The Real Wild Ones
HIGH Racing from zeppelintop to zeppelintop.
LOW The impossible-to-time sky gondola obstacles.
WTF Wow, this final boss is just crazy broken.
Steel Rats tries something bold by taking the momentum-centered 2D stunt gameplay of the Trials series, then adding some narrative and a ton of combat. Trying to keep track of enemies while zooming around obstacles and blazing through levels upside-down is a strange combination. It’s at times too hectic, frustrating, and complex for its own good, but when it works, there’s nothing else like it out there.
Set in a bizarre alternate 1940s, Steel Rats follows a biker gang who find themselves up against a colonizing army of Junkbots — hive-minded creatures that cobble scrap into monstrous crab creatures bent on wiping out humanity. While it seems like they would be too daunting for bikers to face, these are no ordinary bikers – in addition to a wide arsenal of weapons, the bikes come with front wheels constructed from circular saws. These wheels can cut through just about anything, in addition to letting the bikes travel anywhere there’s corrugated metal to bite into.
Steel Rats offers a huge amount of variety in level design across five zones, including chase levels to be sped through ASAP, and combat arenas full of foes exploding into showers of sparks. Most of the levels, however, try to offer a balance of gameplay styles by mixing shooting with platforming and exploration.
The wheelsaws as a gameplay mechanic are something of a revelation. Of course, a game about motorcycles needs to keep the player constantly moving forwards, but there’s a tightrope to walk — too few obstacles and things get boring, too many and frustration sets in, since no one wants to memorize the layout of wrecked cars to avoid. The wheelsaw offers a perfect compromise. Turning it on boosts the player’s speed, while allowing them to cut through most obstacles with only a slight slowdown. Artful dodgers can weave through scrapyards nimbly, while brutish riders can slice through the world, leaving glowing-hot trash in their wake.
Combat is the biggest hurdle to anyone braving Steel Rats. There’s nothing intuitive about it, other than the fact that smaller enemies can be driven over with a satisfying pop and crunch. In addition to cutting enemies up with the bikes, players can find guns to autotarget the closest enemy, and each character has their own special skills. Unfortunately, this is where things get a little too complicated for their own good — each of the four characters has a completely different attack power, charge skill, and super, all of them suited to vastly different types of encounters.
While it’s easy enough to switch between characters (just clicking a thumbstick immediately replaces whoever’s onscreen with the next biker in line) in the heat of battle it can be incredibly difficult to remember which power is best against which enemy. Sure, flamethrowers clear out the swarms, but who’s strong against flying foes? How do I defend against suicidal charging armadillos, again?
It took me most of the campaign’s running time to get comfortable with the combat, and I frequently found myself overwhelmed by how busy the screen gets when larger enemies show up — my field of vision turned into lasers flying in every direction as bombs roll around and robots glow with sinister energy before lurching forward in charge attacks. It’s a lot to take in, but there’s a depth to the combat and enough opportunities to practice that by the end of the game, I was able to hold my own against the horde. I’m confident that anyone taken by these odd charms will be able to do the same.
Steel Rats‘ greatest strength, though, is its embrace of setpiece action. There are some truly audacious levels — characters go from dodging mining equipment to racing across airships to trying to outrun an ultra-destructive anchor. Every one of the chase and escape levels are brilliantly conceived and perfectly executed to thrill. Honestly, they’re so good that I’m forced to wonder why cinematic driving action has never caught on as a genre.
Steel Rats, with its demanding combat and big-budget action, pretty much builds a whole new genre around itself. I’ve seen stunt racing and vehicular combat before, but the developers have blended the two so exquisitely that the it defies comparison to anything else. Naturally, Steel Rats ends with an obvious sequel hook, so I’ll end this review with a ‘More, please.’
Disclosures: This game is developed and published by Tate Multimedia. It is currently available on PC and PS4. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the PC. Approximately 10 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. There are no multiplayer modes.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated T and contains Violence, Partial Nudity, Language, and Use of Tobacco. The language isn’t too strong, and I honestly never noticed the partial nudity. The violence is entirely bikers busting up robots, and would be considered pretty tame even by the squeamish. The one thing that might give parents pause is the amount of smoking in the game — there’s not a ton of it, but it’s all presented as gritty and cool, just as it was at the time when the game is set. I’m not saying the game is going to trick children into smoking, but it certainly contributes to the kind of mystique that cigarette pushers love.
Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available in the options.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: I played the game almost entirely without sound, and encountered no difficulties. There are no audio cues that don’t have visual accompaniment. All dialogue is subtitles, and font size cannot be adjusted. It’s fully accessible.
Remappable Controls: No, this game’s controls are not remappable.