Rhythm action games were once big business, with every man and his dog owning a copy of Guitar Hero in the mid-noughties. There was scarcely a party that didn't involve epic battles fought using plastic peripherals and well-timed button presses. Guitar Hero won over critics and players alike and at one time it was more than just a game, it was a cultural institution seeing enough success to spawn its own series of action figures as well as having an episode of South Park dedicated entirely to it.
But those were different times, and an oversaturated market, thanks to multiple lacklustre releases from Guitar Hero as well as Rock Band's introduction of multiple peripherals, led prices to rise and quality to plummet. Like a washed up band those once adored plastic instruments were quickly forgotten and left to gather dust as the world moved on.
Now developer Harmonix, the collective mind behind the original Guitar Hero, has returned with a reboot of its 2003 PlayStation 2 game, Amplitude. A game that in many ways was the foundation of Guitar Hero, but a title that was forgotten about as the rhythm genre boomed.
Perhaps providing further evidence of the temporary unpopularity of rhythm action games, the developer failed to find a publisher interested in reinvigorating the series for the current generation (this despite the critical praise bestowed upon its predecessor). The game was, however, successfully funded through Kickstarter proving that the genre may be down, but it's certainly not out. There's still a cult following for the original, and they wanted this to get made.
The newly released Amplitude sees Harmonix revert back to a simpler time, a time before they got swept away by the Rockstar lifestyle. If you've played the 2003 version then you already know what to expect as this doesn't deviate far from what has gone before. The reboot is more of a tribute to the classic game rather than a direct endeavour to evolve the series or the genre in any way.
Thankfully Amplitude doesn't require the use of any extra instrument shaped peripherals with buttons. Input is achieved by using the L1, R1 and R2 buttons. Players take charge of a spaceship that glides along different coloured rails with each rail corresponding to a different musical element, drums, bass, vocals etc. Blasting the rail's nodes in the correct sequence causes that musical element to be added to the current track. It gives the feeling that your efforts are creating the music rather than just facilitating its presence. The concept is simple and the input method uncomplicated, but the required sense of rhythm, timing and dexterity makes the game a lot more challenging than its basic premise would have you believe.
Amplitude allows for a fair degree of compositional creativity with players given the freedom to choose the order in which they add the various musical elements to the track depending on which rail they focus their beat blasting efforts on. Successfully clear enough segments on a rail and it will explode in a barrage of colour momentarily freeing you to move onto another element of the song. This makes it a great game for those with a deep appreciation for music and the subtle quality each specific element brings to the overall track.
Despite the strong focus on music and composition, Amplitude never loses sight of the fact that at its core it's still a video game. Incorrect or ill-timed button inputs not only stifle the music, but also result in your ships energy bar being depleted. Mess up enough and it's game over. Clearing sequences correctly boosts your multiplier which is essential for obtaining high scores and multiple replays are required to master a song and rank high on the leaderboards.
Gameplay is divided between campaign and freeplay, but thanks to a story that borders on non-existent the only reason to play through the campaign is to unlock extra songs and you'll never return to it once you've done so. The reason for all your rhythm based blasting is to restore the neural pathways of a comatose patient with gameplay taking place inside the subject's brain. It's so inconsequential and unnecessary to the game that it feels like a wasted ten minutes from one brainstorming session at Harmonix.
In a game like this a bad campaign is of little consequence to the overall quality, the song choice is however crucial. Here is where the game's relatively low budget really shows, with lack of funds available to purchase pricey licensed tracks. Instead it's a wholly original musical affair with Harmonix themselves have composed ten of the game's thirty track playlist. Unfortunately there's a clear lack of variety with the music choice and those not into techno or electronica won't find a lot to love here. Unlocking all of the tracks also requires a substantial investment of time, some songs requiring upwards of fifty levels to be played before they are unlocked, leading to the game feeling like a bit of a grind as repetition inevitably sets in.
On higher difficulties the simplified gameplay provides a real test of brain power, ensuring hours of enjoyment. Even more so when you consider there's also some multiplayer to flesh out the deal. Players can compete solo in free-for-alls or together in team-based matches. Blocking another player's track or cunningly using power-ups to disrupt their progress provides some of the best entertainment Amplitude has to offer. It's solid multiplayer fun and when you factor that into the overall package, you've got a prime candidate for some spirited party game action.
However, the lack of familiar tracks with which to experiment and limited diversity in music deters from what is otherwise a solid gaming experience. These pitfalls mean that Amplitude is unlikely to ever hit super status. If Guitar Hero can be likened to that of an insanely popular band selling out arena shows, then Amplitude is the musician that serenades a few loyal followers down the local pub. It doesn't break the mould, but that's never what it set out to do. Instead its simplified mechanics and homebrew song selection take you on a musical journey that is in equal parts challenging, satisfying and hypnotic.