When Steel Rats was originally announced back in 2017, I was pretty pumped to see whether this adrenaline-fuelled motorbike-centric action game could deliver on all of its aims. Developers and publishers, Tate Multimedia, wanted to create an experience that called out to those who like to brawl, pull off awesome stunts and just generally race. Despite missing the initial release date, Steel Rats is now finally here on Xbox One to try and entertain the masses, but does it succeed in everything it set out to do?
The rather unfortunate answer is no, not quite.
Steel Rats takes you back to a steampunk styled version of mid-1900s America, focusing on a biker gang who once ruled the roost in Coastal City. You see, a load of constantly evolving Junkbots have invaded the place, causing mayhem and destruction on the streets, thus leaving their city in a real state of disarray. With the armed forces already dismantled by the hordes, the last hope lies with James, Lisa, Randy, and Toshi. The gang, known as the Steel Rats, make it their mission to put an end to these alien machines and reclaim the territory that previously belonged to them. But first, you need to locate and assemble the team.
As far as a narrative is concerned, it certainly doesn’t have the wow factor and the story never really connects; the slow-paced nature in supplying the lore fails to intrigue, potentially leaving you to not be overly fussed as to why this is happening and what caused the invasion to begin with. And while the voiceovers for our main protagonists offer a sense of personality to proceedings, there still seems to be a lack of character development on the whole. To get extra insight on the characters, you need to find secrets within the levels, which many probably won’t go through the hassle of doing so. By all means, the storytelling aspect isn’t terrible, it simply suffers from mediocrity and a relatively bland group of antagonists to go up against.
The gameplay raises the stakes though, throwing you on the back of a bike in a 2.5D environment that allows traversal both vertically and horizontally, with the added bonus of being able to shift into the foreground or background when required. Essentially, you’re racing through the five districts of Coastal City, which are split up into numerous levels, taking down any Junkbots that happen to be in your way. They aren’t the only obstacles to worry about either, with hazardous drops, hurtling trains and bike-crushing machinery all proving dangerous to the health of the Street Rats. Fortunately, it offers the option to switch between the characters you have unlocked on the fly, to utilise their strengths in such adversity.
In order to make it through in one piece, weapons are a necessity of course and aside from the saw-like front wheel, there is also some nifty weaponry unique to each biker. Given that many of the least threatening type of Junkbots can often surround your motorbike, James’ ground thumping shockwaves are a force to be reckoned with. Randy’s harpoon on a chain mustn’t be discounted though as it is very cool as well, and when you add in the fact that guns can be shot too, the arsenal at hand is rather impressive. Improving the abilities and overall character perks, using Junk currency earned from level completion, ensures you’re well-equipped for the enemy encounters ahead.
Well, sort of. The problem is that there’s an awful lot to take into account throughout these environments, including the enemies and the route to the end of the level, which could find you switching from left to right and moving from front to back swiftly. Manoeuvring between lanes whilst activating abilities, avoiding hazards and firing at Junkbots, means that your hands have to get used to hitting many different buttons and it’s just not intuitive. So, what should be akin to a high octane combat racer, winds up being more of a Sunday drive because you’re trying to navigate the areas safely and efficiently. Even then it’s possibly going to result in the death of any and all characters, forcing a retry. Your chance of success is much higher when slow and steady.
There’s a particular level that will do its very best to frustrate you by ramping up the pace needed to escape impending doom and what should be an exciting set piece actually exposes the poor handling of the bikes. Attempting to drive at high speed and spin the bike to change direction is a nightmare; one that relentlessly ends in a restart at the nearest checkpoint and then a full level failure. When you go into a level already expecting to fail, it can be a tad depressing, and that’s just a solitary example – amongst many – of the mechanics letting down the player.
Moving onto the enemy design and the Junkbot variety is decent, but when you’ve seen one aggressive robot, you’ve seen them all really; ranging from the annoying crab-like thing and the rapid spinning types, to the slightly larger missile firing ones. They’re not overly pleasing on the eye. The big boss Junkbots are much more impressive however, with a real sense of achievement garnered from taking a behemoth down. To be fair, the level design leads to some great layouts for you to traverse with jumps aplenty and pipes to grind. The only criticism on that front is that everything’s a bit gloomy and so it appears to be visually similar across many levels, despite mixing up the locations such as underground hideouts, rooftops and train yards.
Overall, Steel Rats is a game that should cater for the adrenaline junkies and action hero wannabes, but instead the convoluted controls and questionable handling slams the brakes on hard ensuring a much slower pace than expected if you wish to gain any fun from it. The mediocre storytelling does it no favours either, with much of the depth to it locked away as secrets. It’s in the combat department that the experience provides a glimmer of hope for enjoyment though, with a selection of great weapons available to destroy the many Junkbots plaguing Coastal City – it’s rather pleasing to blow them to smithereens.
I’d be tempted to suggest a purchase of Steel Rats in the sale because there’s potential here, but as it stands, there are a few too many drawbacks.