Steel Circus might sound like a game about the life and times of a family of robotic trapeze artists, but it’s actually a lot cooler than that. It’s a futuristic sports game, akin to Speed Ball, but with some of the sensibilities of Rocket League and characters that might make you think of Overwatch or MOBAs. Sure, there’s a heady cocktail of buzzword and zeitgeist grabbing ideas here, and Iron Mountain will have to walk a tightrope as all of the inevitable comparisons to other games pop up, but playing it is actually a good bit of fun. I’m certainly looking forward to its Early Access release on 8th August.
Two teams of three players are dropped into a futuristic looking arena, with the simple aim of the game to grab the ball and get it into your opponent’s goal. It’s pretty easy to pick up and play, and while I’d still suggest running through the tutorial quickly to get a hang of the controls, you’re not having to deal with the fiddly rules of American football, rugby or netball with different assigned roles and situational rules about when and how you can pass the ball. Throw that ball in any direction, spam your abilities as much as you like, and crash into the opposition at every possible opportunity!
Understandably, when presented with a “no rules” scenario, our first few matches descended into a sloppy and unorganised brawl. The first things I was able to grasp was how to tackle, with an aiming line sticking out from my character as I lined up the kind of challenge that would get you a red card even back in the heyday of 70s football! It leaves them dazed as you grab the ball off them (not that you can’t tackle someone without a ball, if you feel like it), but you’ll need to act fast to get it to a teammate, or face an almost immediate revenge tackle.
Shooting or throwing the ball is, unusually, on the right shoulder button. While this takes a moment to get used to, it does make a lot of sense, so you can use the right analogue stick to direct your throw. Your team is visually connected by lines drawn between you in the UI, and so I was initially expecting snappy and precise passes that zip straight into your teammate’s hands. I had another thing coming. There’s no auto-aim, and the need to charge up a throw makes snap passes tricky to pull off. Additionally, the game’s relatively forgiving with being able to intercept a ball, so you won’t be threading the needle quite like you can in FIFA, for example.
Not having any auto-aim also factors into the skill and timing needed to shoot at goal. There’s a lot of things to take into account, from the handful of arenas having some basic pinball-style bumpers that can block some of the more direct shot angles, and the goal posts having buffers of their own that push you to shooting for the middle. Needing to charge up your throw also leaves you pretty open to a challenge, and you need to judge how far the ball will go before it rolls to a halt.
There’s a lot of potential strategy here with having your team of three playing in different parts of the arena and linking up, instead of simply brawling around where the ball is like primary school kids playing football with a tennis ball. Tying into that, there’s also some strategic choices to make when picking your characters, trying to get a team composition that uses the contrasting attributes of the six champions at launch. The big and brutishly designed Acrid can charge up to full throw strength much quicker than the others, for example, while the smaller Shani can sprint faster than other competitors, but uses up her stamina bar much quicker as well.
Things get a bit wackier when factoring in the different abilities that each character has, further lending them different roles and suiting different play styles. Each has two abilities, and learning how they work and how best to use them will be key to winning. CAP-X02 is a robot that can drop blocking barriers, while Ellika is able to throw her shield, Captain America style, and Schroder teleports around the map. You can also get aggressive, using some abilities to try and hurt opponents and chipping away at their segmented health bar, knocking them out to earn you a 10 second power play or more.
As the game heads into Early Access on Steam next week on 8th August, it’s definitely one worth keeping an eye on if you’re a fan of multiplayer future sports games. There’s no getting away from Steel Circus’ grab bag of ideas and inspirations – the way that you select characters is effectively a reskin of the Apex Legends character picker – but that doesn’t mean there’s no merit to what Iron Mountain have created, and after just a short play session, I was definitely left eager to dive in an play some more.