Ubisoft's upcoming Roller Champions was announced at the company's E3 press conference, along with a time-limited alpha for the game (it's still available on Uplay for PC, but only runs until 14th June). That suggests some confidence in the game and, for the most part, it's not misplaced. The frequent Rocket League comparisons don't make much sense beyond the superficial facts that this is a 'future sport' where teams of three face off, and that's the best thing about Roller Champions: there's never been anything else quite like it.
The basis for the game is obviously roller derby, but layered atop this are many new elements, the most important being the addition of a ball and a goal. Both teams are trying to take the ball on counter-clockwise laps of the arena, after the first of which a goal hoop (halfway up the arena wall) lights up. You can then throw or carry the ball through it to score one point, or keep doing laps: two laps scores three points, three laps scores five points. If the enemy team touches the ball at any point, the lap counter resets. Matches last seven minutes (and there can be overtime of three minutes) or the first team to score five points wins.
What Roller Champions Gets Right
You can immediately see why Ubisoft has faith in Roller Champions, because at its heart is a simple but beautifully realised form of teamplay, built around a movement system that is simple to learn but has depth. The basic skating feels great, but what elevates it to fantastic is the way you build up speed by crouching (left trigger) on downwards slopes and switch to skating to maintain momentum when flat or going uphill. This sounds simple, and it is, but due to the arena's ramped base and surrounding walls, building and maintaining speed is both exhilarating and can be quite tricky – not least when you're trying to home in on a speeding ball carrier.
When this is paired with the ingenious teamplay mechanics, Roller Champions really starts to take off. The passing system is built around a single twist that makes all the difference: teammates must 'request' the ball before you can pass direct, after which there's a timing window for the ball-carrier to respond with the pass button themselves. Get the timings right and your team will be whizzing the ball between themselves as you build speed, overshoot each other, and leave opponents in the dust. Mess up your timings, or try to be a ball hog and go all the way on your own, and the ball will either go loose or you'll be crowded and inevitably tackled by the enemy team. There's room for awesome solo manoeuvres in these matches, sure, but the team that passes to each other will always win.
One of the reasons this all works so well is that Roller Champions is efficient with the controller. The pass button requests passes when you don't have the ball; when you do, it passes the ball. The tackle button, when you have the ball, becomes the dodge button. Then you start to understand the kinks in an apparently simple move like jumping: try coming down off a corner wall at top speed, jumping just as you hit the flat and angling towards the middle for a wall-run that can take you merrily sailing over the heads of entire teams. Roller Champions is one of those games where you'll start off with skates of clay and, after seeing what other players do in matches, you'll soon be grinding in the heavens.
The Rocket League comparisons have been wildly overdone. Roller Champions' take on teamplay is unique, and the cherry on top is the scoring mechanic, which switches you to a behind-the-shoulder view with an aiming arrow. At low speed with no pressure, it's a doddle. When you're flying with maximum laps on the board, and three opponents are two seconds away from flattening you, it's a whole other ballgame. I've bounced five-pointers off the rim simply because that giant hoop, in the crucial moment, suddenly seemed so small. And I'm pretty sure you will too.
I love the art style too: chunky, bright, and full of personality. No doubt it'll be packed with cosmetics on release, and I'm actually looking forward to seeing them.
Finally, the matchmaking is very fast and I've had no latency problems at all.
What's Not Quite Right Yet
First off: this is an alpha. There's certain stuff I could point out, but it'll almost definitely not be an issue in the final version. For example, you can't skip replays, which is annoying, but if that's the case in the finished game I'll eat my elbow pads. So I'm going to focus on aspects that need a little more work, rather than the ones that aren't there.
The arenas all have arrows pointing counter-clockwise, so at least it's clear which way to go. But the tutorial left a lot to be desired in explaining exactly how the scoring works, and it took me a match or two to realise that laps could only be started under the goal hoop. This seems to confuse a lot of my teammates also, judging by how many of them pick up the ball 'after' the hoop and, rather than reversing one metre and starting a lap, loop round the entire arena to start a lap. This is not the most confusing element of the game once you 'get' it but, for new players, clarity about such rules is essential.
Roller Champions has a communication system similar to Rocket League's quickchat setup, but I don't find the chat options especially useful, and almost none of my teammates are using it. This is a team game and that suggests to me this needs a re-think. They should just rip off Rocket League really, why be shy, and while you're at it nick that game's brilliant brilliant training mode (which allows you to download custom drills created by other players).
The fan system at the moment rewards only winning and scoring goals. In a match I played last night, I tackled an opposition player and then danced and passed my way around the track until the five-goal opportunity came up. Then, because one of my teammates was in a better spot and they were closing in, I passed forwards. They had acres of time and space, and sealed the game for us. Afterwards, they got all the fans for it (because they scored). I played another match which ended in a blistering 4-4 draw after overtime. Every player in that match received... five fans. Doesn't seem right. I don't think the game needs to be overloaded with pointless awards, but if it's going to run with this fan system then it needs some way of recognising passing play, blocking play, and good teamplay in general.
This is only true of certain arenas, but the lap bars don't seem to 'pop' enough. Generally I like the style used: three coloured lines that encircle the arena and light up as you build laps. But some of Roller Champions' arenas have very busy surroundings, with cheering audiences and all manner of distractions. These light bars need to communicate information in a split-second; when I'm on a snaking run near the goal and I'm not sure if this is the second or third lap, I need to be able to glance and know in an instant. I do feel a bit nit-picky about this, because they look nice and do the job well most of the time, but if you play long enough you'll find yourself trying to check them at odd angles (for example at the top of a ramp before zooming down), and not being able to get the info before focusing on the immediate threats.
Non-barging player collisions at the moment, whether with a teammate or an opponent, have a strange floaty weightlessness to them and slow you both down. This is one of the elements that at the moment seems like a major flaw. This is a physical game and at the moment, quite an important element of that is yet to be implemented, so you end up in these weird situations of teams clipping through each other and reducing themselves to a crawl, or barging an opponent to the ground whose body then immediately makes you levitate and lose speed as your skater 'rolls' over it. I'm not saying we need to see FIFA levels of player interaction, but there needs to be something other than barging in Roller Champions – a jostling mechanic perhaps, because at the minute physical collisions feel far, far too simplistic. It's either/or and, in a team sport about contact, that's already feeling a bit old after only a day or two.
But it's Pretty Great Regardless!
Despite any minor misgivings, I've been loving Roller Champions. It feels fresh, it feels exciting, and I adore the mix of building momentum and quickfire teamplay. It's one of those games where yourself and two internet randoms, for a perfect seven minute period, skate around on the same wavelength: silently adopting formation, battering opponents who approach the ball carrier; tossing the ball around at top speed like Barcelona playing tiki-taka; hitting the top of the corner wall, hanging, then accelerating down and overshooting your ball carrier, taking the pass and disappearing as the opponents flail in the distance.
It all depends on the structure Ubisoft builds around it, of course, but just going on the core experience? Yeah: Roller Champions could be something special. The PC alpha runs until 14th June and you can get it through Uplay.