Harmonix’s Kickstarted reboot of their 2003 PS2 rhythm game hits PS4 this month. It’s time to put down your plastic guitars and chase a different kind of note track!
Publisher: Kickstarter/Sony Computer Entertainment
Reviewed on: PS4
(Review code provided by PR/publisher)
Harmonix are a developer that have become synonymous with the rhythm game genre over the last fifteen years. While I’ve touched on their contributions to the “plastic guitar” branch of games in my Rock Band retrospective, the team started in 2001 with the PS2 release, Frequency, following that up in 2003 with its sequel, Amplitude. While both of these games were hardly commercial successes, they garnered a cult following and helped establish Harmonix within the industry, paving the way for their more popular Karaoke Revolution series and the genre changer that was Guitar Hero.
Fast forward eleven years to 2014 and the announcement from Harmonix that they are planning a reboot of Amplitude via a Kickstarter campaign. Funded within 24 hours of launching, the new Amplitude was set to be released in March of 2015 on PS3 and PS4, but faced a delay due to issues working with the next gen hardware, eventually hitting the consoles on January 5th, 2016.
For the uninitiated, Amplitude plays similarly to Harmonix’s 2012 Rock Band spin off, Rock Band Blitz. The player controls a drone which travels down a number of tracks representing a different part of the currently playing song. Tracks can be switched with left and right on the analogue stick. As nodes pass, the corresponding button on the controller (L1, R1 or R2 on PS4) has to be pressed to score and keep your combo meter going. However, where Blitz was a fairly passive game with only four tracks per song, Amplitude is a very different beast.
The constant pressure on the player is for them to finish a “section” of the track that the drone is currently travelling down. If they can do that then they take control of that track and it will continue playing without player intervention. The trick, however, is to keep thedrone switching to different tracks once sections are complete, hitting more notes and keeping the combo (or streak) going. Fail to do this or be too slow on switching tracks, and you’ll lose your combo and some energy which can be regenerated by picking up the pace. The need to keep your combo is heightened more by the addition of gates in some songs which require you to be at a specific combo level to pass through without taking damage!
This may sound tough, but on low difficulty levels it’s an almost relaxing experience as you rhythmically progress through the songs, activating tracks and getting lost in the somewhat hypnotic beats of the games electronica driven soundtrack (more on that soon); but ramp up the difficulty and the game becomes quite the challenge. The tracks start to introduce more complex beat patterns which leads to some serious finger gymnastics to keep on top of all of the tracks. Unfortunately some frustration with the track shifting mechanic comes in at this point; with so many tracks per song, you can often find yourself switching to one that is off screen, requiring quick reflexes to hit the first note. So many times I found myself missing this and dropping my combo, a frustrating experience. Things are eased in the form of bonuses which unlock as you progress through the single player campaign. Collect specific notes on the tracks to unlock smart bombs, slow downs and other temporary reprieves, all activated with a swift press of the X button.
Visually, the game is a bit of a stunner, its bright colours and clean edges pulsating in time with the music; the interface, as well, is a simple affair with uncomplicated menus allowing you to jump straight into the action.
As previously mentioned, the soundtrack comprises of 31 electronica driven songs. While around half of these were composed by Harmonix for the game and make up the tracks for the single player “concept album” campaign, there are also songs from familiar video game composers such as Danny Baranowsky (Super Meat Boy/Binding of Isaac), Jim Guthrie (Sword & Sworcery) and Harmonix mainstays Freezepop. It’s a great mix and, as with the track bonuses, unlock as you play giving lots of incentive to keep coming back to the game. While Harmonix are yet to announce any DLC for the game, it’s a safe bet that, should it do well, there will be more song packs available further down the line.
As well as the solo mode, Harmonix have also included local multiplayer. Cleverly, this allows for players to team up and play cooperatively as well as competetively, balancing difficulty levels appropriately, similarly to their Rock Band titles.
Amplitude is a great game, deeper than Harmonix’s more recent forays into non-instrument based rhythm gaming and a worthy exclusive for Sony’s consoles. It’s a shame that the layout of the game can sometimes work against the player, especially on higher difficulty levels (and a portable version for the Vita would have worked nicely), but for rhythm game fans looking for something a little different or those nostalgic for Harmonix’s earlier fare, Amplitude is well worth picking up.