Steel Circus is described by developer Iron Mountain Interactive as Rocket League meets Mario Strikers. I silently nod in agreement, but the first seconds of gameplay are enough to come up with a more fitting inspiration: Bitmap Brothers’ Speedball 2: Brutal Deluxe.
Kids nowadays don’t know what Speedball 2 is so they wont know how it defined a generation. The name alone wasn’t going to help market Steel Circus, but Speedball 2 instantly comes to mind. It was your go-to violent arena sports game if your computer happened to be a Commodore Amiga or an Atari ST, but Brutal Deluxe was released in several other platforms. “Insanely fun” somehow falls short to describe it, because it truly had this special something that very few games ever managed to replicate, and none of the sequels or remakes managed to even come close. Ubisoft’s upcoming arena sports game Roller Champions is another interesting alternative.
That being said, I can play along to the above comparison. Steel Circus borrows from different arena sports games and doesn’t score many goals for originality, but the core mechanics and gameplay are on the right track.
No Rules, Great Scotch
Steel Circus is a fast-paced multiplayer game of teamplay and supreme player coordination. There is no room for luck, apart from the extremely rare events where the ball tends to hit the metallic bumper and end up inside the goal, in the best pinball style. These haphazard moments will often decide a match, so it’s advised that you have a decent notion of geometry and the perks of bouncing the ball off walls. There is a significant gap between newcomers and expert players that will take some time to bridge, proof that Steel Circus has a margin for progression and that skill and split-second reasoning is what ultimately matters.
Great team combinations and eye-catching goals are incredibly rewarding. When a play tricks your opponent and results in a goal, you feel tempted to cheer and celebrate – there are emotes for that, obviously. When your adversaries take the upper hand and you’re on the receiving end of a stunning play, you feel humbled and learn from your mistakes. Steel Circus is all about tactics, improving your game and making the best of what each champion has to offer. There is never a dull moment with all the tackles and abilities going on.
While Steel Circus pits three players on each team, each player must embody a different champion. You can’t pick the same character as your teammates, which makes absolute sense. This final closed alpha test offered a selection of six champions, each one with their own unique statistics and skills. The plan is to have over 15 champions for the full release in early 2020.
Each champion has their own power, speed, sprint and health stats, but it will mostly come down to their skills and how you use them. Skills have a long cooldown time, so make sure you’re profiting from their timely use.
The latest champion is Acrid, a monstrous being that seems out of the Predator school of creatures. While powerful, he is extremely slow, an issue that doesn’t make him the best attacker. His rampage skill will turn him into a devastating slapping machine for a few seconds, perfect for clearing the field for his teammates. Putrid discharge is more of a damage skill, as Acrid spits a corrosive fluid that takes one health bar from whoever steps on it.
Shani was introduced early in development, but she only made it into the game recently. Hailing from Republic of Africa, this brilliant bioengineer is weak but comes with a handy spear that she can throw and then teleport to its location. She is also able to jump high in the air and strike down like lighting, stunning her opponent.
Schröder is primed to become a fan favorite, with his ability to bend reality for his own personal gain. His origins are as mysterious as he is sneaky, being capable of diving into the floor for a significant speed boost. Entering the floor and switching places with an opponent is his other skill, something that will come in handy when a player feels tempted to celebrate a goal before it happened.
Cap-x02 is a machine that was built to last… and score. It’s an all-round player with no real downsides to speak of. It is also able to summon a temporary barrier to stop other players and the ball from going through. This is very useful for defending purposes if you manage to pull it at the right time. Cap-x02 also turns into a turret for some destructive firepower.
Ellika is a powerful Pacific League officer with large experience in law enforcement. She shines through her sheer power and physical strength. Her skills include throwing her shield in bold Captain America fashion to stun her opponents, and she is also capable of creating a circular prison to incarcerate other players for a few crucial seconds.
Finally, we have the bagpipe-wielding Scottish stereotype Lochlan. Tough as nails as his physique will surely let on, he is able to slam the ground thanks to the robotic fist which replaces the arm that was crushed by a large rock – don’t ask. Playing the bagpipes will affect the players within range, preventing them from moving at full speed.
Champions in Steel Circus are neatly designed and sport a range of skills that should be enough to complicate your selection. You should get used to different champions though, as the character selection is done in a random order, meaning that the first player to pick could eventually choose your favorite.
Welcome to Dodge City
Steel Circus plays a fast and mean game of futuristic handball. Goals come in thick and fast and you can either win a game if you score ten goals or if you are in the lead when the five-minute match is over. Since there is no fixed goalkeeper, it’s up to you and your teammates to coordinate your efforts, possibly leaving one of you further back to prevent any sort of counterattack.
Health also comes into play closer to the end of the match. Suffer enough blows and you will be knocked off the game for a few vital seconds. It doesn’t take long to respawn, but those seconds may prove to be enough to turn the tide of the match. Occasionally a couple of power-ups will show up in the arena, with the players who are lucky to pick them up getting a significant health boost or seeing their skill cooldown time reset.
Tackles are the name of the game, with every player resorting to this move to stun their opponents for a second. There is even an XP reward for the player with the most tackles at the end of the match. However, you also have a dodge button which allows you to feint your opponent and leave him befuddled if the timing is just right.
The single arena currently available is a beautiful mesh of cyan and neon lights, set against a futuristic cityscape backdrop that is more detailed than it has any right to be. It’s stunning and crispy clear at the same time, making me eagerly excited for the premiere of the promised second arena. I look forward to seeing the new setting and backdrop, and the developers are aiming for over six arenas at launch. The current arena usually features three bumpers on each side of the field, but occasionally it shows up completely devoid of any obstacles, promoting straightforward play and goals scored from afar.
I still can’t quite get to grips with the passing and shooting system, but I know this is a personal issue and I realize that the more I play, the better I get at it. Running and aiming isn’t entirely intuitive, and you’ll fail a lot of goals before getting the hang of it. It requires pinpoint accuracy to pass the ball to a teammate, but the best players will make it feel effortless and natural.
I wouldn’t mind seeing the introduction of a mini map. It’s not entirely obvious where the ball is when offscreen, although there is an indicator giving you a vague idea. Knowing where your teammates are positioned is also essential to get a superior overlook on the arena, so a mini map would be extremely useful in this regard.
Steel Circus will be free-to-play, but you can purchase an Early Access package giving you access to all current and future champions. An in-game store also offers several options such as champion skins, emotes and more.
Steel Circus is a game that plays well and is at its best when two rival teams show a clear grasp of the core mechanics and mastery of the individual skills. It offers an equal dose of chaos and tactics, being brutal but never violent, and suited for both a quick match and a substantial dose of competitive tackling. Early Access will hopefully reward it with the player base that it both deserves and needs to evolve, turning it from a niche game into a full-fledged eSports contender.
Will it ever reach the heights of Rocket League or Mario Strikers? It’s quite a steep challenge, but these champions may have a skill or two up their sleeves.
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