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Steel Rats

Platform(s): PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Genre: Racing
Publisher: Tate Multimedia
Developer: Tate Multimedia
Release Date: Nov. 7, 2018

About Joseph Doyle

Joe has been known to have two hands with which to both play games and write reviews. When his hands are not doing those, he will put books, musical instruments, and other fun things in them.


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PS4 Review - 'Steel Rats'

by Joseph Doyle on Dec. 11, 2018 @ 1:00 a.m. PST

Steel Rats is a visceral and groundbreaking evolution of the 2.5D action arcade genre, fusing destructive, octane-fueled motorbike combat and death-defying stunt gameplay, set in a visually stylized retro-future world.

Buy Steel Rats

One of the major rules of entertainment is to keep things fresh, and Steel Rats has attempted to do so with a new type of innovative gameplay. In Steel Rats, which is part Trials and part beat-'em-up, you play as the eponymous biker gang trying to rid its city of robot foes that are creating mayhem on the roads as they scuttle about. The gang cracks wise while shredding the automatons to pieces; it looks and feels similar to the Borderlands series but replaces the iconic characters with ones dulled down to mix in with the wasteland in the background. This lack of pizzazz, coupled with the awkward controls and gameplay, make Steel Rats a fascinating idea with poor execution.

Gameplay in Steel Rats is audacious and thought-provoking at its best, but trying and irksome at its worst. Driving through the 2.5D levels is both familiar and complicated; as in other bike platformers, you have to make jumps, take different routes to clear the level, use your momentum to position yourself, etc. Where Tate Multimedia diverges from the herd is in adding a two-lane system and the ability to turn around. You can weave around barriers and enemies as you drive along the path with the new partial z-axis, and then double back if needed. However, these new additions feel clunky; your biker characters are heavy and don't move through the space tactfully, making it so the player has to hold a direction to ensure a lane switch completes. Perhaps having the characters lock into different lanes could fix this feature, but the floatiness between the two is too nebulous and leads the player to feel disoriented.

This difficulty is compounded when rounding a corner, where you have to make the biker switch lanes while also turning around, lest they bash into a column or wall or fall down a ramp. This level design is used over and over again, and it even has a whole chunk of a level where all you do is switchback your way down the plunging scaffolding, turning the tedium into a time trial that nobody wanted.

The movement system is paired with a combat system that creatively uses the motorcycle as an instrument of death, but it falls flat due to repetition and unnecessary complexity. While navigating the terrain, you're pestered by homicidal androids that are largely optional. If you choose to engage, you'll find yourself bashing them with melee attacks and spamming the "turn around" button to make more passes at them, likely because you missed them while trying to switch lanes. An easier option is to use the turbo button, turning your front wheel into a flaming saw and allowing your player to go faster and destroy the pesky metal crawlers as you progress. The flaming wheel is both infinitely cooler and easier to use.

Even in-game currency isn't enough of an incentive to provoke the player into changing their ways. The game gives you plenty of junk from vanquished enemies and individual level challenges. Between levels, the moves you buy through the upgrade tree tend to go unused due to lack of interest or necessity. As you progress, you gain a firearm and buy special moves, but these largely fall by the wayside in favor of what pushes the game along; this relegates the moves to moments when they're absolutely necessary, rather than peppered into gameplay. Trying to manage your movement while shooting enemies is especially difficult, leading the player to stop in order to not fly by an enemy that needs to be killed in order to progress — an occurrence that's frequent enough to be frustrating. The movement is too clunky for the player to spend time on the brawling aspect, undercutting the innovation that Steel Rats brings to the table.

As far as visuals and levels go, Steel Rats passes muster and adds to the morose tone. The graphics and artistic aspects made by Tate Multimedia work for the game with its grim and somewhat funny feel, but they become blasé given the overused dark, muddy palette in each level. As one would expect in a robot apocalypse scenario, the settings are dark and dingy. You speed through broken, pothole-laden streets or derelict factories lined with destructible concrete materials, disheveled wooden boxes and broken-down cars, among other general debris. (You can shred through all of this while passing through each stage, an especially appreciated note of fun.)

The general sheen of the gloomy wastelands becomes standardized and almost trivial as you progress, leading the player to be desensitized to the severity of the situation. From a general gaming standpoint, each level becomes bland and forgettable and start blending together. Each of the four characters has a distinct look and feel, with upgrades that allow the player to change bikes and outfits that add an appreciated flair to their styles. They each have icons that pop up on the UI and text dialogue boxes, which are functional and look solid but somewhat generic.

The use of sound in Steel Rats is similarly decent but perplexing at times. Throughout the level, as waves of different enemies are thrown at you or specific events play out, your range of characters will share words, anecdotes, etc., adding some nice flavor to the experience. The voice acting is solid, but a little overdone. Each character lays on his/her personality a little too thick with their affectations. The humanization of these hunks of meat on motorcycles is gratifying, and it's a good choice to utilize full voice acting, but it still ends up feeling hollow when little humanity or individuality beyond an archetype is presented through the writing.

On a similar note, while driving through levels, you can turn on radios to learn more about the surrounding events to this game (e.g., how they ended up in this situation). It's incredibly interesting information, but unlike the dialogue, there are no captions for the newscaster. While this may seem like a minor oversight, the game industry has been heading in the direction of more accessibility for the past few years, and it's disappointing to see it dropped for some of the game's only exposition.

Finally, the music in Steel Rats is oddly sparse. While there are tracks for the upgrade menus between areas, the levels feature very little music at all. You either find yourself riding among the admittedly incredibly satisfying motorcycle sound effects, or with some low-volume foreboding ambient music. When this isn't playing and you're stopped, the game becomes eerily quiet, but not in a way that sates the player tonally. It feels empty, which in other settings may be appropriate but creates a rift when surrounded by bloodthirsty droids.

Steel Rats presents an interesting idea to the player: an affable biker gang hounded by metal fiends, combining two wildly different game genres by using your bike as a weapon while riding through a dingy, destructible world. This all sounds incredibly intriguing on paper, but unfortunately, it falls flat on the delivery. Tate Multimedia tried to pack too much into Steel Rats for all of its parts to work together in a fun and cohesive way. It can be done, as proven by roguelike rhythm game Crypt of the Necrodancer, which stuck to the core elements of each genre. Frequently in Steel Rats, the solution is to use one tactic and move on, or skip it entirely rather than fumbling through the different genres. When this kind of gameplay meets the unassuming visuals and banal audio, the title becomes lackluster.

Score: 5.5/10

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