Game Description: Developed exclusively for the PlayStation 2 by Harmonix Music Systems, Amplitude is a fast-paced rhythm-action game that allows players to test their skills in mixing and remixing hit songs by shooting musical notes in various vibrant musical environments in both off- and online gameplay. Via the Network Adaptor (Ethernet/modem), the gateway into the world of online gaming, Amplitude provides a unique, one-of-a-kind online musical forum for players of all skill levels to compete and collaborate with more than 25 songs.
The more I play Amplitude, the less inclined I am to simply call it a music game without adding a hefty disclaimer. Both Amplitude and its predecessor, Frequency, take the player to another more intimate level of the music creation process. Instead of experiencing the music through taking on the role of a dancer, rapper or guitarist, Amplitude lets the player function as an omnipotent creator who has the ability to construct a song from scratch by unlocking one instrumental track at a time. The player therefore has the impression of being inside the groove itself and not just observing it from a safe distance. Yet rather than being able to ultimately transcend the stereotype of the music game as Frequency attempted to do, Amplitude instead gravitates in a different direction towards a genre that many gamers are already familiar with: the first-person rails shooter.
If this idea seems far-fetched, consider first the fact that Amplitude defies every stereotype that the music game genre has thus far incurred in its relatively short history. Beyond the conspicuous absence of J-Pop and cute anime-inspired graphics, Amplitude also does away with the idea that music games are supposed to be something that we can sit back and relax to without breaking too much of a sweat (unless we're grooving on Dance Dance Revolution's dance pad). Amplitude is not relaxing. It is intense and often frustrating, with a soundtrack that has nary a J-Pop tune to be heard and instead features a selection of electronica, hip hop, techno, and rock.
The way that Amplitude is structured lends itself more to good reflexes, the memorization of patterns, and concentration rather than simply a good ear for music. Frequency's abstract notion of popping scrolling sound nodules by pressing the corresponding controller button has been replaced in Amplitude by a physical object: a spaceship that shoots three calibrations of lasers at the nodules to break them. Furthermore, Frequency's 360 degree rotating hexagonal tunnel has given way to flat tracks arranged side by side on a horizontal plane. The player therefore pilots a ship along a virtual highway, complete with hills, valleys and turns. The only difference between this and any rails shooter is that instead of wailing away indiscriminately at anything that moves, the nodules must be shot at specific times to correspond with their place in the metric organization of the song segment.
Shooting the sound nodules in correct rhythm in an unbroken string is the key to unlocking new sections of the song. When a whole phrase of music has been activated in this manner, the entire musical track will become unlocked and will continue to play, leaving the player free to move to another track to repeat the process. Each time a track is successfully cleared, the ship receives a boost of energy. Interrupting a perfect string with mistimed shots and flubs will make the player's energy drain away, and will eventually cause the song to end prematurely. The frenetic nature of such an activity leaves little room for daydreaming or only half-heartedly paying attention to what's on the screen. Indeed, during the most taxing of the four difficulty levels, hand-eye coordination and speedy fingers are more important than any attempt to "feel" the rhythm or the musical line. In situations like this, it would of course be the more tenacious gamer that would triumph over the most sensitive and accomplished musician.
To take the analogy even further, Amplitude is divided into several "worlds," which need to be visited in a chronological order. Each world contains three songs that, when beaten, unlock a fourth boss song, and then a fifth bonus song if the first four songs are cleared with high enough point totals. The terminology of "boss" to describe a piece of music is particularly interesting. If I were to take the above description and replace the word "song" with "sub-level," it might as well be describing a shooter, or at very least an arcade game of some sort.
Anyone who has played Frequency will immediately recognize these subtle changes in Amplitude—the "highway," spaceship and boss songs—as a push toward more mainstream acceptance. Some of these changes are not so subtle, and Amplitude is not necessarily a stronger game because of them.
For example, Amplitude's music is much more of a mixed bag. While Frequency's songs showcased mostly DJs and artists than made music off the beaten path, so to speak, Amplitude is chock full of recognized chart-toppers such as Papa Roach, Blink 182, Weezer, Pink, Slipknot and David Bowie (who contributes a surprisingly bland offering). The underground feel of Frequency is kept alive by the Symbion Project's Synthesize, Garbage's Cherry Lips, and Freezepop's Super-sprode, yet the focus of the game has obviously shifted toward more commercially established artists.
While Amplitude is less edgy than its predecessor, enough of the Frequency vibe is still intact for fans of the original to get an experience that is in most ways close enough to the original to provide satisfaction. Yet, at the same time, Amplitude can't help but feel like a consolation for gamers who felt that Frequency was too hard or couldn't connect with it for whatever reason and needed some of the recognizable comforts of other genres to make the game more accessible to them. I can only hope that this series will continue to be something a little different and not turn into a totally watered-down experience or, worse, an undisguised showcase for the music industry's flavors of the month.
I don't think I'll disagree when Erin says that Amplitude sounds an awful lot like top-forty radio. Whether that's a good thing or a bad thing probably depends heavily on individual tastes. Still, Frequency's more underground selection of music did give it a big advantage. Frequency was as much about discovering a song as it was about playing it. A song would reveal itself one track at a time, and there was a certain sense of excitement once an entire song was going. Since most of the artists featured in Frequency didn't normally show up on top-forty radio, there was also an element of surprise in unlocking a song that helped to heighten that sense of discovery.
The move to something more mainstream, as Erin noted, hurts Amplitude in many ways. But at the same time, when compared to its predecessor, the sequel is also better defined because of it. One of the first things I noticed were how much more concrete and tangible the backgrounds were in Amplitude. Even though Frequency will ultimately be one of my favorite games of the PlayStation 2 generation, the backgrounds in it still bore me to tears. Mostly made up of geometrical shapes bobbing in space, Frequency's backgrounds repeated the same dull blues, greens and purples. They were far too abstract and muted to have any kind of resonance. Amplitude's backgrounds in contrast, are suggestive of a massive, futuristic urban world. Players move along on a six lane super highway in the sky, traveling through places like 'Neotropolis' and the 'Beat Factory.' The backgrounds also have prominently ubiquitous features found in most modern mega-cities: video screens and giant billboards. Some of them hang on buildings while others float freely in space, and the whole effect is like seeing a vision of New York's Times Square far into the future. Both the video screens and billboards display images of particular artists, playing back their music videos or just cycling through still images of glossy mug shots. It seems an appropriate set of visuals for music coming from chart-toppers like Pink and Blink 182. Amplitude feels very much like a celebration of modern pop music and its excessive commercialism.
It should be obvious by now, if it wasn't already apparent from the score, that I liked Amplitude much more than Erin did. Of course, I'm coming at the game from a different perspective. The main difference is that while Erin believes the point of Amplitude is to act as some sort of musical creator, I believe it's more interesting to consider Amplitude as a kind of simulated instrument. As difficult as the game can get, I can't imagine that Amplitude is more difficult to master than an actual musical instrument. If anything, Amplitude is music simplified. Players are basically chaining together long strings of short samples with well-timed button presses—something reminiscent of playing a keyboard preprogrammed with various samples. Additionally, if the nodules Erin mentioned were to be considered musical notes, travelling the 'highway' in Amplitude would feel an awful lot like reading sheet music sideways. I can certainly understand Erin's concern about Amplitude's move towards more mainstream acceptance. Yet at the same time, to me, the point of Amplitude and Frequency seemingly is to demystify music for the masses. Consequently, it needs to be accessible to as many people as possible.
Still, I do have my own concerns about Amplitude, although much of it may be outside the control of the developers. But during the course of the game, I couldn't help but think that Amplitude would have been a much more interesting experience had been released for PC where not only is the online infrastructure more robust, but also where the gaming community much more active.
Something that probably would have been a no-brainer for a PC version of Amplitude would have been the ability to upload/download not just remixes, but newly licensed songs or even original compositions by average gamers. Song catalogues could be tailored to individual tastes and replay value would be increased exponentially. Expansion packs would have gotten me excited too. Playing through the 2002 remix of Herbie Hancock's Rockit made me think how much I would have enjoyed an Amplitude expansion featuring various 80's songs. Mars' Pump Up The Volume or Devo's Whip It would really work well with the Amplitude formula. Serve it up with healthy portions of punk and new wave and I'd be in heaven.
However, the PlayStation 2 doesn't have a hard drive, and much of Amplitude's online features feel more like token gestures than they do a real attempt at expanding the game's reach. Who knows, maybe the online component will be more fully realized when the next installment of Amplitude comes out. By then, more people should have hard drives in their PlayStation 2s along with all the necessary connections to get online. Or maybe Harmonix could just head directly to the PC and bypass the consoles altogether the next time around.
According to ESRB, this game contains: Mild Lyrics
Parents should be warned that Amplitude is not for younger children as it requires a lot of coordination and fast reflexes, which would therefore make the mild lyrics warning a moot point. Gamers in general will find a worthy challenge and will enjoy hooking up with other players online, although they may find having to beat each song four times in each of the four levels of difficulty in order to unlock all the game's bonus features to be a longer ordeal than they have the patience for.
Fans of Frequency will likely be able to blow through most of the game without too much difficulty, except in the very last stages. The gameplay is virtually identical except that the highway layout of the tracks makes it impossible to maintain score multipliers sometimes due to having to travel all the way back to the other side of the screen. The free play bonus after clearing an entire section of music has unfortunately been scrapped and instead appears as a collectible power-up, which means improvisation time at the end of a section has been replaced with sitting around waiting for the next section of tracks to appear.
Deaf and Hard of Hearing gamers should probably avoid Amplitude. Despite having a controller that vibrates to the beat and a sensory overload of interesting graphics, Amplitude cannot be experienced to its fullest without its soundtrack.