Once in a while, there is a developer that wants to deviate from the established genres and try out something new. According to Polish studio Tate Multimedia that's exactly what the team is doing with its new game, Steel Rats. Gamereactor was recently invited to attend a hands-on session in Warsaw in order to play the 2.5D action arcade platform game, and it's all about motorcycles and robots.
Steel Rats is set in a fictional 1940s retro-futuristic American city that, according to the developers, draws inspiration from Gotham City as portrayed in the Batman Animated Series. While playing the game we felt that the oldtimer cars, poster art, and architecture of the buildings indeed managed to create a similarly dark atmosphere. The graphics and the levels running on Unreal Engine 4 look very polished, with lots of detail on the 2.5D bikers and robots at the front, as well as several layers in the background showing burning bridges, eerie forests, and huge flying robots. It actually offers a very dark and serious atmosphere, though the developers might add a touch of humour later, to take the edge off. Tate Multimedia has hired an audio designer that previously worked on games like Layers of Fear, and he will add an '80s inspired synth-style soundtrack along the lines of Stranger Things, to further add to the mood.
The three levels we played (out of an eventual total of 30) featured people running around in panic while robots took over the city and burning zeppelins crashed in the background. The storyline revolves around a crew of four bikers whose friend mysteriously goes missing. While setting out to find him, the city comes under attack by malicious walking robots. The storyline behind what happened to your missing friend, and who the robots are and why they are attacking the city, will gradually unfold as you play.
The game has four playable characters: a ranged-focused biker who shoots missiles; a speedy biker who shoots flames from the back of her bike; a tank-kind of guy that hits enemies hard with stomping and ramming attacks; and finally a melee-focused punk who has a green lasso of sorts which he uses to draw enemies closer. All of them ride Harley Davidson style bikes and each has their own special attacks that fit their role. These attacks require energy that charges only through pickups earned by taking down enemies. You're able to switch between characters and the game's challenges require you to pick the most suitable biker for that particular moment. If you manage to keep them all alive that is.
So what kind of challenges will we find in the game? Tate Multimedia previously made the Urban Trial series, which focused on carefully steering your bike through various scenarios in order to complete levels as fast as possible. Steel Rats still requires some dexterity, but it's trying to find a balance between driving and jumping your bike across platforms, and knocking out robotic enemies. There's plenty of jumping required as well as quick reflexes, and you'll be driving back and forth, for example, to dodge trains coming from different directions. The most straightforward way to kill the robots is with the red-hot saw in your front wheel, but you can also reflect back ranged shots or use a wide array of special attacks. There are also weapon crates that drop anything from machineguns to dynamite. In order to upgrade your characters, you have to collect junk which you can use to buy cosmetic alterations or new abilities. Junk is collected by killing big robots, but there are also a lot of smaller robots walking around that can be killed just as easily. As lead game programmer Krzysztof Siewiorek explained, the junk is there because they wanted to add an arcade element but without giving you simple Mario-style coins without effort.
Additional levels will offer a variety of challenges. The levels we played featured mid-bosses and strong end-bosses to defeat, but other levels might revolve around entirely different challenges.
For example, there will be levels where you're chased by dangers such as rolling boulders and levels that require you to complete a race within a certain amount of time. Vertical driving is another element that will mostly require navigation instead of fighting skills. PR Manager Michał Azarewicz told us they're aiming for diversity in terms of the challenges, the pace of the game, and the settings for the different levels. We hope the final version will offer lots of variety, otherwise killing robots might become a bit repetitive.
The game's controls felt decently designed. Like arcade fighters such as Killer Instinct, you need to press buttons simultaneously to perform special and ultimate attacks. Our hands-on with the PC build had us crashing and bumping around initially, but we got the hang of the controls quickly enough.
Sadly, the pre-alpha version we tested was still plagued by bugs and glitches we hope are not in the final game (the game is still very much in development). For example, during our gameplay capture we tried three times to finish an end-level boss: the first time he flew out of the map; the second time the entire screen became grey; the third time we defeated him but our biker somehow got glued to his corpse.
Siewiorek explained that most of the bugs were caused because they chose to make all of the robots (and the bikers) physical objects. The bikers have 43 points modelled that interact with the game's physics (a bike in GTA V has only 3 according to Tate) because they wanted the bike movements to be both realistic and challenging. The bikes do move very realistically around the map, for example when making sharp turns and when colliding with cars or robots. Another thing that we think is done well is how the bike seemingly moves freely inside the 2.5D world. You can steer to the top and bottom while moving either left or right. Tate Multimedia's lead game designer later told us the game actually has two pathways which you can switch between, but they added sub-pathways that enable you to dodge and move past objects. If they hadn't told us we'd have been convinced that you had complete freedom of movement, so this is done very well in our opinion.
The developers will add multiplayer rankings so that players can replay levels in order to finish them with the highest score, based on speed and also on points earned by making spectacular jumps and using variety in your attacks. Couch co-op is planned (but not confirmed) as well, something that really suits the game in our opinion. A map editor for players has a very slim possibility of being added, because of the game's complex physics systems. In total, the developers aim to provide at least 6 to 8 hours of gameplay for just completing the levels, with secrets and speed challenges set to add to the playtime.
Concluding, Steel Rats is a smaller game that aims for high quality and a fulsome experience. Tate expects to launch somewhere in autumn 2018 for PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One, with a Nintendo Switch version likely to follow if the game is a success on other platforms. We think it's worth to keep an eye on for those looking for a casual but still challenging and atmospheric biker game (albeit one with a twist). Especially if couch co-op makes it into the game and the levels are as diverse as the developers promise.