Steel Rats is the latest effort from Polish development outfit Tate Multimedia, which takes their obvious love for Trials-esque 2.5D platforming and spices it up with a heavy dash of robot destruction via motorcycle-based combat. It’s an interesting blend that works most of the time, but some pervasive design issues plague Steel Rat’s gameplay, and what could have been a beastly Harley Davidson based on its concept ends up feeling more like a souped-up Honda postie.
Rat up a drainpipe
Steel Rat’s story is very simple at its heart, but is nonetheless told in a confusing and disjointed manner. Essentially the Steel Rats are a motorcycle gang much like the Biker Mice from Mars, except in this case there are four of them, they are humans, and they are from Earth. When a mysterious force takes control of the junk that Steel Rat’s world seems to be teeming with and turns it into killer robots, it’s up to our motorcycle enthusiasts to get to the bottom of it the only way they know how – with a gnarly hog between their legs (seriously, they never alight from their bikes) and a can-do attitude. All things said and done, the story is paper thin, and what few twists there are are telegraphed so hard you’d think Rupert Murdoch owned them – if you’ve come for some cerebral musings about the nature of life and artificial intelligence, then you’ve come to the wrong clubhouse.
But what it lacks in narrative eloquence Steel Rats makes up for in style. The moment-to-moment gameplay looks (and mostly feels) incredibly slick, with a zoomed-out camera giving a good view of the varied and colourful environments. Animations are also meticulous, and there’s a fairly robust physics engine behind it all that gives a great sense of momentum.
Racing through levels while laying waste to junkbots can be quite exhilarating, especially when you get the flow of both the traversal and combat, it’s just a pity that the game’s controls never escape feeling a touch on the clumsy side. For instance, the jump button is mapped to triangle on the PS4 (which requires a neural rewiring in itself) where it really should be the cross button, which is dedicated to boosting and cutting through enemies and the environment with your front wheel. There’s an utterly useless and unresponsive brake/reverse button on the left trigger, and your various combat abilities seem like they are just randomly strewn across the rest of the controller. The biggest offender is the charge attack, which is unique to each of the four characters can involve everything from dropping scores of enemy-seeking mini-bombs to leaving a trail of flames in your wake. The problem is that most of the time you’ll have your finger on the right trigger to accelerate, so activating this charge attack takes a little bit of uncomfortable hand yoga. Unless you’re a soulless freak who uses their middle finger on the trigger and has their index finger free (who probably also puts milk in the bowl before putting in cereal), then you’ll probably end up using your right thumb like I did, or given the fairly gentle difficulty of the game in general, just forgetting the charge attack exists at all.
Although the game’s difficulty doesn’t make it the Dark Souls of trial bike combat, there are some bizarre difficulty spikes and artificial hurdles that the game throws up which are infuriating. The game can go from throwing health refilling stations at you every couple of clicks to punishing you with instadeath for a minor slip up. Sometimes you’ll fall off a ledge of moderate height and survive without incident, other times you will fall from a similar height and crumble in a heap like you just base jumped off the Empire State building without a parachute. Sometimes this will penalise you with losing a health notch, sometimes it will have no consequence at all and will simply reset you to the last checkpoint; there’s just no rhyme or reason to it. Some sections require more precision than the controls really allow, and the handful of instafail segments take a lot of the fun out of some of the cool chase sequences. Random unforeseeable environmental hazards and odd boss behaviour that has to be learned through tedious trial and error also go out of their way to spoil a good time.
Hamster wheel of death
Gravity be damned
But what it lacks in narrative eloquence Steel Rats makes up for in style. The moment-to-moment gameplay looks (and mostly feels) incredibly slick, with a zoomed-out camera giving a good view of the varied and colourful environments
The design oddities don’t stop there unfortunately, with the game forcing you to use a certain biker at the start of a level, even if you don’t much care for them. Thankfully, if that rider carks it then you’ll get to swap to another character (sort of like a continue system), and I wasn’t above committing suicide in order to not have to use Randy, the ‘crazy’ one whose woeful special attacks make him as useful as tits on a Ducati. The game also has RPG mechanics which allow you to spend a currency (called junk) on upgrading your kit and unlocking cosmetics. However, while the upgrades do indeed make you feel more powerful and there’s a good sense of progression level to level, the game throws more junk at you than if you were sitting in the front row of a Manpower Australia show, to the point where you wonder why there’s a currency at all.
Pimp your ride with your mountain of acquired junk
Steel Rats has a great concept that occasionally leaps off the paper on which it works and lets the player have a decent thrash around, but some pervasive design and control issues unfortunately throw a spanner in the crankshaft. It’s not irredeemable by any means, but expect Steel Rats to make you work for it if you want to experience its better moments.
Reviewed on PS4 | Review code supplied by publisher