Those who remember the early days of rhythm/music gaming will undoubtedly recall the titles FreQuency and Amplitude. The latter was one of my favorite games on PS2 and when I heard Harmonix was bringing it back for PlayStation 4, I was plenty pleased. I played the hell out of the original and I fully anticipated doing the same with the new effort, but it appears this project’s lower budget and ambition (remember, it was a Kickstarter game) has had a negative impact. This one feels lighter, is absolutely more one-dimensional, and presents the player with a few questionable gameplay additions and not much else. It’s fun in short bursts but you had better like electronica and techno…a lot.
Unsurprisingly, the game is much slicker-looking and more visually attractive than that old PS2 production. Even though it may be a Kickstarter title, Amplitude on PS4 really makes your screen come alive with a nice variety of visual and ambient effects. Granted, these effects can get in the way of your progress (which I will mention below) and visibility can be an issue, but the cleanliness and inspired design elements shouldn’t be ignored. There are only so many ways you can present tracks of notes but the team does a lot with this simple premise, and don’t forget the addition of FreQ mode, which, ala the aforementioned FreQuency, turns those tracks into enclosed, super intense tunnels. It’s futuristic and mostly appealing, which is good.
As you might expect, sound sits at the forefront of such a game. A top-quality headset will allow Amplitude’s thumping beats to shine and you’ll become as immersed as possible in this colorful, musically-driven atmosphere. The only problem is that because most of the 30 tracks were produced in-house, all we really get is an assortment of electronica, with little else to spice up the variety. The original PS2 game had licensed songs courtesy of big-name artists like David Bowie, Pink, Killswitch Engage, Papa Roach, Garbage, Blink-182 and Weezer. Yeah, it had lots of techno stuff as well but at least the other types of music greatly enhanced the diversity and unfortunately, we get none of that here. And that’s a big problem; I’ll elaborate in just a moment.
If you’re unfamiliar with the concept, this game is simply about hitting buttons in time with the beat. The notes you need to hit come down a track, and each track is dedicated to a particular instrument (drums, synth, vocals, guitar, etc.). You can either use the shoulder buttons or face buttons to strike the proper notes in rhythm, and there are three positions on each track. It’s recommended that you practice and master the shoulder buttons (L1 for the left note, R1 for the center note, and R2 for the right note) because two index fingers are really the only option for higher difficulties. Using just one thumb on the face buttons (Square, Triangle and Circle) when the beat is flying and there are a ton of notes? Heck, I prefer that control option and I used it all the time in the first title, but it’s just not realistic on Advanced and Expert modes.
Anyway, all of this works fine. There’s one big difference, though, and I’m not sure I like it: You still switch between tracks with the directional pad (or you can use the left analog stick in this version) but before, you had to click across through each track, even if it was empty. So, if you needed to reach the fourth track to your right, you had to hit the right button three times to get there. Now, if there are no open tracks between, you automatically switch to the closest one. This took some getting used to and initially, I thought it was a logical and appreciated addition. Then, when things got faster, I started to realize that it doesn’t quite work because your peripheral vision doesn’t always allow you to see the first note on that track way over there. So, when you automatically fly over there, you have no idea which note must be struck first.
That’s a problem. You can deal with it by looking down the track, and as far left and right as you can. If the next track is only one or two positions away, you’re usually okay; you can see the first note in the next sequence. But when it’s three and four tracks away, you really can’t. Before, as you clicked quickly across the screen, you’d see that note come into view and you’d have a bit more time; now, you have no time at all. However, I should say the control, for the most part, works perfectly. Everything is smooth and unlike in the original, you never feel as if you were short-changed. I remember yelling at the screen, “I hit that button!” The responsiveness might’ve been just a touch off but no such issue this time around; if you miss, it’s just because you screwed up. Period.
I like that the familiar power-ups have returned, even if they’re called something else. Cleanse lets you clear a track automatically, for example, which is great for keeping your Streak alive. But they could’ve done a lot more with this idea; where are the new power-ups I expected? Isn’t this supposed to be a brand new game? There’s one new one for the multiplayer functionality but that’s not quite enough. The good news is that multiplayer is a fantastic feature that absolutely must be sampled if you want to get the most out of this $20 game. Thing is, $20 is simply too much for what they’re offering the single player. Yeah, there are 30 songs but they all kinda sound very much the same (as they all basically fall into the same category of music), but all you can really do is play them over and over to up your score and unlock other songs.
Multiplayer acts as a nice – and necessary – complement, which isn’t too surprising. The campaign is just a throwaway mode that won’t take you more than a couple hours to complete; it merely consists of 12 songs and 3 bonus songs. Clear them all and you “revive the patient” or something. It’s really not much of a narrative, obviously. But multiplayer is really where it’s at, because the intensity, immersion and overall fun factor jump several notches. You will soon find that your skills will be tested at the highest levels and if you’re a fan of the music in question, you should get many hours of entertainment out of the game. The campaign is basically a waste of space, though, and whoever thought it was a good idea to give the final songs a blur effect to make them tougher…? That person needs to get swatted. Outrageously frustrating, my friend.
For what it is, the game plays well enough and can be entertaining for brief stretches of time. The only way to go beyond “brief” is to get involved in multiplayer, which is thankfully quite satisfying. Certain songs do require a fair amount of practice on the tougher difficulty levels and playing with others shows you just how incredible you can get, provided you’re hardcore enough. If you’ve got some friends who remember the first game with particular fondness, you’ll undoubtedly have a ton of fun playing with those buddies. And with FreQ mode, you can attract those who only played FreQuency and missed out on Amplitude, so it’s win-win for the old-school rhythm lovers from a bygone era. Nothing wrong with that, either.
In the end, though, Amplitude is a bit of a disappointment. It plays well enough and it’s awfully slick-looking, but the lack of a diverse array of songs really puts a damper on the experience. And this isn’t merely subjective; as starkly different songs result in drastically different note patterns on the tracks, and even how the tracks are set up, this lack of music variety impacts the gameplay as well. The multiplayer is the big saving grace and if you’re a big enough techno/electronica fan, you’ll probably enjoy Harmonix’s solid original compositions. It’s also a stable, well put-together title with little in the way of technical flaws. However, it doesn’t have enough content, the campaign is sort of a joke, and there are few additions and new features, so it feels too light overall.
The Good: Highly stylized and attractive visual presentation. Fantastically balanced and presented music and effects. Runs smoothly and responsively. Both accessible and challenging. Multiplayer is a huge bonus, and necessary if you want proper bang for your buck.
The Bad: Not enough additions or new features. Campaign is basically a waste of space. Visibility issue during gameplay. One-dimensional score results in a one-dimensional experience.
The Ugly: “I’m sorry, but I don’t see how half of this even qualifies as ‘music.’”
1/6/2016 Ben Dutka