Release Date: 01/05/16
My first exposure to Harmonix came not through any of their more popular endeavors, but through their very first game, Frequency, which was published by Sony back in 2001. I didn’t even know what it was at the time, if we’re being honest; I’d stopped into a K-Mart that was going out of business and happened to see it amongst a pile of about a hundred copies of Conker’s Bad Fur Day, thought the cover looked cool, and picked it up on a whim. As it turned out, though, I ended up losing quite a bit of time to the game in the weeks that followed, and I enjoyed it so much that I immediately jumped on board with the original Amplitude, and basically followed the company’s works from that point forward. Flash forward fifteen years and Harmonix is releasing their third game in the franchise, once again named Amplitude, after a successful Kickstarter to get it funded, and from the perspective of a long-time fan, that’s a pretty big deal. However, a decade and a half later, things have changed a bit; Harmonix themselves might only be three games deep into this specific franchise, but they’ve used this same gameplay structure for Rock Band Blitz and Rock Band Unplugged, and games like Rez and Child of Eden have done a lot with this sort of concept (in their own way) as well. Further, Amplitude is no longer the same experience it used to be; instead of a simple rhythm game with a shooter motif, it’s a game featuring a soundtrack that’s a third in-house developed tunes for a concept project soundtrack, a third indie tracks and a third licensed tracks from other video game music creators. Is that a concept Harmonix can make into a functional experience effectively? Well, as it turns out, the answer to that question is “mostly yes,” as Amplitude is mechanically the best version of the game in the series, though there are some caveats in that qualifier that, even at the twenty dollar price point it released at, might give one pause depending on what they’re hoping for from such a game.
Starting with the obvious question
This being a rhythm game, it’s probably for the best if we discuss the soundtrack to start off with, especially because the general opinion of it around the horn has been… divisive to say the least. Amplitude features a thirty song soundtrack, featuring fifteen songs that are set up entirely for the game’s concept project record and an additional fifteen that are here to round out the game as a whole. Unlike other Harmonix properties, however, the tracks in Amplitude aren’t licensed big-name tracks, but rather music produced in-house, tracks produced by indie artists, tracks from other video games, and in at least one case, a song produced by a Kickstarter backer. This is a big of a shift from other games in the Harmonix wheelhouse, but it’s not a bad thing per say, as the soundtrack here is honestly mostly quite good. Some of the songs are a bit weirdly experimental such that they conflict with the rest noticeably (several of the Harmonix songs, if I’m being honest), but the majority of the tracks here are good enough to offset that. Tracks like “Break For Me,” “ICU” and “Crystal” are strong tracks in their own right, and tracks like “Crypteque,” “Impossible” and “Unfinished Business” are great inclusions from some good games (Crypt of the Necrodancer, Transistor and Skullgirls respectively) that are worth playing even if you’re not a fan. Hell, even as someone who cannot stand Freezepop, their track “Phantoms” is a strong inclusion, and that’s not a compliment I offer lightly.
That said, the biggest subjective issue here is that the almost the entire setlist in the game is EDM of various sorts, from drum and bass to trance and beyond, and while that’s great if you like EDM, as I do, it’s horrible if you don’t. This is honestly kind of a big deal, considering this is the first time Harmonix has gone this route; the original game mixed its EDM tracks with songs from bands like Fear Factory, No Doubt, Curve and Powerman 5000, and even the original Amplitude included songs from POD, Garbage, Quarashi and Slipknot. To be fair, it’s probably going to be a bit of a shock for long time Harmonix fans that there aren’t any significant licensed tracks here, especially since the game is still a Sony product, but this can be forgiven due to the fact that Harmonix had to go to Kickstarter to get funding (and thus probably didn’t get a lot of Sony buy-in here). However, what is strange is that they didn’t plumb the depths of gaming-focused indie music and pick up acts like MC Frontalot, Miracle of Sound, The Protomen or other non-EDM bands to round out the sound a bit. Instead you’ve got “Assault on Psychofortress,” “Crazy Ride” and maybe “Unfinished Business” alongside twenty seven electronic songs, and one of those is a song about Insomniac Games. Honestly, I love EDM, so I think the setlist is (mostly) great, but Amplitude is a really hard game to love if you don’t, and that’s going to be a big dealbreaker going in if you were hoping for a mix consistent with… uh, just about every other game Harmonix has made.
If you do love yourself some EDM, however, let’s keep going and see what Amplitude has to offer.
On the stuff the game does well
There is, as odd as it seems, something of a story to this game, as the Campaign mode included essentially uses the music and some dialogue samples to craft a concept project record of sorts through the narrative. The narrative mostly seems to be based around restoring brain functions to a comatose patient, and much of the tracks fit that narrative, so it’s not a bad attempt at this thing, but honestly, if you’ve seen Child of Eden you’ve seen this concept before. Gameplay-wise, you have the Campaign available to plow through, as well as a Quickplay option that lets you jump into any song you’ve unlocked on whatever difficulty you choose, along with a leaderboard to track score performance against others, and the option of couch co-op with up to four players if you have local friends to play with. It also bears noting that, from a visual perspective, Amplitude looks absolutely amazing, as it takes the “sailing down a note track over a trippy background” concept from the prior game and uses modern tech to make it into a beautiful light show. Backgrounds are colorful and vibrant as they pulse with life during play, and even the ships and tracks look dynamic and interesting, especially since there are different ships to play as that each look unique (even if they function the same). There are also a lot of interesting effects you can kick on as needed during play that help keep the game world moving and really give the game a life that’s worth seeing in action, if nothing else.
Mechanically, Amplitude is a really simple game to understand: you’re a ship sailing down a track, and notes will appear on tracks in one of three positions in time with the notes of the instrument, which you can detonate by pressing the correct button for the note when it passes an aiming reticle positioned in front of you. In other words, it’s Rock Band’s guitar mechanic with a spaceship instead of a strum bar, and as with prior games in the series, it works fairly well. Each song has a set number of paths you can follow that represent some part of the track, whether it be drums, vocals, synths or what have you, and as you correctly bang out the notes when they pass the aiming target, the song beats are filled in. Once you’ve completed a section of the path, that path falls away for a while, leaving you to fill in another path until the whole song is playing, at which point you need to move to one of the regenerated paths and (ideally) keep the song going until the end for big points. As you complete note sets you also build a modifier on the right side of the screen that increases as you do well (up to 4x), though missing a note will bottom that modifier out to zero, and take some Energy from the bar on the left that, when empty, fails you out entirely. The game also offers you a fairly involved tutorial to explain how all of this works, and playing through the Campaign will also ease you into the mechanics difficulty-wise so you can get used to how the game plays before attempting to ratchet up the difficulty a bit, but honestly, you’ll have most of the basics down in a single track. This is a game that does more with its increasing difficulty than trying to make its mechanics complex on their own, and it works well for players of all skill levels as a result.
That said, Amplitude shows that Harmonix has learned a bit from prior games in the series (and spin-offs), as it not only brings old mechanics back to the table, but it also adds in new elements that make the game one of the best in the series mechanically. For one thing, power-ups are back, and they work as well as they ever did; you’ll have tools that allow you to increase your score payout, destroy a track without completing it, slow down the tempo to make a track easier, or even give you a chance to freestyle for a bit. What’s interesting, though, is that while some tools allow you an easier time at a track or a chance to improve your score, some tools act as a failsafe against missing a note; in other words, if you miss a note, you can deploy some tools to blow up a lane or freestyle, and they’ll keep your modifier intact, giving you a chance to try again as needed. Further, there are now two methods you can use to move around the play zone; using the right stick allows you to swap lanes as you wish, while using the left stick or D-Pad shoots you to the next viable lane no matter where it is, allowing you to keep combos going much more easily if lanes are separated by a lot of space. There are also little things that make the game a joy to play, such as the audio of the lane you’re in increasing to let you focus on the beat, or how you can turn on an option that allows you to play in a Frequency inspired tunnel, or even the fact that eliminating a lane before you can collect a power-up will still net you the power-up if you can see it, that make the game feel like Harmonix really put a lot of thought into the mechanics, and it shows.
On long term play and things that don’t work so well
The campaign is only fifteen songs long, and you can clear it out in around an hour or so with consistent play, but Quickplay is likely where you’ll spend most of your time. Here you can test your skills against up to five difficulty levels that increase in complexity as you go, allowing you to test your own skillset as well as compete against the leaderboards to see how you rank alongside others. The game also locks up around half of its tracks behind play-based metrics, so you’ll need to play through the tracks a bit to unlock everything that’s here, as tracks unlock approximately once every four plays. Beyond that, the couch co-op is novel if you have local friends you want to compete with, as it offers special power-ups for multiplayer games and there’s some real fun to be had with others if you’re so inclined. Also, since there’s at least one track that’s a Kickstarter backer exclusive, it’s entirely possible we’ll see some DLC down the road if the game does well on PSN, so those who plow through all of the tracks included in the game might have that to look forward to. Regardless, rhythm game fans will likely love the ability to try and improve their scores and performance on songs, and if that’s your thing you’ll find plenty to love about Amplitude, so from that perspective, there’s a lot here to enjoy.
On the other hand, it’s worth mentioning that while the game has couch co-op, it lacks any sort of online component beyond leaderboards, making it a hard sell if you don’t have local friends who’d want to play the game. Further, while it’s fine to have unlockable content in your game, the method Harmonix uses to enforce this is brutal; you’ll have to play a total of around sixty sessions before every song packed in the game unlocks, and even after grinding at it for hours I still have a couple songs left to unlock that I simply cannot muster the will to unlock at this point. You could theoretically do this thing by swapping difficulties, but even that’s a flawed concept; while Beginner and Intermediate match up fairly well, the next difficulty, Advanced, is a huge jump in difficulty, and the two after it are only going to appeal to the best of the best, so less skilled players will be stuck repeating tracks or playing everything twice to unlock all the songs, which isn’t great. There are also minor hassles, like the fact that there’s no option to turn off undesirable power-ups or that some songs are structured in a way that makes them annoying to swap around in (again, mostly the experimental tracks) that ding the game a bit, though these are comparatively minor all in all.
The bottom line is that whether or not you’ll enjoy Amplitude comes almost entirely down to whether or not you’ll enjoy the soundtrack; if you love EDM, you’ll find the game to be a slightly lacking but otherwise outstanding rhythm game experience, while if you hate EDM you’ll find it a waste of twenty dollars. The game looks and plays fantastic, and while its concept project isn’t anything special, the game is more than fun enough that it hardly matters. Those who love the soundtrack will find that there’s a robust song list here, and multiple difficulties combined with online leaderboards and couch co-op give the game enough meat that it’s worth picking up if you’re into the music included. However, outside of a very small group of rock and punk tracks, the vast, vast majority of the setlist is EDM produced by either Harmonix, indie creators or game soundtrack creators, and anyone expecting licensed tracks or a more robust variety from the game is going to find themselves heavily disappointed by this tracklist. Even if you do love EDM, though, the game lacks online play, its content unlock structure feels punishing after a while, and the difficulty spike between Intermediate and Advanced is going to be harsh for less skilled players, which limits the experience a bit. If you’re a big fan of EDM and you’re pretty good at rhythm games or don’t mind playing on the lower end of the difficulties, Amplitude isn’t a bad endeavor, especially considering how strong the tracklist is, but it’s really a limited appeal experience, and how you feel is going to come down to how much you love its music and whether its play options are limitations or just fine for your interests. It’s not for everyone, but if it does something you enjoy, Amplitude is a game that’s worth picking up.
Short Attention Span Summary:
Amplitude is a rhythm game that’s a joy to play, but only if you’re into its EDM and indie heavy soundtrack; if that’s something you’re up for, the game’s got a lot going on worth checking out, but if you’re not, it’s going to do absolutely nothing you’ll want to see. The visuals and presentation are absolutely top-notch, and while the concept project the Campaign is based around is a little simplistic, there’s enough to do with the game outside of that for the asking price that makes it work. The mechanics are really easy to understand, but between the little tweaks Harmonix has made to the game in this iteration, the multiple difficulty levels, the couch co-op and the strong soundtrack, there’s a lot to love here that really makes the whole package a solid piece of work. However, the track unlock setup can be frustrating over time due to what it expects of you, the difficulty levels don’t scale as well as they should, the lack of online play is a disappointment, and those expecting a more varied setlist or even licensed tracks won’t help but be disappointed by the soundtrack on offer here. If you hate EDM on general principle Amplitude has almost nothing to offer you here, which is a shame, because anyone who does like the genre will find a game with a lot of strong polish and great gameplay, even beyond its hiccups. A more varied soundtrack would’ve done the game wonders, but even so, if you’re into what’s packed into the game, Amplitude is a great game, if one that’s limited by its genre choices.