Robots Without Soul

If you wanted to experience all the metal-crunching mayhem of today’s Hugh Jackman film without the gushy family story, Jump Games has something just for you in the iOS tie-in of the same name, Real Steel (Out Now, $2.99 Sale). The premise goes like this: in the future, human boxing champs have been replaced by robots, so arena audiences can finally get all the blood and guts they really want to see. Well, make that “oil and bolts,” I guess. Real Steel’s opening cinematic suggests a wild, frenzied kickboxing fest, so I settled in looking forward to Street Fighter with robots.

Alas, in the player’s hands these robots move just as sluggishly as their tonnage would realistically imply. Don’t go into Real Steel expecting flashy back flips and jackknife kicks, as this is a boxing game through and through — and it isn’t the swift-footed Muhammad Ali kind of boxing, either. The eight robot fighters in Real Steel are just lucky their servos help them get back up after they’re knocked down. Barely able to move back and forth at a snail’s pace, each is best suited to close-in fighting, with the player and his or her opponent concentrating on blocking, dishing out left or right hooks, and throwing in the occasional robot-specific wildcard attack for good measure. The game’s most interesting element is the stamina bar, which forces the player to budget his or her robot’s special moves or risk a shut-down that leaves it entirely vulnerable for a few seconds.

The most satisfying special moves – pretty much everything shown off in the game’s cinematic trailer – are in fact cutscene pummelings invoked by playing dial-a-combo with the attack buttons. These are quite satisfying to watch for their length and over-the-top robo-brutality, but interesting questions of game design come into play for the fact that the most exciting part is something removed from the player’s hands once it’s triggered. Ultimately I have to reach back to my Street Fighter II days on this one. Back then, pulling off an impressive combo attack required work each step of the way; spectators at the arcade had the benefit of watching something really cool happen, but the player had the rush of working his or her thumbs in the moment on top of that. Something precious is lost when the player is relegated to a spectator role as happens in Real Steel, in my humble opinion. Once the player or enemy robot has emptied its can of automatic whoopass, it’s back to the hum-drum grind of hammering on each other and strategically blocking, mostly without budging.

Players new to Real Steel would do well to spend some time in its Practice mode to get used to the mechanics before diving into the Tournament or Free Sparring. This would have been a great opportunity to guide the player in practicing each robot’s special attacks, if only the robots felt distinguished in the first place! The move list was the exact same for every robot I tried out; only the animations invoked by the various button press sequences differ. The player’s one incentive to choose among robots is to take advantage of their differences in attack speed and ability to dish out and receive punishment.

Battles in Tournament and Free Sparring modes last one round each, and Free Sparring consists of a single battle. The player can set opponent AI before starting either, and opponents tend to be satisfyingly aggressive even on “Easy.” Tournament mode does something interesting in giving the player upgrade tokens he or she can spend between rounds, upgrading the chosen bot’s stats to make up deficiencies. If only some unique-feeling special moves or body parts with different properties could be brought into the fray! The right-hand virtual buttons used for attacking feel just right, but that success is offset by the unfortunate thinness of the virtual D-pad buttons. Southpaws can make use of a manual screen orientation flip in the game’s main menu to reverse Real Steel’s interface.

I certainly found Real Steel easy on the eyes, right up until Game Center or OpenFeint achievement notices popped up and gave the game jitters on my iPod Touch 4. Don’t expect much glitz and glamor; in keeping with the movie’s grungy realism, there’s little to see in the way of special effects aside from the occasional spark or oil leak. Robot limbs get handily ripped off if the player’s lucky enough to have some stamina left over for these near-death critical moves though! Upper-tier robots await the player who sticks with Real Steel long enough to unlock them by emerging victorious from its Tournament mode. A full playthrough should last a few hours if the game’s style happens to be to the player’s taste.

iFanzine Verdict: Real Steel is ill-served by its slow, clunky nature, lack of depth, and how it hides the best it has to offer in cutscenes devoid of interaction. Fans of slow-moving boxing games might get something out of its stamina management system, but they’ll have to be forgiving of the occasional stability hiccup and a less-than-ideal interface.

[xrr rating=2.5/5]