Being a genre that is synonymous with additional (and mandatory) peripherals, the latest video game from developer Harmonix is a breath of fresh air amongst the rhythm-action titans of their very own Rock Band franchise, and Activision’s Guitar Hero. Requiring nothing but the PlayStation 4 controller and successfully capturing the very essence of “pick-up and play”, Amplitude serves as a reminder of the simpler times of old – and it is better than ever because of it.
Arriving as the result of a successful Kickstarter campaign to create a successor to the original Amplitude title from 2003, it’s easy to see why after more than a decade since it originally released, the game has maintained a strong following. Still delivering on a simple yet challenging experience, I’m happy to report that the gameplay has easily stood the test of time without even a single blemish – and in fact, the transition to the modern-era has provided an increased sense of fluidity to the gameplay making everything feel as strong as it ever has been.
Being placed in control of an entire track where each instrument is represented by its own lane of instrumentation, players must move from side-to-side between each lane as it is introduced and beat-match each section. Successfully completing a segment without making a mistake will ‘clear’ that instrument lane for a period of time, allowing the player to shift focus to the other instruments that are yet to be introduced into the mix. For those who are not so successful, the lane will remain in play, progress during that particular section will be nulled, and the next section of beats must then be completed instead. Feeling more like a DJ in control of a mix rather than a band of musicians playing the track live, players need to build-up and maintain the layers of instrumentation from start to finish in order to establish the full song throughout, and in turn, rack up the most points possible.
The passages of instrumentation do lack much complexity due to the musical beats being limited to only three buttons on the controller, but ultimately this issue is balanced out by the variety in rhythmic patterns that players are faced with during each and every song. The constant shift in instruments keeps things interesting, and the challenge is found in quickly adapting to these changes, maintaining a high beat-streak and achieving a score multiplier, and keeping the energy bar as high as possible. Yes – there is a health system incorporated in this game, and missing out on beats and subsequently messing up entire sections will penalise players and decrease the bar accordingly. Bringing the energy bar down to zero will, unsurprisingly, result in a failure state, but hitting beats and entire sections correctly does reward the player with a top-up. Failure to hit notes not only does damage to your energy, but resets the aforementioned score multiplier – an important gameplay mechanic that is key to achieving a high rating. Being attentive, feeling the beat and concentrating on the music is key, but the solid controls ensure that you always have the best chance of success.
Switching between each lane with a careful flick of the analog stick is as easy and natural as you’d expect, and though it feels alien to begin with, hitting the beats on the left, centre, and right of each lane with L1, R1, and R2 respectively does feel like a perfect fit. For those who find this too much of a strange concept to get to grips with, the game thankfully offers multiple control schemes that should cater for everyone in some way – though I personally believe that the shoulder buttons offer the most comfort, and allow for far quicker reaction times across the board. Regardless, with how simple and easy to digest the ‘beginner’ difficulty of this game proves to be, it’s easy to find your feet early on. In order to easily build-up your ability and improve on those fine motor skills, the game’s campaign serves as a great place to start thanks to its steady increase in challenge as you further progress.
Primarily built up of original songs created by Harmonix themselves, the campaign bases itself around the concept of a group of doctors taking a journey through a comatose patient’s brain in hope of ‘fixing’ it. Though this whole idea is rather vague and never properly dealt with to form a fitting narrative, it certainly adds a suitable level of context and meaning to the gameplay, and lends itself nicely to the art department where track backgrounds offer psychedelic, often dream-like landscapes that are bursting with colour. It’s very playful, and the loose-concept album that you play through as a predetermined setlist will take you on an interesting journey despite the fact that it’s not the greatest soundtrack to listen along to. Unfortunately there are the odd tracks that fail to match the highs set by other songs on the soundtrack, and all too many feel almost entirely forgettable. Though the tracks are far from bad by any means, the lack of real hooks or tasty riffs is sorely lacking. Thankfully the tracks are brilliantly progressive, and as such the tracks have plenty of surprises in store and always provide some fun gameplay regardless of the music itself.
As fun as the campaign was to play through, I never felt compelled to repeat it, and instead I spent the bulk of my time with the arcade mode and playing the tracks freely without being tied to a particular setlist. With access to all the tracks included in the campaign and additional songs created by artists outside of Harmonix, the 30 tracks included are primarily electronic, resulting in a distinct lack of genre variety, particularly when placed next to the original Amplitude that also incorporated songs by Run-DMC, Slipknot, Blink 182, Weezer, and David Bowie (to name but a few). As a result, this game is unlikely to appeal too much to mainstream music fans due to the lack of familiarity towards the soundtrack. On the other hand, the focus on the one style of music does make this year’s Amplitude feel a lot more cohesive than its forebear, and is far more in keeping with the pseudo Sci-Fi styling of the visuals.
Though the length of the setlist feels more than enough early on, I can’t say for certain that it offers enough bang for your buck. Due to the tracks being so forgetful, it’s easy to become bored of what’s on offer, and it’s doubtful that the game will hold enough attention in the long-run. That said, switching to higher difficulties does revitalise the gameplay thanks to the beats being truer to the sound source (and much more complex in every way), but this aspect is likely to be too tough for the more casual player. Like the original, when Amplitude gets tough, it gets real tough. For those that love a challenge (and a considerable one at that), the harder difficulties are sure to please.
With additional features by the way of a local multiplayer mode that is fun for party play (but could have desperately have done with online support), and a bonus ‘FreQ’ mode (unlocked from completing the campaign) that converts the gameplay style to the way it was presented in Amplitude’s predecessor: Frequency, there are some extra features to divert your attention, though ultimately you’re unlikely to dabble too heavily in either. The base gameplay found in Amplitude is thankfully more than worth the price of admission however, and more than a few hours can easily be spent joyously smashing some beats and orchestrating some music.
The fond memories of times well-spent with Amplitude during the age of the PlayStation 2 will undoubtedly be resurrected within those who experienced the original, but the appeal of Amplitude within the year 2016 doesn’t just stop at nostalgia. Providing an entertaining and solid gameplay experience that both new and old players can easily jump in and out of, Amplitude’s only failings are found within its limited, and less than stellar soundtrack.