Steel Rats boldly asks an unlikely question: “What if you stuck a circular saw on the front of a motorcycle?”
The second bike-based game that developer Tate Multimedia has released this year takes the motorcycle down an interesting rabbit hole. Or, if you prefer we stick with rats, down an interesting manhole, skittering into a retrofuturist sewer.
Meet the Steel Rats
The titular Rats are a four-person biker gang, speeding around the streets and rooftops of a 1940s-inspired future. The gang spend their days collecting junk in Coastal City, a fictionalized version of Detroit. As the game kicks off, the junk is beginning to fight back, prowling the streets in packs, overwhelming the city. “Egghead” biker Toshi creatively dubs these robots made out of junk, Junkbots. There’s a glowing core of unknown origin that brought the junk to life and the gang sets out to find it.
That may seem like a surprisingly story-focused set-up for a motorbiking game. But Steel Rats is a surprisingly story-focused motorbiking game. Urban Trial Playground happily aped the formula (and name) of Ubisoft’s Trials series, with a focus on stunts and speed. But, Steel Rats is far more ambitious. This time around, the bikes have been outfitted with those circular saws I mentioned previously, creating a weapon that spins up orange light on the front wheel as it cuts through Junkbots. Additionally, the bikers have an overarching goal that goes beyond just reaching the end of the level.
The murky, wet city. 1940s-style posters that line the walls and abandoned automobiles along the streets. Audio logs scattered throughout the levels. In moments, it all comes together to provide the feeling that you’re playing through BioShock-on-a-bike. That feeling is gone in a flash—quick as lightning shooting from plasmid-supplemented fingertips—when you actually play it.
Building a World with a Broken Wheel
Steel Rats buckles under the weight of these Irrational ambitions. It’s a more interesting game for trying, but it’s also a deeply frustrating one. While on a basic level Steel Rats is a biking game, it never really does the things that biking games do well. It doesn’t care about stunts or wicked air and it only rarely cares about speed. Instead, it goes all in on the combat, a decision that prompted Tate to set this game on a 2.5D, Little Big Planet-style three-tiered plane.
As you motor through levels, you’ll frequently need to slide between the foreground, the middleground and the background to get around obstacles or take down pesky enemies. This approach didn’t work well in Media Molecule’s platformer, and it fares far worse with the slow-moving Sackboy swapped out for a speeding motorcycle. The challenge of parsing which lane your biker currently occupies becomes infuriatingly difficult when coupled with a pulled-back perspective and Coastal City’s dim-lighting.
The game frequently requires precision though; a precision for which memorization is the only answer. Moving between lanes never gets to the point where it feels intuitive, and despite the camera’s distance, obstacles still often come out of nowhere. These problems are exacerbated by the fact that checkpointing is sometimes frustratingly broken. In one level that required the Rats to outrun a giant anchor as it plowed through the pier they rode along, the checkpoint respawned the Rats right in front of the anchor. This meant that if I failed the level once, I had to restart from the beginning or else be endlessly wiped out by the fast-moving anchor.
Combat, which clearly received the lion’s share of Tate’s focus, is also finicky. Each biker has a different special attack, and these are frustratingly hit-or-miss. Nerdy Toshi can order a drone to fire at his enemies. Burly James can slam the robots in front of him with a wave of seismic energy. So far so good. But, Randy has a hookshot that allows him to hook onto enemies. It’s too difficult to use, because, again, it requires a precision that the game doesn’t support. This is partially due to the fact that, given that Steel Rats forces you to switch between three lanes, you’ll often fire off an attack only to watch as it flies harmlessly past your target.
Essentially, Steel Rats answers the question it sets out to ask. Cool as it sounds, if you stick a circular saw on the front wheel of a motorcycle, it might slash the tire, or sever the brake line, or spark through the spokes. As good as Steel Rats is at world-building, it often fails when it lets you take control. Sometimes the answer it finds isn’t the answer it needs.
Steel Rats review code provided by publisher. Version 1.01 reviewed on a standard PlayStation 4. For more information on scoring, please see our Review Policy.