An intriguing blend of ideas, Steel Rats, utilizes ripping motorbike combat and side-scrolling platforming set in an alternate version of the 1940’s in America. As a member of the biker gang Steel Rats, it is your sworn duty to protect the city from an invading superior robotic alien race, known as Junkbots. Standard motorcycles won’t cut it, so you’ll need to upgrade your expensive bikes with enough firepower to cut your way through hordes of enemies in 28 levels spread across five city districts.
The Steel Rats are comprised of four different bikers, which you’ll unlock by progressing through the game. It wasn’t apparent at first, but each member is highly unique, not regarding how they maneuver, but primary weapon loadout, a charged attack, and the awe-inspiring ultimate attacks. Once unlocked, you don’t have to worry about selecting a character for each mission; instead, you can alternate between Lisa, James, Randy, and Toshi on-the-fly with the press of a button (the right analog stick). Based on the situation, you may find one group member to be better suited than another, such as Lisa’s ability to wipe out all foes around her by leaving a fiery trail behind her or James’s mid-air hammer drop that decimates enemies directly in front of him.
Each level hides a secret collectible that serves as backstory about each of the characters or the various locales through audio logs and imagery. By collecting enough junk, you’ll unlock new perks, and upgrades spread across each team member. Junk can be obtained by not only taking out enemies but also objects in the environment. See an abandoned car in your way, turn on the chainsaw (wheelsaw) on your front wheel and cut it in half. The upgrades expand upon your basic attacks and help flesh out the combat portion of the game. For example, you can upgrade Randy’s harpoon or Toshi’s "junkpet" by extending the range and boosting the damage of each. Perks are generally stat boosting, such as adding additional sections of health, energy cells (for abilities) or improving defensive capabilities. Once unlocked by reaching the set score on each level, there are also objectives to complete that can boost your total, you’ll need to spend junk points to unlock them.
Although the game can be described as a side-scrolling action platformer, there is some dimensionality to the movement system. You aren’t limited to a strict side to side motions, as you can move back and forth along the road, platforms, rooftops, etc. The game uses this added freedom to the level design, in some fantastic ways. At one point, you must outrun, or in this case, ride) a collapsing wooden structure, requiring you to leap off broken edges, make hairpin u-turns into the foreground and leap down again and again. Once mastered, the controls are a bit clunky at first, you can easily navigate around at ease without sacrificing speed and precision. The movement isn’t precisely free-flowing, as there are invisible lanes that you’ll adhere to once you move closer or further area from the camera. One of the cooler mechanics involves clinging to metallic pipes when using the wheelsaw, allowing you to ride directly up walls, and even upside down. These moments are some of the best in the game, especially when mixed in with death-defying leaps and requiring you to maneuver around obstructions in the environment while doing so.
Checkpoints are quite generous, and if you miss a jump and fall to your doom from a great height, you’ll respawn with a portion of your health missing. Lose all your health on a character, and you’ll only have to pick someone else and continue along your way. I can’t recall ever failing enough to warrant a game over, especially if you take your time to understand what you need to accomplish to move forward, instead of merely just holding down the accelerate button and speeding through each level. Not to say that I have not been guilty of doing this, but not all levels worry about your completion time and it is more rewarding to destroy most, if not all enemies and objects in the environment instead. You’ll find the collectibles off the beaten path as well, and if you are speeding through like a bat out of hell, you may miss it.
Steel Rats may be the surprise I’ve been looking for as we get into the busy (and crowded) holiday season. It combines a rather robust motorcycle combat system with a slick movement system. The developers even threw in massive boss encounters that utilize all of your abilities. It wasn’t apparent at first that you can freely switch between biker members, but once realized, you can tackle any situation. Each biker has their own set of skills, but regardless of who you use, the game is simply fun and engaging. There are also unlocking bike and character skins for each of the four characters. Playing on a PlayStation 4 Pro, however, textures seem to take forever to pop-in, which is disappointing as the rest of the game is mostly impressive visually.Note: Steel Rats was reviewed on PlayStation 4. A digital copy of the game was provided by the publisher/developer.