Review: Robot Roller-Derby Disco Dodgeball

Robot Roller-Derby Disco Dodgeball is a hard game to review. On one hand, it’s fantastic and one of the best multiplayer arena shooters in a long time: it’s colorful and creative and weird in the best possible ways. The mechanics are well thought-out and offer a deceptively high skill ceiling. It triggers any nostalgia you might have for games like Quake III: Arena and Unreal Tournament 2004 in a modern way while also carving out its own niche. It’s impossible not to recommend. On the other hand, almost no one else plays it, and that’s a huge bummer for a multiplayer shooter.

Should a low player count factor into the final assessment? It could be a temporary setback easily remedied with a hefty Steam sale in the summer for a surge of new players, but it’s a real concern for anyone looking to play it today. So what do you do? Do you praise the game for being totally stellar, an incredible achievement for one man, Erik Asmussen, to develop by himself? Or do you pan it for failing to find a large enough audience? It’s a tough question to answer, so let’s start with the game itself.

There is nothing bad about the design of Robot Roller-Derby Disco Dodgeball. From top to bottom, it is an incredible game. It is excellence distilled. It is a focused concept executed perfectly and with clever variation where it makes sense. Dodgeball has always seemed like a no-brainer to make for a fun game, but so few developers have ever even attempted it. The way Disco Dodgeball translates the sport into a game is impeccably simple: It’s played from a first-person perspective, tasking you with picking up balls scattered around the level and throwing them at other players. Every shot is a one-hit kill, but the rules of dodgeball apply, so if you click another player’s ball in time as it hurtles toward you, you’ll catch it and they’ll die instead. At a base level, that’s all you really need to worry about, and it works incredibly well. Even if you’re not familiar with dodgeball, in practice, the game essentially just feels like Quake III if you had to pick up each railgun shot before firing.

But “dodgeball” is only one word in the game’s tongue twister of a title. For color and for variance, the game also layers on interesting new concepts, like the idea that — by the way — you’re a robot in an interstellar dodgeball tournament that takes influences from roller-derby and disco to become galactic president after the accidental destruction of Earth. Much of the premise there is nothing more than background info players will have to dig around for (or ask Asmussen himself) but a surprising amount affects the gameplay in profound ways. In particular, the wheel mechanic that has you rolling instead of running is a brilliant design decision for a dodgeball game. You have momentum, so if you move forward, then simply let off of the button, you’ll keep rolling forward for a little while. It feels weird at first and is probably the only part of Disco Dodgeball that isn’t immediately intuitive, but it’s hard to imagine the game working as well without it. Putting every player on a wheel makes it possible in the chaos of a match to gauge a potential trajectory for your target and throw your dodgeball with the proper lead. In any other shooter, where players can turn on a dime, circle strafe easily, move quickly in random directions, a mechanic like having to pick up and throw a single dodgeball just wouldn’t work without dramatically slowing the game to compensate.

There are additional nuances to master above the basic controls, like limited boosts and charged jumps, braking and power sliding. You don’t really need to worry about the advanced techniques if you just want to play casually and have fun, but it’s satisfying when you start exploiting the game’s unique movement system to pull off crazy moves, like boosting off a ramp to catch a thrown ball, or propelling forward but facing backward to hit a player behind you. It’s the same kind of frenetic, twitch-based action you’d get from one of those early arena shooters, but with a fun twist that makes it easier to stay alive longer and makes every shot feel important. Power-ups offer interesting variations that you can pick up that will have different effects like the jetpack that lets you fly for short periods, or the flame ball that makes your throws uncatchable. There’s a real strategy to finding the right power-up for your play style, so it’s usually worth it to run the circuit a few times to make sure you don’t end up with say, the homing power-up that guides the trajectory of your throws toward other players in h a h a slight way that it’s almost not worth picking up at all. But the laser power-up that makes your throws go in a perfectly straight line? Yes please.

The game manages to stay fresh over long periods of time by constantly cycling through different modes and maps after every round without the bloat of most modern shooters — you simply roll from one to the next. It’s not entirely unlike a game like Killzone 2 that had you switching between objective modes in the same match. You’ll hop from pretty standard shooter modes like Team Deathmatch and Elimination to wilder stuff like Super Ball and Grand Prix. Our favorite mode was definitely Hoops, though, which essentially turns the game into a dodgeball-basketball hybrid match by tasking both teams with fighting over a golden ball and throwing it through the other team’s hoop. The way the modes rotate makes it difficult to stop playing, too. You’ll always want to wait to see what the next mode is going to be, then you’ll start playing just a little longer, then you’ll rationalize playing through a round because they’re so quick, then the cycle begins again and it’s suddenly an hour later.

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The game doesn’t just play well, but it looks awesome, too. The marriage of futuristic robotics and old-school disco led to levels that look like dance clubs in Tron. The neon lights and vibrant colors pop against the black environment, which not only looks great but makes the level geometry really easy to interpret as you play.  It’s an art style that’s great for gameplay, looks fantastic, and scales well if you’re not on a gaming computer and need to turn the settings down to maintain frame rate. The disco theme doesn’t really extend to the music, though, and instead the game opts for a killer soundtrack contracted out to various artists that supplied thumping electronic dance tracks that feel endlessly replayable and pump you up during a match. Sections of the walls light up like equalizers timed with the music and make the tracks play an even more integral role in the gameplay. It’s not quite Rez levels of synaesthesia, but the soundtrack does help pull you in and energize you during each match.

There’s a single-player component to Disco Dodgeball that feels a lot like the single-player in a Call of Duty game for most people: it’s a fun addition, but it’s not what you’re there for. You can play Arcade mode for a set progression of enemies punctuated by the occasional boss that takes multiple hits to defeat, or Horde mode to take on waves of enemy bots. They’re both reasonably enjoyable modes with more depth than you’d expect, like how Arcade mode lets you earn currency used to buy upgrades between rounds, but again, it’s not what you’re there for. The only problem is that Disco Dodgeball — at the time of press — only ever seems to have maybe a dozen or so players connected at once scattered across its various regions. We’ve had very little luck finding more than a couple players in the US East server, so typically we’ve been playing on the Amsterdam server that, at around eight players on average, is by far the most populated.

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Closing Comments:

At press time, Robot Roller-Derby Disco Dodgeball is the highest rated multiplayer game on Steam, beating out heavy hitters like Counter-Strike and Left 4 Dead 2, with 99% positive user reviews. It’s a cool statistic, but Disco Dodgeball hasn’t even cracked 1,000 reviews yet, whereas Counter-Strike has almost 40,000 reviews and Left 4 Dead 2 has almost 90,000. And that’s kind of the story of Robot Roller-Derby Disco Dodgeball in a nutshell: it’s easily one of the best, most fun, well-crafted multiplayer games available right now, making it all the more impressive that it was designed entirely by one person, but no one is playing it.