“Wow, how are you able to control the game so well? Do you play a lot of motorbike games?”
When a representative says something like that to a member of the press at a trade show, it’s often just fluff to keep us interested. This time, however, the developer at the Steel Rats booth at PAX East was being truthful. I don’t know what I was doing, or how I was doing it, but my control of the little digital motorcycle in front of me was second nature, almost muscle memory.
The truth is, I don’t play many biking games, and definitely not many in 2D where speed and combat are so integral, but I was genuinely doing good. Maybe it’s by design to make me think I’m better than I am, or maybe the difficulty is ratcheted all the way down, but I might be a fucking pro at this game.
Steel Rats is a 2.5D platformer, where we swap out Mario for a motorcycle and goombas for robots. It’s set in an alternate post-WWII America where junk-based robots have taken over the world, and it’s up to us to beat them back. It’s physics-based movement, so that if we build up speed on our bike we need to plan on how it will react to changing speeds, adjusting locations, and avoiding obstacles. Or going through them. The combat elements incorporated into the game make it more than just a left-to-right race, adding threats and boss fights that spice things up.
It’s like Trials HD, but less linear, more to do, and robots.
There are plenty of paths through the game’s 30 or so levels, and in my demo I’m able to explore a couple of ways to make it through some of them. Some of the paths are of the “follow the signs” type, while others rely on precision jumps and traversal (and thanks to my somehow uncanny ability to control the game I find myself gravitating towards these). One of the demo’s levels even has the feel of a lite Metroidvania, in that the only way to proceed forward is to go back, down, and then back up again while hitting switches or killing enemies.
The platforming traversal is surprisingly fun, as speed plays an important part in where we go and how the bike interacts with the environment. In one section I’m met with a wall and need to build up momentum to shoot up a ramp next to it. If I get going fast enough I can climb up the wall vertically, or even shift upside down in one section. Letting go of the controller trigger for even a hair will slow me down enough to send me tumbling down to the street below. In another area we’re chasing after an enemy and need to avoid pipes in our way. We can try to go around them, moving up and down along the road to shift lanes, jump over them, or slice through them using the VERY SATISFYING BUZZ SAW WHEEL. With this ability, we can set our front tire ablaze, turning it into a weapon that can destroy garbage in our path or enemies in front of us. The game lets us lock on to enemies to help with aiming the blazing wheel, and a nice slow down effect transpires to emphasize the effects of the attack even more. I have fun making everything explode, to be honest.
The game lets us take control of four different characters in our gang, each with different skill levels and abilities. If we capture enough junk, we can upgrade the bikes and help our situation out further. It may help, since we can lose the characters along the way through death or our own stupidity. That seems to be my case, as I manage to wipe out all but one of my crew in the demo’s boss fight. The battle itself isn’t difficult, but I’m trigger happy and am overly aggressive. Thankfully, after I’ve lost three of the four teammates, I realize that I can go off to the side of the battle arena, slow things down a bit and recalibrate, and jump back into the fight for the win.
With Steel Rats, it’s pretty obvious that controls (and speed) are the core of the game. The bikes function like an RC car in 2D, and take a little getting used to, but when we get over that “hump” it begins to feel like we’ve been raised on the control scheme our entire lives. The only way we mess up is because of our dumb decisions, but those probably happen a lot once we’re moving along at high speeds in a city filled with robots. Expect the game, and its robots and speed, later this year.