I had planned to put these reviews, and others, up on another website, that suddenly pulled the plug, so here they are:
Audiosurf/Beat Hazard review(s):
The Guitar Hero/Rock Band phenomenon pretty much single-handedly revitalised the music game genre, which beforehand had been somewhat limited to DDR machines in arcades or utterly insane japanese games like Beatmania or Guitar Freaks. The latter required machine-level information processing and hand-eye co-ordination which were a significant barrier to entry, either expensive arcade fees or importing the aforementioned game hardware.
Whilst the accessibility of GH/RB has been much-applauded (the increased living-room clutter of plastic instruments to a lesser degree), the genre has continued to quietly evolve. There have been a number of titles that have pushed music games in interesting new directions, mixing them with elements from other genres to push the boundaries. Audiosurf and Beat Hazard are excellent examples of this, receiving high praise from critics, but not achieving the same wide-spread commercial success.
Both of these games use similar ideas, technology and gameplay, which greatly and almost infinitely extends their lifespan – rather than having a fixed list of songs to play through, you can play any song you have on your computer, in pretty much any format (Beat Hazard has an additional one-off 85p charge to enable non-DRM iTunes, mp4 and AAC files, the cost being to cover the patented AAC decoders), which are then scanned/loaded into the game to be played.
The way Audiosurf uses this method can best be described as a combination of traditional GH/RB gameplay mixed with the thrill and speed of the rollercoaster race tracks of the F-Zero X, Extreme-G or Wipeout series. The game scans the song, and creates a track based on the “intensity” of it – uphill for slow/gentle/quiet sections, and downhill for intense/fast sections. You then guide a small ship from a familiar racing game-style third person camera angle along the track. This track has several lanes marked on it, which you travel along, switching lanes to collect the various coloured blocks that appear along them as you travel through the song. You gather them in an almost tetris-like manner, trying to match the individual blocks into groups of at least 3, at which point the blocks disappear and you are awarded points etc.
You can pilot any number of ships, each with different abilities, some which change the nature of the game. These abilities include scrambling the grid to get out of a tricky spot, being able to move blocks as you collect them, delete a certain colour, that sort of thing, including a local co-op option with a small pair of ships. The other game mode has you trying to collect coloured and avoid grey blocks, which clog up your grid. The game's procedurally-generated nature means that the blocks aren't as tightly attached to the notation of whatever song you're playing as in GH/RB games, however there are frequent moments which both blocks and beats match, which certainly add to the immersion and enjoyment.
A great deal of work has gone into the aesthetics surrounding the track you ride down, both the track, blocks and your ship change colour along with the undulations of the track/intensity of the song, from blues and purples to vibrant yellows and reds, your ship's engines pulsing to the beat or roaring through a particularly epic downhill sections There are colourful explosions and track-side constructs to give each song an air of spectacle and excitement, which really adds to the atmosphere. Obviously some genres of music work better than others. Dance/house works very well for a fast run, rock can be difficult as if the drums are too pronounced it can cause extended periods of wave-like motion which can make it difficult to see what's up ahead, as well as causing minor nausea after extended periods.
Audiosurf's experience would be all well and good on its own, however there has been significant work put into the online and social aspect, which, thanks to it's exclusivity to Steam combines leaderboards, achievements and weekly guest tracks to provide a decent incentive to keep going for higher scores, as each song has a unique track shape, it is easy to identify cheaters trying to change the .mp3 tag information to keep at the top of the leaderboards (which cleverly email you to let you know you've been beaten off of the top spot for a particular song). This presents a slight problem with using tags to identify songs for leaderboards. If the tags for a song you have aren't exactly the same as everyone else, then you will not be on the same leaderboard as them.
Beat Hazard makes similar usage of “scanning” songs to create gameplay, however takes it in an entirely different direction. In this case it is attached to Asteroids/scrolling shooter gameplay, with the pace and intensity of the music dictating your ship's weapons power. It plays very much like classic Asteroids, you look down on your ship and blast things that emerge from the sides of the screen, be they chunks of rock or enemy ships. The name of the game is scoring points, which you do so by shooting things and acquiring pickups that increase volume, firepower and your score combo. So, in a similar manner to Audiosurf, the game works a lot better with fast-paced and intense music.
This is however a double-edged sword, as when a song drops to a quiet section before building up for a final chorus/solo, it can leave you suddenly without ammunition. This, coupled with the spawning of enemies/bosses seemingly unrelated to the music, can lead to the unfortunate combination of one large or two smaller bosses and the equivalent of a water pistol to defend yourself with until the song kicks in again. The bosses add an extra dimension to the gameplay, more akin to scrolling “bullet hell” or “curtain” shooters, being generally large and having multiple weapons to throw at you, ranging from waves of bullets to homing missiles and lasers.
Whilst Audiosurf has excellent online and community support, Beat Hazard is a far more local/offline affair, whilst it has survival and “casual” modes, as well as local multiplayer, ranks and built-in achievements, only the Steam version has an online leaderboards feature from among the pc versions available.
It must be clearly stated that, as it states in a disclaimer for both these games on startup – you really shouldn't play Beat Hazard or Audiosurf if you suffer from any degree of sensitivity to flashing lights, and should be played in a well-lit environment. Beat Hazard dazzles you almost constantly - even on the main menu – with flashes, lights and changing colours. Whilst this adds to the sense of spectacle and amazement, it can be hard to see what's going on, particularly the un-homing projectiles fired from the lesser enemies and the tracking beams of the boss lasers, which serve to warn you where they're going to fire. This feast for the eyes can be very tiring, and almost serves as a limit on gameplay. There is an option to reduce the intensity of the effects, however for all you high-score junkies, it reduces the points gained by 30%. Audiosurf does make use of a lot of colours, however the undulations of the tracks can cause motion sickness, so please take that into consideration.
Both these games are excellent value for money, having a lifespan as long as your music collection. They are an excellent way to experience a new CD/album, rather than putting it on in the background and not really paying attention. I would recommend Audiosurf for this as the generated tracks maintain more fidelity to the song being played, and it causes significantly less eye fatigue than Beat Hazard.
Audiosurf and Beat Hazard are available cheaply on Steam, both have demos available to try before you buy. Boxed copies of Audiosurf (which contain Steam activation codes) are available for much less on ebay and online retailers, however be careful to get sealed/new copies, to make sure the steam codes inside haven't been used. Beat Hazard is also available on other digital distribution providers, as well as on Xbox Live Marketplace with a demo.
I really wanted the whole DRM thing.