Before becoming known for re-starting the popularity of the music-rhythm genre with the original Guitar Hero (and later advancing it to the point of social institution with Rock Band) Harmonix’s experimentations with button presses tied to music were much more down to earth. Exhibit A was the high-flying pulse-pounding of their initial effort, Frequency, a game that put the player in the futuristic space suit of a ship captain beset on all sides with instrument tracks and approaching notes.
The gameplay formula eventually bred a sequel, Amplitude, which fell much in line with its prequels ideas and mechanics. Unfortunately for Harmonix, in breaking further ground with the music-rhythm genre, they have outpaced their former efforts, Amplitude’s anemic playlist doing little to save it from comparative irrelevance.
Those that have played the recently released Rock Band: Unplugged on the PSP will feel right at home with Amplitude, most of the ideas present in the handheld title seeing their origin here. Those that have played the Steam-exclusive Audiosurf may also feel pangs of nostalgia, the techno-neon glow and design of the track reminiscent of the title, albeit on a more immediately varied scale. You control a small ship (termed “Beat Blaster”) and a customizable avatar, your goal being to correctly hit a sequence – or “phrase” – of notes in order to gain points and let the track play for itself for a while, allowing you to strafe to any of the five adjoined tracks to repeat the process. Each track represents an essential component to each song, and for the hip-hop/electronica/rock setlist, that means: synth, bass, back beat, vocals, etc.
Several power-ups are spliced throughout each song to make progression easier: things like immediately “capturing” a track or doubling the accumulated score for a set time. Their placement is well implemented, seeming to arrive just at a song’s more difficult sections to offer aid. Strategic players will also be able to net a much grander performance with their proper use, giving the game some much needed depth for higher-ranked players.
Hitting multiple “phrases” in a row will build a combo meter, which will deplete over time, or at an increased speed with every failed note-hit. If the player can outlast the song without fully depleting the meter, the tune is won, and the score is tallied. The game is broken up into five sections of increasing difficulty, with each section containing four songs, three of which need to be completed to unlock the final – boss – song for each level. Once the boss song is completed, the next difficulty level is unlocked, and the process repeats.
Amplitude comes packed with four mode variants: self-explanatory single, multiplayer, and online components, as well as the inventive and entertaining “remix” mode, where players place their own notes in accordance with a song’s beats. Sony Computer Entertainment America has long pulled the plug on the game’s online components, leaving the couch the only method of having more than one controller in play.
Overall the gameplay immediately sets in with a sense of flow, a feeling of real progression that never lets up if the player continues straight on. Boss songs feel noticeably harder than those building up to them, the jump in difficult minute enough to keep the game fresh, while still offering that sense of anticipation that comes with any good level build. Sequences used to hit the notes are mapped to the face and shoulder buttons, in an intriguing setup with a slight learning curve, but one most players will have mastered by their fourth song.
The songs you’ll be completing, however, is the game’s biggest fault. In this age of 80-track discs with hundreds of other songs via DLC, Amplitude’s tracklist of 26 songs seems absolutely paltry by comparison. The variety of songs barely extends beyond their associated labels, further constricting their appeal to a very niche audience, one that won’t mesh well with the lack of general-appeal tracks. Tracks are often B-list songs that inhabit the last track of their respective albums, and the repetitive hooks and choruses of some of the tunes will turn off gamers with more popular tastes. The songs still play well, however, although the annoying habit of early Guitar Hero games and their sudden spike in difficulty towards the final two/three songs seems to have taken more than a few leaves from Amplitude.
The look of Amplitude is sharp and distinct, the six different tracks glow with respective pulsating colors, clips of the track’s band and their accompanying videos flying across the top of the screen at key points. The white glow of the note phrases and miniature explosions each successful hit musters add up to a bright and absorbing presentation that manages the line between rave-induced colors and migraines with little effort.
At the average price of $5 – $10, depending on location, Amplitude’s multi-track gameplay may look enticing, and for good reason. But with recent advances in the genre giving you the same formula, on the go and with potentially hundreds of more tracks, it falls to just how much you love repetitively mixed hip-hop to merit a purchase. You’d be renting at the same price, and with the possibilities of Rock Band and Guitar Hero’s online stores being very open to non-Rock genres, it’s best to leave this one to the Harmonix nostalgia timeline, and pick up Unplugged instead.
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Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Rating: T for Teen
Release Date: March 24, 2003
Platforms: Playstation 2