There’s been a lot of games featuring an alien invasion of Earth, and generally your character is armed to the teeth with all sorts of guns to fight back and save the planet. That’s not quite the case in Steel Rats, where your main weapon is the motorbike your riding around on.
Steel Rats’ story is set in the 1940’s with a retro-futuristic twist to it. The game’s action takes place in Coastal City, the most technologically advanced city of the era, and one that is at the forefront of invasion by the Junkbots. The Steel Rats, a group of four bikers, aim to take on the interlopers using their bikes as the solution.
This gang consists of Toshin who has a drone that flies with him that can zap enemies, James and his bike which has a mounted shotgun, and Randall who wields a glowing chain that can grab drones and throw them to turn them into projectiles – Lisa, the fourth character, wasn’t yet available to play. Once you unlock characters you can instantly switch between them to change tactics and experiment with different combat approaches without having to pause the action.
Tate Multimedia, formerly Tate Interactive, has experience crafting games where bikes are the centre of attention, having developer the Urban Trial series. The studio brings this experience to Steel Rats where fighting robots is not the only objective. Each level has points where you can perform tricks, which is important in the long term for success in Steel Rats. Those Junkbots don’t stand a chance against your styling motorbike riding!
In the preview, the area that we played in was the opening district of Coastal City, a place on the outskirts called Olbarrow. Featuring a mine and a railroad running through it, the environments have already been devastated by the alien invasion with tons of damage creating convenient broken roads and platforms to jump across in the mines. Some of these jumps are quite easy to clear, but others require a decent run-up and dashing in the air. Doing tricks rewards Junk Points which are required to purchase upgrades to increase damage, or you can trade the points for bike and character skins.
One of the issues initially is getting used to the handling on the bike, especially when it comes to switching lanes in the 2.5D levels. Where Tate has managed to make pulling tricks off intuitive, it hasn’t quite brought the handling up to the same standard for lane switches. Popping wheelies and doing quick u-turns, executed by the press of a button, help alleviate moments of getting stuck on obstacles, but the lane changes issues may be down to little lack of depth perception where you can’t always tell which path you’re on. I’d put this more down to environment design than the actual character design, as the areas where this happened were a little sparse and didn’t have as many indicators which showed the difference between lanes.
Each bike has an unlimited dash to it with the added advantage of turning the front wheel into a buzzsaw to cut through some obstacles like logs and cars. Not everything is destructible though and there will be some enemy types that can resist the damage. The enemies we encountered varied from basic drones that could be run over but were dangerous when they swarmed, through to gunners that could fire projectiles. Then there were environment-specific ones like the Hangers which were essentially wrecking balls that swing towards your character, and the Miners which drop down if you ride under them. The most dangerous, in my opinion, was the Spinner which is essentially a mine that rolls at speed behind you and forces you to speed up and try to avoid obstacles, unless you want to be caught in a fiery explosion.
Most of the levels we played were focused on defeating or avoiding enemies, though a couple had environmental puzzles to tackle. These were pretty simple affairs where switches had to be activated in the correct order, with each switch activated by hooking the bike up to a point and then spinning wheels until the task is complete. This mechanic is also used in moving elevators up and down, depending if your pressing accelerate or reverse, to solving puzzles and opening doors.
All the way through the game is keeping tabs on a few bonus objectives that are revealed at the end of the level, ranging from time trials to performing particular tricks. These are there as an incentive to replay missions so you can earn more Junk Points or explore levels to find secrets that unlock additional information for the story.
Steel Rats is unique enough that it could stand out from the crowd. Mashing a bike stunt game into an alien invasion is a premise that really hasn’t been done before, and being able to go from performing tricks to firing a shotgun at a robot swarm on landing has a real fun factor to it. Whether the formula can last through a whole campaign will remain to be seen. As a single player game Steel Rats will need to bank on the action being fun throughout, as well as enticing players to nail the optional objectives.