If deadly robots invaded the world and my only option was to jump on a motorbike to fight back and survive, I’d probably be dead within 5 minutes. But it wouldn’t be the robots that killed me, it would be the bike. I imagine that my first ride on a motorbike would go the same way as Jay on The Inbetweeners when he ends up crashing straight into a wall. Thankfully, the motorbike gang in Steel Rats are more than capable of handling a motorbike, although, like a real bike, I couldn’t always say the same for their puppet master – me.
Steel Rats begins on the bike of Toshi, a teenage genius who is wondering where the rest of his motorcycle gang has disappeared to. As he leaves the gangs base to search, it quickly becomes apparent that all is not right with the gang’s home; the retro-futuristic Coastal City. It’s a city with a 1920’s style aesthetic, with zeppelins flying through the air with heavy industry working away in the background. As the gang only travels at night, it gives the city a noir style that looks like it would be at home in an old-timey detective novel.
An army of killer robots has appeared in these dark streets, causing mayhem and destruction wherever they go. Over the course of the next few levels, Tosh will meet up with the other three members of the gang and they’ll decide to try and take down the invasion force by destroying the source. The story isn’t an intricate or complicated one, but it offers it in small doses to keep you guessing about the ultimate purpose of the robots and how they came to attack the city. Cut scenes as you travel between districts of the city fill in the blanks, while sporadic radio broadcasts and chatter between the gang help add some colour to the environment.
Steel Rats joins the ranks of the 2.5D side-scrolling arcade games that have peppered the PSN store over the course of the PS4’s lifetime, although we’re yet to see an action-packed motor-cycle ride through a retro-futuristic city that’s being invaded by killer robots. While the game takes you through levels that move from left to right in a 2D platformer style, you can also move up and down by switching lanes. This presents moments where obstacles block your route, so you’ll have to ride up or down to avoid it. You can also quickly go back on yourself by hitting circle to swing your bike back around, which you’ll have to do a lot to avoid dead ends and backtrack as the level dictates. As much as the city presents itself as a wide 3D space, it’s a little disappointing that the movement basically boils down to you riding along a pre-determined track.
However, combine all these swift movements with instances where you’re getting chased or the ground is collapsing beneath you and it can be a tense, thrilling minute or so where you desperately try to avoid making the slightest mistake. Overall, the bike is easy enough to control but not always as responsive as I’d like it to be. Landing without being upside down can often be tough too, such as when you’ve zoomed up a curve in a wall, but, thankfully, the game doesn’t punish you by making you fall off your bike. But that point brings me onto jumping itself.
If you’ve ever played a Trials game, then you’ll have some idea about how difficult the jumping in Steel Rats can be. To be fair, it’s not on the same extreme level of difficulty that series is, but it’s still frustrating enough that my head nearly exploded after repeating the same level about 15 times.
There’s a level where you ride across the rooftops of Coastal City, with plenty of moments where you must jump between buildings and platforms. Ensuring you land on solid ground (and not the solid ground that’s hundreds of feet below) when you make each jump requires precise timing and speedy button combos. When you’re trying to jump a wide gap whilst also trying to avoid a monorail car and land on a small platform without immediately zooming straight off the other side, it’s hard not to feel like everywhere is made of ice. The motorbike control is fine for speeding around and crashing through enemies, but not so great when it comes to fine tuning your jumps and landings. It’s the one part of the game that I grew to hate. Outside of a Trials game, I want motorbike games to be all about fast-paced pulse-pounding action, which I don’t think you get from Steel Rats. Going too fast and not taking the time to negotiate the scenery properly can quickly lead to your death.
Of course, zooming around a dark city on a motorbike isn’t the only thing you have to get to grips with, as you won’t be alone on the streets. A variety of Junkbots, who all possess unique methods of killing you, will attack whenever you’re near. These range from small robots that act as cannon fodder, heli-robots that shoot at you from the air and try to slam down onto you if you ride underneath them, and even big ‘Goon’ robots that fire lasers at and charge at you.
Each robot can be taken down through a variety of methods across your four characters. You can switch between all four characters on the fly, simply by tapping R3, allowing you to choose which character can best handle the situation in front of you, although in practice it rarely matters which gang member you use. All the gang come equipped with ‘wheelsaws’, which makes you wonder just what the hell they were doing as a gang. By holding X you can fire up your wheelsaw, which gives you a slight speed boost and also lets you cut through any enemies in your path. The standard small bots will die instantly, while bigger bots will take a combination of your abilities to take down.
A spin attack that all characters possess tended to be my go-to attack, as it allows you to cause damage in a 360-degree circle around you. The special attacks I used less often, at least on some characters. One of the best special attacks is the one possessed by Toshi, who uses a flying bot that can shoot a laser at enemies. It packs a punch and is fantastic for knocking the flying bots out of the sky.
Your attacks, as well as your health and energy levels (special abilities use energy, although it does slowly recharge after use), can often be upgraded at the end of each level. You’ll unlock more abilities as you complete each level but getting hold of them requires spending the scrap you’ll pick up from destroying bots. Each character has their own upgrade path, which leads you down the route of making special attacks more destructive or buying skins to change a gang members appearance. The issue with this upgrade system is that only a few upgrades are unlocked per level, and after the first few levels you’ve got more than enough scrap and nothing to spend it on. It doesn’t really make sense to pick and choose which upgrades to buy after each level, as buying all of them will rarely leave you close to being out of pocket. It makes you wonder why the game didn’t just dish out automatic upgrades after each level, rather than relying on a largely pointless scrap currency system.
Apart from Toshi and a shotgun style wallop from James, I did find myself largely ignoring these extra abilities anyway, as the wheelsaw and spin attack can get you through most situations. Plus, you can pick up guns that knock off huge chunks of health from bots, although these can be quite rare. There may be four characters to play as, but when they all feel the same and their standard attacks are enough, it never really matters which one you currently have selected.
There is some replayability in Steel Rats. Each level has a series of challenges that you can complete for a bonus, and there are secrets hidden around too. If you’re a completist then you’ll no doubt go back and tackle these challenges, which don’t seem overly hard, but I didn’t find any challenge or level exciting enough to bother going back to complete them.
Overall, Steel Rats is a game that’s fun for a while, but largely feels the same after the first few levels. The idea and setting behind it all is cool on paper, but there’s not much that makes it stand out against a raft of indie 2.5D games on the market, especially with a level design that feels all too familiar after completing the first district of the city you’re progressing through. The many frustrating moments I had with the game, especially with jumping between things, just served to reduce my fun. Thankfully, fighting robots is fun, but it wears thin after a couple of hours and latter levels aren’t unique enough to hold interest.
Steel Rats isn’t a bad game, but it isn’t an essential play either. There are games that aren’t amazing, but you remember them for their uniqueness. Sadly, this isn’t one of those games.
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