tackles, which struggle to factor in momentum or the direction in which you’re lunging.

I’ve repeatedly found myself being brought to the ground by an opponent in front of me after trying to tackle them from behind, due to them having pressed X slightly before me. Roller Champions isn’t exactly going for realism, but the inconsistency of its physics can lead to frustrating moments.

Passing requires the player off the ball to call for it with the Y button, so you can’t throw it between you and teammates with wild abandon. You also have no real control over how successful the pass will be; a long-distance pass will rarely make its way to the player, usually hurtling ahead of them. Short-distance passes are much easier to pull off, but can still sometimes fail to meet their intended target.

In order to score a goal, you press LB to bring up an arrow that highlights the trajectory of your shot before you take it. You line up the arrow with the goal ring (also referred to as a “donut” by the commentator) in order to ensure the ball will go through the hoop, netting your team points in the process. Whenever you lose possession of the ball it resets your laps, providing a real sense of risk/reward when it comes to deciding whether or not you should take your shot.

Do you shoot and try to bag your team a point? Or do you keep going for another lap around the track, potentially earning more points but also running the risk of losing the ball to your opponents? There’s always the allure of racing three laps around the track, scoring 5 points and winning the entire game in the process, but that’s typically only achievable if your team is working like a well-oiled machine.

Roller Champions Preview | Gaining momentum

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But more than shooting, passing, and tackling, the key to becoming an efficient Roller Champions players lies in your understanding of how to adequately build up speed. By holding the left trigger while rolling downhill, you can tuck your legs and gain a great deal of momentum. The winding tracks and their scalable walls make them a playground for this mechanic, and it’s Roller Champion‘s offers a great sense of speed, with your rollerblades

The demo is a pre-alpha build, so plenty is missing here that will be present in the main game. Customization options will be available for player-characters, with the demo already highlighting some of the diverse options players will get to choose from across male and female avatars. Leaderboards will also be accessible in the full game, with Roller Champions rewarding players with “fans” rather than XP. After each match, you’ll get to see a stadium of these fans fill up based on your performance.

In the demo, fans are largely tied into goal-scoring. Playing defensively and taking down opponents in order to clear a path for your teammates is crucial, yet successful takedowns aren’t reflected in the number of fans who acquire post-game. Hopefully, Roller Champions does more to adequately reward defensive players in the finished game, as right now it encourages players to retain possession and go for goal themselves rather than work as a team.

A handful of maps are included, though these only differ visually. It’s over-the-top, colorful art style is attractive, but its performance issues are not. With this being a pre-alpha build, it’s more than likely that the majority of Roller Champions‘ performance problems will be ironed out before launch, but the demo can be a shaky experience. Its frame rate is inconsistent, which is a problem when attempting to time tackles and take shots. Unusual glitches also pop up infrequently, such as one particular error where the game spawned in 3 bots in the place of 2 players.

However, given that this is an early build of Roller Champions, we can give Ubisoft the benefit of the doubt that these issues will be resolved by the time the game has its full launch. As it stands, the demo is a tremendously fun oddity that has hooked its claws in me, making it a surprise standout from this year’s E3. Roller derby doesn’t have quite the same appeal as car soccer, but there’s a lot of potential here for Ubisoft to strike gold.