Going Full Throttle In Steel Rats’ Dieselpunk Combat Racing Mash-Up

Steel Rats is a tricky game to describe. Set in a dieselpunk world besieged by cobbled together, oddly chitinous alien robots, the Steel Rats biker gang are the only ones left that are able to fight back in Coastal City. It’s a big mash-up of several genres, though, which makes it equal parts intriguing and difficult to explain – made all the trickier without gameplay footage and just concept artwork to show.

The first thing I did when I picked up the controller was flip my bike over and smash its rider’s head into the ground. “Oh!” I thought, “It’s a bit like Trials, then?” and in some ways it is. There’s definitely that hard-nosed edge to it, and later in the level I found an amusing way to try and skip part of the level by pulling a wheelie and throwing myself over a railing – I got it right after seven or eight attempts. While developers Tate Interactive have brought the same kind of two-wheeled physics platforming that Trials and Tate’s own Urban Trial Freestyle games for 3DS are known for to the title, Steel Rats is something else entirely.

“We decided we were going to tackle the side-scrolling genre from a different perspective,” Pawel Oliferuk, QA Lead, explained. “We’re trying to put our own spin or twist on it.” Michal Azarewicz, Marketing & PR Manager added, “We’re trying to make a combat racing game, to give it a short name, because this in essence describes what the game is about, but you can also add exploration, for example, because the levels are quite big and quite unusual.”

Last night I watched a few minutes of a Dave Gorman show on Dave – for that simple reason, I’ve no idea how old an episode it is – in which he was taking different puzzles, finding those that had been cut with the same shapes and blending them together to create something weird and wonderful. Gorman’s mad mixture of cute cats looking scared by a cavalry charge while a WW2 fighter jet swoops in is the puzzle mash-up equivalent to Steel Rats. The physics platforming is still there underneath, but you’ve got this grungy post-apocalyptic world, vehicular combat, side-scrolling shooting, character progression and tons of other ideas that have been thrown in just for the hell of it. Perhaps the only thing that hasn’t been added in is a morality system.

Vehicular combat is a tricky one to get right in a video game, but it’s helped here by the fact your bike is a weapon. Much like Gears of War reimagined the bayonet as a chainsaw, Steel Rats adds a little more punch to your bike’s front wheel by turning it into a buzzsaw, naming it the Wheelsaw. It makes you go faster, cuts through derelict vehicles and enemies, breaks down certain walls, and even lets you ride up and down walls if you find a ramp.

Of course, the Wheelsaw is also a big part of the game’s combat. There’s a certain jousting-like feel to it as you race past the bigger enemies and bosses time and again, swerving past them as you deal glancing blows, or deciding that now’s the time to get really stuck in with the Wheelsaw. In addition to the saw, you can also leave a trail of flaming napalm behind you, burning anything left in your wake as you weave between the two lanes. If you’re feeling feisty, then you can combine it with a spin and get a Fire Tornado.

There’s also each character’s firearm. Switching between the four characters, which also act as pseudo lives as you’re battling through a level, reveals they all have different weapons. Tony wields a rocket launcher and Big Jimmy a grenade launcher, but for fewer explosions there’s Lisa with a machine gun and Toshi with a close range shotgun, and you’re able to switch mid-level to tackle different kinds of enemies. Though useful, these are very much secondary to using your bike, thanks to the limited ammo. You’re much better off saving your bullets, grenades and rockets for when there’s certain types of enemies, such as flying robots which, funnily enough, are rather difficult to kill with a bike.

“What we want to achieve is that each of these riders is going to be good at different things,” Pawel said. “So, for example, you want to fight a group of enemies, so you’re going to grab the guy who has grenades and area of effect damage, but if you have to go through a racing sequence, you’ll go for the person that’s more nimble and fast.”

All of this takes place in a side-scrolling 2.5D world, but with the added twist that you can shift between two planes of travel, letting you drive around certain obstacles or follow different paths and routes through the level. For example, the early demo level I played let me pick between riding up to the rooftops or heading underground into the train tunnels. It lets Tate give you something a bit different in terms of gameplay, depending on the path you take. “The top path on the rooftops in this level is combat-based,” Pawel gave as an example, “while the lower path, the subway, is more racing, or evasive racing.”

This isn’t exactly an easy game, and a big part of that is the initial hurdle of getting used to the controls. There is that Trials-like element to it, but there’s also just getting used to the lane switching, the way that the bike’s handle as they turn, and slight quirks with the controls that Tate are still refining.

It’s meant to be fairly difficult though, and the developers are clearly fans of the Souls-like genre. While the Instigator mini-boss at the end of the demo certainly proved a challenge for me to overcome, Tate have promised over the top creations that will likely fill a large part of the screen.

“I love Monster Hunter,” Pawel said, as he also name dropped Dark Souls and Metal Slug. “I’m telling you these titles, because you saw a mini-boss, but we’re going to have bosses that are going to have their own special attacks, moves, phases and they’re going to be pretty big!” Sadly, neither Pawel or Michal would answer if one boss would let me ride up onto the top of it, or if these robots were actually filled with cute, cuddly animals.

Your characters will evolve through the game as well, with an RPG-like progression that grows through completing both main and secondary objectives in levels and cashing in warbonds at the gang’s hub area. Some of the customisation options sound like they’re going to be pretty out there. “Our concept artist had lots of fun designing the characters, and we have some art from how it might look from the customisation process,” Michal explained excitedly, “and there’s super wild concepts for that. Like Jimmy has a picture where he looks like a baseball catcher, so he’s got like a baseball bat, a mask…” Pawel added, “My favourite one is, if you can imagine, a dieselpunk redcoat.”

Steel Rats is difficult to pin a particular genre on precisely because Tate have thrown anything and everything into the melting pot of design. From the end of the world setting and dark visual design through to the challenging motorbike jousting combat, there’s something rather intriguing about it because of this blend.

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  1. “What we want to achieve is that each of these riders is going to be good at different things,”

    They always say things like that as if it is a new idea and it hasn’t been done before in a million games.

    • Or maybe they’re just saying it how it is? It’s not like they’re saying that it’s literally a brand new idea, just that they want each character to feel different, and in the context of everyone being on the back of a motorbike that should serve to make things play in a more interesting fashion.

  2. Fair point. Maybe I just expect any game with four playable characters to have different attributes designed for different levels and bosses.

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