After years of transforming cosy living rooms into sold out concert venues, popular rhythm games did what any self-respecting band on the verge of collapse would do and went on hiatus in 2012. In the face of EDM popularity, lowly plastic instruments were resigned to clutter up cupboards and attics for what seemed like the end of time. That is until 2015 when both Guitar Hero and Rock Band returned to their headline slots on the winter games line-up, reigniting the biggest musical feud since Oasis slagged off Blur back in ‘96. Using the timing to their advantage, Rock Band and Dance Central creators Harmonix have went back to their roots and remastered what some might argue was always their best work.
Amplitude and its predecessor Frequency both appeared on PlayStation 2 back when the console was still in it’s relative infancy, setting the trend for what would eventually become the popular musical rhythm game. Despite laying the groundwork for what would eventually become Rock Band, the original Amplitude was about as high concept as they came. Players would shoot in time with the music while piloting a beat blasting spaceship in order to build combos, and create and mix full songs by the likes of David Bowie, Weezer, and Blink 182. It may have been a commercial failure but the game rightfully earned cult status. So twelve years later, does the same formula work?
This remake of the game was funded via Kickstarter, and while licenses to those big pop names have long expired, it doesn’t stop Harmonix from creating a fresh new game that still holds appeal to fans of the original. With impressive new visuals, a strangely unique soundtrack, and some additional content, this remastered and remixed version of Amplitude is surprisingly good fun, provided you bring your inner rhythm to the mixing table.
As before, you’re in charge of piloting a ship which must navigate across six neon lanes of instruments. For each one, a series of studded markers will appear which you must shoot in time in order to score points and increase your multiplier. Once the game is satisfied you’ve conquered one instrument for the time being, you’ll have to frantically switch to the next one to build up the next layer of music that will eventually form one complete song. In what order you choose these instruments is somewhat up to you, making Amplitude less about covering an original track and offering more of a remixed approach.
There’s no Bowie (RIP), Blink 182 or Weezer this time around however. Instead we have a fifteen track concept album that forms the basis of Amplitude’s slim yet cerebral plot line. You’re travelling through the neural pathways of a comatosed patient and by completing each of these songs, you’ll be one step closer to reviving them from their unbreakable slumber. As far fetched as it sounds, it works well with the somewhat trancy music on offer, as Harmonix have clearly shifted their focus from old school rock and roll to the emerging popularity of electronic and dance music.
Bringing up the tracklist on offer are a number of scores and musical cues from various other indie titles such as Skullgirls and Transistor, along with Harmonix’s own in-house band Freezepop - a name that many a Rock Band fan will recognise. These bonus songs are unlocked throughout the campaign and can be played in the game’s quickplay mode at any time. Still, most of these songs are pretty forgettable and without the pulling power of some top acts, some will be disappointed by the musical selection that this version of Amplitude has to offer.
For those who stick with it, Amplitude offers a surprisingly rewarding arcade experience that in many ways rewards creativity above all else. Initially, you’ll play it safe and the game’s scoring system couldn’t be any simpler. A point is awarded for each successfully timed shot you make in time with the beat, while completing one a streak within your highlighted instrument will increase your multiplier and keep that part of the song alive for the next few seconds. This allows you to obtain up to four beats for every given stud marker along the way, but the real challenge is successfully flitting between the drum beats, bass lines, synth tracks and vocal recordings on offer across the six lanes of traffic. Early songs will have you banking from left to right until you get a complete section of a song but as the difficulty increases, you’ll realise that in order to achieve maximum points, sometimes the most obvious path isn’t necessarily the right one.
Missing your musical cues will cause your ship to lose life and your multiplier to revert back to zero. Fail to keep with the beat and you’ll fail the mission altogether, so for those who have a tin ear, health replenishing check points and an assortment of power-ups will help you regain control of your virtual orchestra and get back on track. Completing specially highlighted sequence will award you the ability to either cleanse the rest of the selected track for a few seconds, slow down the beat for added accuracy or purge every track rail altogether for a few seconds, reaping the points offered on your behalf. Much like Overdrive option in Rock Band, using these power-ups at critical points will reward you with maximum points so learning when and where to use them becomes a challenge in itself.
Some tracks will require combo streaks to be built up during certain checkpoints otherwise both your ship and score will suffer greatly, but perhaps the greatest threat to your musical genius is your own dexterity. Even seasoned musicians (or faux musicians bred by Rock Band) will struggle at times to keep their fingers in check when pressing one of the assigned shoulder buttons that fire the ship’s lasers. One false move and you’ll not only lose health, but also lock out the rest of the bar. Given that each song is around three minutes long, it gives you plenty of reasons to go back and not only experiment but strive towards getting one hundred percent completion on a track.
Difficulty can be increased for each song so there’s plenty of replay value to be had, even for a game that removes the remix mode and online multiplayer offered by the original. Beyond the campaign, quickplay mode allows you to replay any of the game’s songs either individually or with up to three other players. In what seems to be a dying feature within the industry, Amplitude’s four-player mode is a welcome addition. Putting you and your friends all within the same song, you’ll have to work together to keep the rhythm going, while carefully building up your own personal score by making sure you hit the most beats along the way.
If Rock Band strives to conquer the charts as the number one selling rhythm game, then Amplitude is content at being the indie side project, ignored by the mainstream but held in high regard by the die-hard fans. Even with notable downsides such as the obvious lack of game modes and guest appearances by recognisable artists, this 2016 is less of a cover version and more of a brand new sensory experience with plenty of replay value.