There's a thrill to mastering a difficult technique. The first time a skater nails an ollie; when a chef gets the perfect pizza toss. This idea has always been an integral part of video games as well. Developers (hopefully) aim to create movement or abilities that are easy to pick up and thus accessible, but also have a high skill ceiling. Steel Rats, out now on PC and PlayStation 4, nails it.
Set in a reimagined version of the 1940s in a town called Coastal City, Steel Rats sees the player hop on a hog and journey through several districts of its steampunk land in search of answers - and bits of junk for leveling up. Not too long ago, machine parts in the junkyard became sentient and started attacking innocent people. The question of "why" and "how to stop them" are frequently raised, though only the latter is particularly compelling in this fast-paced action platformer.
The backdrop of the world is all surface level, but it's serviceable. There are several well-produced cutscenes that fill the player in on the thin thread of a narrative. Each level has secrets to unlock that piece together a more thorough tale. In the end, it feels more tacked on than anything; an accessory to the gameplay as opposed to its driving partner.
More interesting bits of story can simply be gleamed from playing the game. The beautifully rendered levels are filled with color, even in its darker, underground sections. They show a world that feels like it never was truly teeming with life, but rather functions as more of a Mad Max racing gauntlet. The music fits this mold as well: flash and fun. Though it's not an instant classic, the soundtrack is propulsive. They're perfect driving tunes for a game that begs you to never take your hand off the throttle.
Steel Rats is a 2.5D action game, most easily seen as Sonic meets modern vehicular action games. There's platforming, but it de-emphasizes jumping in favor of moving between two planes of view (foreground and background). In the role of several members of the Steel Rats motorcycle gang, players will drive their choppers through junkyards and wreckage across five different world maps. For example, there's Warrensgate, a faded old town, markedly different from Lakeport, a high-class upper city. Each district comprises of several levels, adding greater difficulty, variety of enemies, and paths to choose.
The levels are each exciting in their own right, featuring tons of enemies to easily blast through, hidden secrets, and a simplicity to traversal that is highly rewarding. It takes the player a few levels to really get a hang of switching lanes, utilizing quick u-turns to swap directions in a jiffy, and maximize the junk received when the level is complete. Because the game isn't just about getting to the end; it's also about making those junkbots pay.
Junkbots is the synonymous name for all the enemies in Steel Rats. They take many forms, from your basic grunts, to moving "miners" and swinging trap robots. Some are instantly destroyed with a quick charge through them and others take a bit more effort to pass. The combat system is much more streamlined than the movement options, but it actually suffers because of it; it's very easy to get past difficult bosses simply by spamming the same move. Even with a cooldown timer on more powerful attacks, the player will rarely find themselves troubleshooting how to beat a junkbot. Generally any option works equally well.
Steel Rats features four playable characters (though only one is unlocked at the start) each with unique abilities. However, they play almost exactly the same. Most gameplay involves traversing the level, deflecting enemy shots with a spin move, or blazing past low level baddies. Players hardly ever need to use the special abilities of a character. Though the game allows the player to switch between the four characters at all times during a level, a certain character is never needed to complete a puzzle or beat a boss; each can be successful. While this might be a bonus for some players who prefer a certain character, it makes the RPG elements of the game feel lackluster and unneeded.
The gang of the Steel Rats is comprised of James, Lisa, Randall, and Toshi. Their bikes can be upgraded with spikes, flames, hammers, and more, but none of those upgrades are as useful as the basic charge attack. They all only feel moderately different, and this player found themselves not really caring which one I played throughout a level. It's a shame, because developers Tate Multimedia created a fun RPG element of leveling up perks and abilities in between levels. Players simply use junk gathered in a level to purchase bits of the character's skill tree. But so much junk is gained each level, it's never about choosing between one perk or another; there is way too much junk to spare.
At its core, Steel Rats adapts a racing formula in a way rarely done. The controls on console feel great, and truly do mirror the complexity of early Sonic games. The desire to complete a level in the fastest route, or find all the secret bonuses, is high here. While it may not hit all the marks, it's a great bet for those craving a quick action title that asks the player to become a master of their motorcycle destiny.
Steel Rats releases November 7, 2018 for PC on Steam and PS4. Screen Rant received a PS4 download code for the purposes of this review.