Fresh from a recent beta where players were able to get to grips with ShockRods, we thought we'd share our early impressions of this vehicular shooter after sitting down for a session of motorised madness on the last day of the event. However, before we get into the nitty-gritty we should cover the basics and explain that ShockRods is an arena shooter that plays out on four wheels. Each player takes control of a heavily armoured vehicle and then drives them around in explosive battles that take place in a handful of futuristic-looking environments.
Despite working in a well-worn genre, Stainless Games (Carmageddon) has tried to avoid too much crossover. The vehicles you control aren't realistic-looking motors with bolted on weapons a la Crossout or Mad Max, nor are they styled as some sort of plausible future sport. It leans closer to something like Rocket League, in a sense, but they don't really look like remote controlled cars either. Maybe you could compare them to the creations seen in shows like Robot Wars, but without the melee focus. These monster truck-esque vehicles come with strange-looking tires and there's a feeling that they've been shrunk down, kind of like Micro Machines.
We've cited a lot of vaguely comparable properties right there, but the fact that it's a little like all of them but not really like any of them in particular means that Stainless has done a good job with the overall design. More than any of the games that we mentioned before, we think you could best compare ShockRods to something like Descent-on-wheels or motorised-Quake, as it's the fast-paced arena encounters, the plentiful pickups, and the swappable weapons that really define the gameplay here.
To that end, the cars are actually surprisingly agile and you'll be sliding around corners and double-jumping your way in and out of trouble in no time at all. While the environments have been built with wheels in mind, they're also not designed to be racing tracks, with rooms and areas hidden away from the beaten path, platforms to jump between, and environmental dangers to catch you out if you're driving without due diligence. These tight, layered locations feel very much inspired by arenas we've played in before, and they work well here.
There's a small selection of 12-player modes including Deathmatch variants and Capture the Flag, and the modes we tested were quite enjoyable, although the in-game numbers were fleshed out with AI-controlled bots which made things considerably easier for us than they would have been had we been playing against a full set of real players. The Deathmatch was particularly engaging and it didn't take long for us to start looking at ways to exploit the environment, driving smartly to find lines of sight in unusual places, and using the double jump to access hard-to-reach parts of the map.
There are a number of different weapons, and just as you would in a classic arena shooter, you simply move over a colourful hologram to pick up a new gun (or a shield/speed/health boost). You can swap between your weapons, giving you added tactical options depending on the situation you find yourself in, and we liked to mix it up with a single-shot rifle and a machine gun for close encounters. It was actually quite surprising how quickly things turned tactical, and no doubt that's because each player is given a big enough toolset to respond to any situation in a number of ways.
That's not to say that there aren't plenty of moments when you're simply tearing around the place and letting rip on your enemies. We did a lot of that, even if we were also keeping an eye out for other players in battles and then trying to shoot at them from mid-distance while they were otherwise engaged. However, even if this tactic is a great way of getting a couple of extra frags, trouble is never far away, and it will invariably come looking for you at some point or another, especially if you're hanging back and trying to line up shots. You need to keep on your toes/wheels and use the environment to your advantage (learn where those health boosts spawn, for example) to try and stay out of enemy sightlines wherever possible.
After a few rounds, we needed to take a break as the constant hopping and spinning was starting to make us feel a little fuzzy, but up until that point, we were getting into the swing of things and having a jolly old time. The movement of the vehicles was perhaps the biggest surprise and, while it seems instantly accessible, the extra layer of control you're given makes this an experience more nuanced and tactical than the almost cartoony style initially suggests. If an audience can form around ShockRods, it's got all the ingredients needed to be a success.