Were a videogame’s success measured by how effectively it transports you to another place, great rhythm-action games must be among the most triumphant. Sunk into the state of pure concentration and flow that difficult music games demand, it’s easy to forget who, or where, you are. The signals travelling from your ears and eyes to your brain translate seamlessly into the movements of your hands, without intervention from your conscious self. Playing
Amplitude on Expert feels like a mind-meld between human, music and videogame. It’s simultaneously blissfully relaxing and incomparably energising. It’s not unusual to come away from a properly finger-bending song with shaking hands and wide, staring eyes.
Experienced Freqs, as players of Harmonix’s early twitch games style themselves, will be jubilant about
Amplitude, a Kickstarter-funded reinvention of the rhythm-action PlayStation 2 favourite from 2003. The new Amplitude induces the same synaesthetic thrill and wields the same reflex-challenging difficulty, and cannot fail to delight any player of both the original game and 2001’s Frequency.
Amplitude puts you in control of a little spaceship, a Beat Blaster, that travels down the screen on familiar note highways. Each represents a different track in the song: vocals, drums, bass, and usually at least two different synth tracks. The music is deconstructed into three-button patterns, on L1, R1 and R2 (although this can be remapped if your fingers struggle with it), that dance across the highways. Surviving through a song is about hitting enough note sequences to avoid depleting your ships’s energy entirely, while scoring well on them is about chaining sequences together seamlessly to create multipliers. Its music is complex, high-energy electronica that makes you feel like a switch may have tripped in your brain after prolonged exposure. One inescapable difference between 2015’s
Amplitude and its 2003 predecessor is the complete absence of licensed music in the campaign. In 2003 we had mixes of Garbage and Run-DMC, Pink and Papa Roach, even some more experimental Bowie, alongside less well-known electronic artists. Bereft of a single recognisable song to draw you in, the new Amplitude’s appeal rests entirely on its beat-matching gameplay and futuristic visuals. With its perspective-bending note highways, colourful pulsating lights, electric patterns and expanding and contracting abstract shapes, Amplitude mirrors the odd visual language of the brain itself, when you shut your eyes and let the synapses fire. Playing Amplitude isn’t dissimilar to having your brain chemically stimulated, the game working to split colours and vibrate the display now and then to amp up the sensory feedback.
For novices, there are three less demanding difficulty modes to work through before joining hardened Amplitude fanatics at the top of the leaderboards. The challenge comes not from mastering new mechanics – you don’t graduate from three buttons to four to five, as in Guitar Hero – but from the increasing complexity and speed of the patterns. On Expert you’ll be matching every single synth note and drumbeat in a song, even at 190 beats per minute. On Amplitude’s hardest songs the notes fly down the screen so fast that it’s wholly impossible to consciously process them – instead you have to sink into a trance and simply let the music flow through you.
Amplitude’s campaign mode, which consists of 14 songs (plus unlockable bonuses) composed especially for the game, is appropriately framed as a journey through someone’s brain, your Beat Blaster a microscopic piece of nanotechnology. The rest of the 30-odd-strong tracklist is made up mostly of songs by non-Harmonix artists such as fan favourites Freezepop and Symbion Project, plus a few cameos from other developers, including a track from Insomniac Games and one from musical dungeon-delver Crypt Of
The Necrodancer. The nature of this music will be offputting for some – it’s far from gentle, and some of the tracks are as much of an assault on the ears as on the reflexes. The concept-album nature of the singleplayer mode justifies the exclusion of these licensed tracks, but some of the best music lives only in the Quick Play menu.
It’s all available in multiplayer, too, with up to four beat blasters on different controllers. It’s an excellent option even when there’s a large skill differential, since not only will the most advanced players have harder tracks to deal with, but everyone else can also gang up on them in a 3-versus-1 mode. Powerup items find whole different uses here than they do in singleplayer: Disruptors warp the note highway, Cleanse powerups can be use to blast tracks out from under your rivals, and you can use Flow strategically to freestyle over someone else’s lane and mess up their visibility. Amplitude with friends offers the most competitive rhythm-action multiplayer around, since rather than just matching your opponents note for note, you can actively interfere with them, racing for the best lanes and pulling dirty tricks.
There’s been nothing quite like Amplitude in the 12 years since it arrived on PlayStation 2, so even if this resurrection were nothing more than a visual update, it would still stand out. The new music and refreshed, gloriously futuristic aesthetic make it more than this, though the way it feels to play remains unchanged. It’s still a pleasurable kind of sensory overload, a bold, energetic rhythm game that scales to your ability and makes you feel connected to the music in a way few other games can match.
It scales to your ability and makes you feel connected to the music in a way few other games can match