There's a great sense of satisfaction as we start to put together moves and combination plays in our second game of future sports title Steel Circus in a conference room a couple of blocks away from the comforts of the Moscone Center during GDC. The game offers a pure multiplayer experience with three players on each side, and you pick different hero players (champions) equipped with abilities and attributes to set them apart on the arena. The action is quick, back and forth, and as a member of the opposing team was equipped with a skilled member of the alpha community currently testing the game we were quickly made aware of the skill gap the game offers. And that's without factoring in the extra dimension a coordinated team of three offers.
"It's a future sports game," says game director Hellmut Hutterer from Iron Mountain Interactive. "But it's really a game about team play. It's about positioning, split-second decision making and playing together well as a team utilising the different abilities of the champions, the characters in the game."
For a while future sports were left behind, it simply wasn't cool anymore. But whether it's games like Rocket League or Disc Jam, or modes like Lucioball in Overwatch, it would seem the lure of future sports, some of them more brutal than others are on the rise again.
While it's humbling to taste defeat, it also shows the potential of the game. A multiplayer game like this needs to allow for the best players to excel and develop tactics that are difficult to deal with. And while we're sure the expert on the other side of the table was holding back a little in the second game, we did find ourselves more at ease and able to defend and attack with greater success. There is a particular skill involved in bouncing the ball off walls (even energy walls you yourself or another player puts up as one of the special skills) and bumpers.
The current build offers five champions to choose from and while we only sampled two, Lochran and Shani, it's easy to tell that the numerous combinations and synergies will make for an interesting meta, especially once the number of heroes rises (and it will, we're assured). It's not that the differences are extremely pronounced in normal play, but the special abilities are what really sets the champions apart. Schröder is perhaps the most unique one out there currently as he's got abilities that let him sink into the floor and surprise opponents out of the blue. Cap-x02 is another interesting champion that can set up barriers or walls - now this may sound like a defensive ability, but you'll soon realise that blocking off defenders to set up plays is an equally important way of using it. Cap-x02's ultimate lets him transform into a turret that's capable of shooting opponents from range.
There is also health to consider as when a team goes one (or two) players down there's a massive disadvantage, even if you don't have to wait very long for your teammates to respawn. Given the player count, losing a player is always costly, even if they just happen to be out of position.
"We wanted to create a game where after a few matches you really start worrying about playing together as a team," says Hutterer. "So that was what was most important for us, that's like our big design premise. Keep it simple, but add a lot of layers of complexity."
It's funny how some franchises peak early and never quite reach the same heights. When starting to write this preview of Iron Mountain Interactive's Steel Circus we felt obliged to look into what happened to the Speedball franchise since its hay day with Speedball 2: Brutal Deluxe in 1990. That game is a classic and has seen release across a multitude of platforms including Amiga, Atari ST, C64, and Mega Drive. A proper Speedball 3 was never realised though attempts to follow up the game has been made over the years, like Speedball 2100 on PlayStation and Speedball 2 Tournament. Most recently a remake called Speedball 2 HD was released on Steam in 2013. We also recall Deathrow, an early title on the original Xbox, that sought to reinvent the formula.
When asked about the similarities with the Speedball concept, Hutterer had this to say:
"We actually started out very different. I think our first prototypes where first-person and third-person and when it was clear that we wanted to put a strong emphasis on team play that's how we ended up with third-person because that just worked a lot better. But we looked again at those games [Speedball], but I haven't played it in ages, but we looked at videos. But there's also a bit of Mario Strikers in there and a bit of elements of like pinball with those bumpers on the playfield."
What Steel Circus does well is that it captures some of the quick gameplay and decisions of Speedball, while offering something new. The champions and the perspective make for a different experience, and naturally, the ball physics, potential skill moves, and layered tactics along with the multiplayer makes for something very different at the end of the day. A Brutal Deluxe for a new generation perhaps, one that has grown up with MOBAs.
The plan is for Steel Circus to move on from its alpha testing to some form of Early Access on Steam early this summer, where it will continue to evolve and expand until a full release later this year on PC. There's also talk about potentially bringing it to console once it's finished.