Steel Rats Review: A Misaligned Destruction Derby
Indie studio Tate Multimedia has taken the concept of physics stunt driving often found in games like Trials HD and Trials Fusion and redesigned it for console and PC gamers who want a little more action.
Steel Rats, the culmination of that distillation, is a 2.5D action platformer where you drive a motorcycle hellbent on destruction through a retro-futuristic city overrun by killer robots -- or in this case, JunkBots. You'll control one of four members of the Steel Rats biker gang (which you can switch between) as they fight their way through Coastal City across 28 levels and five unique districts.
Familiar Gameplay Gets Advanced
If you have played any game from the Trials series, you will be familiar with the physics-based motorcycle gameplay Steel Rats is built upon, such as flipping your 2D bike through the air during both precarious and non-precarious jumps. But Tate Multimedia didn't stop there as Steel Rats has turned that concept into a fully fleshed out 2.5D experience, complete with a progressing storyline, unique level design, and unlockable upgrades.
Despite all of that, though, the game still plays like an arcade game at heart — each level is short and can usually be completed within a few minutes. No moments of lengthy exposition here.
In fact, it's really all about gameplay.
Your motorcycle’s front tire is equipped with a glowing red saw, which helps you destroy the many enemies and obstacles in your path through the city. Hands down, this feature is one of the game’s coolest — activating the saw has different uses, too, such as receiving a speed boost and clinging to walls and ceilings, both vertically and horizontally.
Not only does it do that, but it also helps you destroy cars, debris, and JunkBots that get in your way by holding down the blade's activation button.
Although each character’s motorcycle handles the same, each of the four has a unique attack. For example, Toshi has a small, flying robot that shoots lasers, while the front of James’ motorcycle slams down like an energy hammer. You can also unlock different upgrades for each character as you progress through the game, adding a bit of variety to the overall gameplay.
When it works, driving through Coastal City at full speed is when this game is at its best. Each level has moments where everything transforms into an eclectic playground full of high-speed stunts and destruction. Unfortunately, you aren't always going top speed — you'll sometimes find yourself stopping to fight JunkBots, complete short puzzles, or navigate through impossibly slow, tight turns.
While each level is short, they are not always linear. Sometimes you will have to complete a task, such as powering up generators in a specific order, before backtracking to proceed through the level. This sounds OK and does add variety to the gameplay, but it also slows down a game that's built around speed, and for some players, this anachronism will stand out.
All of that aside, the main issue with Steel Rats' control scheme is that it’s not intuitive. Even after playing for a while, you may find yourself thinking about the next button you will need to press instead of just intuitively reacting.
Holding the right trigger/bumper accelerates your motorcycle while pressing "circle" (PS4) or B (XB1)performs a U-turn. Since the game is on a 2.5D plane, pushing up and down on the joystick moves you up and down along a horizontal track. Pushing left and right on your joystick rotates your bike forward and backward while in mid-air, akin to mobile motorcycle stunt games like Trials.
However, controlling your motorcycle can feel “floaty” and loose at first. For example, your first instinct may be to turn the joystick the other way to get your motorcycle to turn around, but that makes you tilt back.
"R2" and "RT" is throttle and holding "X"/"A" activates your saw blade, which means you will most likely be holding both of these throughout most of the game. But with "triangle"/"Y" being jump, it can be awkward to let go of your saw blade to reach all the way up to jump.
"R1"/"RB" will cause you to dash forward, which means you end up holding down three buttons on one hand. If you could change the controls for Steel Rats, it would greatly improve the overall experience, but as of right now, you can't.
Getting used to Steel Rats will test your patience and your true gaming ability. You most likely haven’t played a game with controls like this before. And if you have, it has never been this demanding.
In the end, great sound design and a creative concept carry this game far. The sound of driving your motorcycle is immensely satisfying, and the idea of driving a destructive roadster through a robot-infested city is just plain cool -- and the gameplay has some great arcade elements that help it stand out.
However, there are a few aspects of Steel Rats that could be tweaked or changed completely, especially in the controls department. If a future update includes button configuration, Steel Rats would become a completely different game. Couple this hiccup with the game's weak enemy design, where basically every Junkbot is a smaller or larger version of the last, and the experience can devolve into arduous repetition at times.
If you get frustrated with difficult-to-master or awkward controls, you should skip this one. But if you love a real challenge, Steel Rats is an easy purchase.
[Note: The developer provided the copy of Steel Rats used for this review.]