Reviewed on: PlayStation 4
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Most followup efforts — books, movies, music albums, video games, etc. — have to walk a very fine line that isn’t discussed or acknowledged often, but this line will almost always be the metric by which that followup effort is judged. If it does something new while discarding everything that made the original special, it runs the risk of alienating everyone who loved the first effort. Alternately, doing the same thing twice means that some fans will get exactly what they paid for, while others will be bored with something that isn’t as fresh and new as it could have been. This feeling can easily intensify — multiply, rather — when that followup is long-awaited.
Fourteen years ago, Harmonix released the music-genre classic FreQuency for the PlayStation 2, and then produced a sequel in 2003, called Amplitude. Now, the franchise gets a new, partially-crowdfunded third entry…and it goes by the exact same name, Amplitude. The name isn’t the only similarity the new game has to the old titles in the series, as the core gameplay remains relatively unchanged from earlier versions. This isn’t a bad thing, as the previous titles were so damn good that the playstyle formula those games pioneered was later used as the foundation of a brand new music franchise, which was the blockbuster behemoth we’ve come to know as Guitar Hero. After Guitar Hero II, Harmonix split from their then-publisher Activision and went on to create Rock Band for EA. If you’ve ever enjoyed any of those games, you’re likely to find a lot to love here. It has just as much music-based challenge as its predecessors — possibly moreso at its highest difficulty levels.
In concept, the game is quite simple: you select a song, you move along the instrument tracks of that song, you play notes / beats in an instrtument’s track, and that track clears after two measures are completed successfully. At that point, you shift to another track and repeat the process on a different instrument. There is a left, middle and right beat to play in each track, and while this may sound simplistic when compared to Guitar Hero‘s / Rock Band‘s five-note tracks, it’s not. Score is everything in Amplitude, and maintaining a high score means keeping your multiplier high, which means not missing a beat. Ever. The reason why this is challenging is due to the need to switch tracks after completing the one you’re currently playing, because you’ll have to switch from one drum track, to another drum track with different timing, to a bass track, to a vocal track, to a synth track, to a guitar track, to an effects track — and then repeat the process until the song ends. You’ll have to switch from playing one instrument to playing another while constantly adapting to changes in timing. You can compete tracks in any order you wish, so your job can be as easy or as tough as you set it up to be, as the tracks will reactivate in the order in which they were previously cleared.
Since score is so important, more notes in a track means more points, and a higher multiplier does the most amount of good on those tracks. In order to maximize your score, you’ll have to learn where notes are lean — bass and vocal tracks are usually sparse — so gaining multiplier on low-note-count tracks to prepare for complex drum and synth lines is a time-honored strategy, but this ensures you’ll have a nerve-racking job keeping the beat when it matters most. While this isn’t tough on lower difficulty settings, it becomes an absolute life-or-death-but–mostly–death gauntlet on the highest ones, as it will absolutely tax your mortal soul trying to keep it all together. In this, Amplitude is an absolute treat for those who love music / rhythm games and enjoy a strong challenge, too.
The game falters in the most crucial, core component of any music-based game. Where FreQuency and Amplitude both featured licensed tracks from well-known artists — No Doubt, Orbit, Jungle Brothers, Dub Pistols, BT, David Bowie, Slipknot, Weezer, Run D.M.C., all of which just stratch the surface — the 2015 offering is sorely lacking in anything recognizable, and leans almost exclusively on in-house work with a few little extras here and there. That’s not to say that the music is bad, because it’s not. It’s just that there isn’t a lot of variety, which is what music games like the original FreQuency and Amplitude thrived on. The genre-hopping, hey-I-know-that-band feeling that the original games had is nowhere to be found here, and that’s a major blow to the game at launch. Hell, I bought Quarashi’s Jinx because I fell in love with “Baseline” on Amplitude‘s track list. There is very little on this tracklist — save for the always-awesome contribution from Boston’s own Freezepop — that truly stands out, and the game is undeniably weaker for it.
For the side-note record (no pun intended), Quarashi’s Jinx is quite good, and holds up really well despite being nearly thirteen years old. You should definitely try to track it down. Back on topic:
Amplitude‘s visuals are slick and pretty, but tend to overstimulate. Completing a section of each song triggers temporary chromatic abberation (i.e. image colors separate into red, blue and green), then realign before the start of the next section. It never fails to be — scientifically speaking — disorenting as all hell. Beyond that, there’s a section in the campaign mode of the game near the very end where this takes place over the entire final section of the song, and it absolutely ruins your ability to play the game well. The visuals in FreQuency were trancelike, very active, and yet very chill. The visuals in the original Amplitude were a little more ostentatious, but never crazy. This game takes it to a whole new level, and the result isn’t necessarily good. I wish there was a way to turn some of it off, quite honestly.
Speaking of options to turn annoying things on and off, Amplitude took three steps forward and one step back with FreQ Mode, which is an unlockable toggle earned by completing the campaign. You see, FreQuency was played in a tunnel, where the tracks wrapped around and reconnected, thus allowing the player to move to new tracks from either side while being able to see where that next beat / track was coming from. Amplitude did away with that in lieu of a flat plane, and this effectively ruined the ability to keep chains going, because you’d be done with a section and have to furiously press left six times before you got to the next track coming up. You’d very likely drop the chain because the next beat would come faster than you could physically intercept it — or worse, it would be ridiculously easy to overshoot it — which made maintaining multipliers nigh-impossible.
2015’s Amplitude is still played on a flat plane to start, but fixes the previous problem by immediately placing you on the next available track with a single press of the left or right direction, once you’ve completed your current track. The remaining problem is that you still can’t see what’s coming when the next track is all the way on the opposite side of where you are, which trades impossible track shifting for being forced to assess how you’re going to play what’s next with minimal time to process it — visually, auditorially, mentally and physically. FreQ Mode’s tunnel helps to alleviate this, because you can look above you and see the track coming in the distance, and this gives you ample time to play your current track while keeping a planning eye on how you’ll handle what’s next — a feat that’s really tough, yet necessary on harder difficulties.
While having the tunnel mode is everything I’d ever asked for from the sequel, it expands the tunnel by doubling up on the tracks being displayed, thus making everything appear twice while still keeping the autoclick mechanic. This makes the upcoming tracks really small, and doesn’t impart that upcoming information to the player as easily as it did in FreQuency. It creates another problem where none previously existed, because the tunnel in FreQuency was played in a restricted space where all tracks showed up once. If FreQ Mode’s tunnel only showed a single instance of the tracks in a given song and kept autoclick in the mix, it would be functionally perfect. Instead, it takes two great ideas and warps them into being less than the thing that it originally was — for the second time in a row, really.
There is a 4-player multiplayer mode, but since I played this game before launch I didn’t know anyone who I could play with, and nobody else in my house cares about such things or is old enough to play effectively. So, there’s an entire mode that’s gone untouched, so I simply won’t count it here. I’m also lamenting the lack of a Remix Mode, as that was the absolute, hands-down best part about the original FreQuency that Harmonix has seemed apt to forget about.
In order to keep this already long-winded review from balooning further, I’ll simply sum it up at this: while Amplitude doesn’t do much in the way of innovation, it does offer the strongest gameplay in the franchise thus far in terms of challenge. However, the weak track selection, questionable visual design choices and semi-botched implementation of the franchise’s best gameplay methods add up to a very lackluster experience. I would be upset if I backed this on Kickstarter, not because I didn’t get a good game out of the deal — which Amplitude certainly is, for sure — but rather, that the game doesn’t seem as inspired as the labors of love that preceded it, which causes this particular pony to look like it’s not even capable of doing its one trick nearly as well as it used to.
This game’s review copy was a digital download code provided by the publisher, and the reviewer did not back the original Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign.
More of the same, in the best way possible.