In concept alone, Steel Rats is an unusual concoction of game design. It’s what you get when you add a pinch of science fiction to the recipe of Trials HD and mix in a heavy whipping of vehicular combat with an extra dose of the sweat of a motorcycle gang. As weird as that may come across, its idea is sound and the visions of what this game could have been are stunning, but sadly, this recipe was undercooked and the final product is a disappointing game that only rarely gives a taste of what could have been. Read on to find out why.
Publisher: Tate Multimedia
Developer: Tate Multimedia
Platform: Windows PC (Reviewed), PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Release Date: November 7th, 2018
Following a motorcycle gang composed of four individuals who each have different health bars and abilities, the story within Steel Rats is a simple one. Robots composed of metallic junk have risen up and are hellbent on destroying humanity as we know it. Evil bots might I add whose names are just a bit too on the nose for my preference.
Throughout the experience combat will be engaged on Spinners, a robot that curls into a wheel shaped bomb that rolls after the player; Hatchers, a robot that gives birth to spinners by spewing them out its front hole; and Hovers, robots that well, hover, and an assortment of other villainous clunkers that never offer too much of a challenge.
Playing as Lisa, James, Randy, and Toshi, the core gameplay loop of the game is an interesting one. Similar to the Trials series and other games of that style, players drive through each level on a motorcycle and balance their characters while riding over jumps, obstacles, and other environmental hazards. Immediately Steel Rats sets itself apart with an added layer of literal depth.
Upon pushing up or down on the left joystick, the characters you control move up or down within the environment. Unlike other games of this nature, you’re not stuck on one plane and limited to just either moving forward or backwards. Throughout the entire experience this added layer of maneuverability remained the most difficult aspect to the game.
Many times I would be cruising at high speeds only to misjudge my location in parallel to objects within the track and crash headfirst into them. In one level in particular I must have fallen off the course while navigating thin planks of wood at least five times. Never once did I feel this area of the game was unfair or overly difficult as such deaths could be attributed to my own misjudgments or shoddy eye sight.
Another new feature to this style of game, at least in my own personal experiences within this genre and its variants, is the aforementioned vehicular combat. Scattered throughout each map are the un-creatively named robots that I mentioned above. Engaging with them is simple and the player has a variety of options when it comes to tackling each foe.
With the press of R3 characters can be changed in real time within each map, and the change occurs as quickly as the button can be pressed. Besides their different personalities and looks, each character comes equipped with their own set of abilities.
There’s primary attacks like Toshi’s junkbot pet that with the press of the square button will shoot out bolts of lightning, charge attacks like Lisa’s napalm ability in which she leaves a trail of fire in her wake, and ultimates, of which my favorite was Jame’s. This move has him spin in a circle while unleashing his hammer ability, often killing anything within the radius.
Of all the characters the only one I didn’t enjoy playing as was Randy. His moves weren’t all that useful to my play style. His main ability has him shooting a harpoon which can become lodged into enemies and I just didn’t have fun with it.
Along with the three types of attacks that are different based on what character I used, other means of dispatching enemies are guns. Use of these weapons are limited to finite amounts of ammo which must be found on each level.
The last means of offense is a cool ability called the wheel saw. By holding the X button the front tire of the bike lights up and becomes a jagged spinning wheel of death. Throughout the course of the game this became my most common means of snuffing the life out of chunks of metal that wanted to see me dead.
The wheel saw doubles as a useful means of traversal throughout each level. Not only is it used to cut through certain obstacles like cars or metal pipes, but scattered about are metal surfaces that sometimes run along the ceiling or vertically up a wall. Of which they can be clung to and driven on by using the toothed tire.
Usually these moments are to progress to the next area of each level, but sometimes tucked away are offbeat paths that lead to the one secret hidden in each level, of which there’s 28, or a lone jukebox and its accompanying PSN trophy that is hidden in just one level of each of the game’s five districts.
When cutting through items with the wheel saw, or upon vanquishing your enemies, left behind in their wake is junk. Junk serves as a currency which is used to buy character skins, paint jobs for bikes, and character upgrades.
Disappointingly, for as good as all the mechanics above sound, of which there is a decent amount to keep track, the complete package is a muddied and mostly clunky affair. Steel Rats maintains a coating of dirt that never quite washes off.
The game has its fair share of glitches. Twice I fell through the map which instantly resulted in my death, and then frustratingly but also hilariously so I fell through the map for a third time right at the finish of a level, but instead of dying I just fell infinitely.
For minutes I could rotate in the air as I just remained in suspended animation. Annoyingly being that there is no option to reload at a recent checkpoint, and since my character wouldn’t die, I had to restart and replay the entirety of the level.
There are also boss fights within the game, and none of them are all that spectacular. The final boss was especially dull. One late game chase sequence featuring a boss that makes multiple appearances was kinda neat in its gimmick, but the execution was a bit clunky as the escape layout was unimaginative and a tad lame. A sentiment that extends to most of the levels.
Nothing within the experience felt fresh or awe inspiring. There’s cool ideas from time to time, including a moment where you’re fleeing a runaway boat as it drags its anchor behind you, tearing up the environment as you speed away, but like many of the levels, it didn’t look all that good.
A sin that would be more forgivable considering the low budget nature of the title if the maps at all felt more creative. Quite a few times I went through levels that had a similar structure to ones that came before.
What hurt the experience most for me is that there isn’t much of a challenge to a majority of the game. It may contain a ton of elements from games like Trials HD, but unlike many of those games, none of the jumps or obstacles require any mastery or skill. Hold X and engage the Wheel Saw to speed boost your bike and chances are you will land every jump.
There is an ability to double tap X which gives you an even more boosted jump, but I was able to play a large chunk of the game without ever using it. In fact I had forgotten it was even there. It wasn’t until a chase sequence mentioned above that I got stuck on the only jump of the game that ever held me up. After a few attempts I remembered an early tutorial and then did the boosted jump and got over it.
Another thing that felt weird is that unless you die, you can’t fall off the bike. Manually jump and spin backwards and land perfectly upside down and the game awkwardly spins your character right-side up. This just further played into the lack of skill that the title requires. Maybe I’m too accustomed to the genre that this game borrows from, but I would prefer to have some skill required when traversing through a level on a bike that reacts to my every move of the joystick.
Two things this game does do wonderfully well is its cutscenes, and a piece of music that plays over the main screen. Using semi-static graphite style animations, the game employs six cutscenes to tell its story outside of narrative driven secrets and in level dialogue. The cutscenes look gorgeous and I wish there was more of them. I was impressed at each one.
The artistry on display is phenomenal. As for the song I mentioned, I’m not sure if it is an original piece made for the game, but whenever you finish a level and are in the main character upgrade screen, this song plays and it’s wonderful.
It’s actually something I was considering try to find to buy as I could easily listen to it when not in game, however, that enjoyment didn’t last for the full experience. It may be a good song, but when I was hearing it for the umpteenth time, it started to get old. It’s quite literally the only song that ever plays outside of the game’s levels or the final end credits.
As for the rest of the music that plays within the levels themselves, it’s okay. None of it was memorable but it gets the job done and fits the environments well enough.
Being a budgeted title the game also doesn’t look very good. It’s passable for what it’s going for, but in a lot of ways it’s still ugly. At certain stages there is also a horrendous amount of texture pop-in. The final district of the game starts off in a forest of sorts, and for the first 20 or so seconds of the level the grass wouldn’t properly load so it was just a disgustingly blurry mess.
My overall experience with Steel Rats was a mixed bag. There are many elements within the title that I enjoy, and I think there is a solid blueprint to what could be a great game presented inside, but none of the elements were lined up well enough to create something impressive.
In concept this is a kickass game, but in execution it’s a messy affair that doesn’t quite accomplish what it set out to do. I won’t lie though, this is a title that I truly hope gets a sequel. The story seems to set up another game, and even though this was a mediocre experience, I wanna see what the developers do next. This title may be botched, but there’s so many great ideas that with some tweaks, a future game could be really quite excellent. One can only hope.
Steel Rats was reviewed on PlayStation 4 using a review copy provided by Tate Multimedia. You can find additional information about Niche Gamer’s reviews/ethics policy here.
The Verdict: 6.5
- Lots of options when it comes to combat
- The Wheel Saw mechanic is both fun and neat
- The Cutscenes are gorgeous
- A song that plays over the upgrade screen is really good, even if overplayed
- Level challenges add replayability
- Dimensional depth is nice addition to the genre
- Both the combat and level design is too easy
- Final boss is super dull
- The game itself is ugly
- Bugs like falling through the map were frustrating
- Texture pop-in can get really bad