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Platform(s): PlayStation 2, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4
Genre: Rhythm
Developer: Harmonix Music Systems
Release Date: Jan. 5, 2016

About Brian Dumlao

After spending several years doing QA for games, I took the next logical step: critiquing them. Even though the Xbox One is my preferred weapon of choice, I'll play and review just about any game from any genre on any system.


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PS4 Review - 'Amplitude'

by Brian Dumlao on Feb. 1, 2016 @ 1:30 a.m. PST

Amplitude allows players to take part in the music and gaming revolution by keeping beat with top named recording artists and gamers around the world in an all-new auditory and visual gaming experience.

November 2001 marked the release of Frequency, one of Harmonix's first forays into the world of rhythm-based gaming. The deeper approach to rhythm gaming, specifically by separating out the individual instruments and voices to reconstruct the song, didn't make it instantly approachable, but the unique mechanic mixed with a bevy of electronic beats gave it a cult following. Two years later, the sequel came in the form of Amplitude, which made the mechanics easier while expanding the library to include more genres from rock to pop to rap, something that was realized even further with Rock Band Blitz. Now, after a pretty successful Kickstarter campaign, the team has returned to this concept with a reboot of Amplitude, which works if you forgive missteps here and there.

For those who are inexperienced with the previously mentioned titles, Amplitude can be both familiar and new. After selecting your ship, you are sent down a lane highway that is split up into several different sections depending on the selected song. The lanes represent different instruments or parts like bass, drums, synth or vocals, to name a few. You pick a lane and clear out a set of notes that are connected by a string. Unlike other rhythm games, missing a note in a section invalidates the rest of the notes until a new section begins, so slip-ups can be very costly. Once enough of the notes are gone, the rest of the lane is considered clear for a short amount of time, and you have to move the ship to another lane and do the same thing there until the song ends. While the your lasers are your primary weapons in hitting those notes, you can also use power-ups, such as an automatic lane clearer and the ability to slow down time.

While the number of notes to be hit (and their arrangement) proves to be challenging depending on the difficulty level and song chosen, it is the lane-switching that proves to be the real bugbear when it comes to chasing high scores. Aside from the multiplier that doesn't disappear until you miss a note, your combos behave more like a brawler than a rhythm game, so a delay in hitting notes resets the combo count. While switching to a lane with ample time to adjust means you're less likely to lose your multiplier, going for more risky lane changes means you'll keep your combo going longer. It is an interesting risk/reward system that makes you throw in some strategy in planning the correct order of lane switches. It's a smarter rhythm game and more enjoyable to those who have gotten bored with the standard matching system.

Amplitude only offers up two modes. The first is the Campaign mode, which surprisingly enough, has a story. Though you get hints of it once you boot up the game, you come to discover that the system is an experimental procedure to repair someone neurologically. In this case, you're using the system on a comatose patient in hopes of reviving her from that state, going from lobe to lobe until you successfully meet your goal.

The story isn't exactly fascinating, and even if you make it to the true ending, there's nothing that can be considered compelling. What is fascinating is the fact that the 15 tracks used in this mode are arranged and composed in such a way that it becomes a concept album of sorts. The titles of each track and dialogue snippets do a fine job of setting up things while the vibe for each song conducts the ebb and flow of the tale from calm to panic to eventual triumph. It works so well that you lament the frequent breaks between tracks, which can cause the album to feel disjointed.

From a gameplay perspective, the Campaign mode has a few missteps. For starters, the ship choices have no bearing on the game. The differences are only aesthetic, and while it is nice that the lightbar of the DualShock 4 changes relative to the chosen ship, it would've been nicer if the ships had an effect on the gameplay. The game is also fond of straightforward progression, so you can't go back and fulfill the requirements to unlock the bonus songs unless you erase your progress and start over. Finally, the game throws out an unnecessary challenge in the final two tracks by distorting the screen with wavy visuals and ghosting with different colors. It may make sense as far as the story goes, but it makes those tracks annoying to play.

The other mode is Quickplay, which as the name suggests, lets you go through the game's discography of 30+ songs. Aside from the ones featured in the Campaign, you'll get a selection of original compositions by Harmonix and lesser-known artists in the field. You'll also get a few popular compositions from other indie games, like Crypt of the Necrodancer. Almost all of the tracks cover the electronic music genre, making this game feel more like Frequency than the original Amplitude since it focuses more on one genre instead of covering a wider spectrum of music. It does, however, work to the game's benefit since removing parts of the song that aren't powered up means that you'll make your own mixes of these songs in real time to give those playthroughs a more unique flavor.

Though single-player is certainly fine, it is the multiplayer that can make the game enjoyable for groups of rhythm game lovers. It supports up to four players locally only, so you've got a decent selection of co-op and competitive modes. Aside from being able to use the normal power-ups from the single-player mode, you have a few multiplayer-specific powers, like knocking off opponents' ships or stealing notes that can make sessions chaotic. Overall, it breathes new fun into the game just when you feel that it might be getting stale.

There are really only two criticisms that can be levied against Quickplay. The first is that the difficulty level isn't variable, so even though there is no failure state, you can't make individual adjustments for players of different skill levels. If you put the game on Easy to make things better for one player, everyone else is bored; likewise, putting the game at the highest difficulty level overwhelms those who are just coming to grips with the game.

The second complaint comes from the actual unlocking of songs. Playing through the Campaign to unlock a little over half of the soundtrack is fine, but the other songs require that X number of songs need to be played before they're unlocked. This seems like a reasonable request, especially if you use this as an opportunity to create slightly different mixes for the same songs, but the playthrough numbers for some of the tracks is rather high. Having to play through your whole collection more than twice just to unlock one track is asking too much and can feel like artificial padding. This title isn't scheduled to have any new tracks via DLC anytime soon, either.

Unlike past games, which showed off music video snippets on moving monitors or virtual rockers dressed in gaudy outfits, the backdrops in Amplitude are relatively distraction-free. You'll see shiny blobs of hexagonal matter pulsate with some of the heavier beats, and the fully activated lanes crumble away in a delicate manner, but it is otherwise a benign affair. The lanes and ships are reminiscent of the designs in Audiosurf due to the bright neon colors that outline everything, but beyond that and the light shafts to guide you to a new section, what you're getting is more functional than flashy. Some tracks appear almost immediately as if to try and catch you unawares, but this occurs so rarely that it isn't that bothersome.

In the end, Amplitude isn't quite the masterpiece that many had expected. The idea of a concept album for the Campaign mode is good, but the execution has too many interruptions that prevent the concept from being fully realized. Also, the idea for song unlocks is good considering the game only has 30+ to choose from, but some of the unlocking requirements aren't good incentives to keep playing. On the other hand, the gameplay is fun and interesting for the rhythm genre, and the song selection is very good for fans of electronic music. Fans of rhythm games should check it out.

Score: 7.5/10

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