Version tested: PC
While the world of PC gaming may be in "disarray" for those still turning out big beefy blokey shooters, for those who like to take their gaming with just a dash of indie spirit and bedroom coder verve the PC is in pretty good shape. In large part this is down to digital distribution nozzles like Steam, which allow smaller developers to get their games into our grasping paws without the need to jump through the traditional publishing hoops.
So it is for Audiosurf, which made us say nice things when it paraded around in a metaphorical swimsuit at the gamesy beauty pageant we call Independent Games Festival. We only looked at it one month ago, and yet here's the game - ready and waiting to be downloaded by anyone with USD 9.95 (or your local equivalent). So big whoops and kisses for digital distribution, and a cheeky pat on the bottom for Dylan Fitterer, the talented programmer responsible.
As those who've been paying attention will know, Audiosurf is a bit like Rez. And a bit like Amplitude. And a bit like Tetris. And a bit like Vib Ribbon. Yet rather than coming across as a gruesome mash-up of other people's ideas, it cleverly takes the best ideas from each and turns them into something that's both instantly familiar and enjoyably fresh all at the same time.
You control a vehicle speeding along an undulating track. There are three lanes, each populated by colour-coded blocks that reach the bottom of the screen in time to the music. Shoulder lanes on either side are free from blocks, allowing you to catch your breath. Superimposed on the track is a grid, seven squares down by three across. Any blocks you hit appear in the grid relative to their location. So if you pick up a red block in the right hand lane, it goes into the right-hand column of the grid. The aim is to match blocks in groups of three, which removes them from the grid and makes room for more. Allow any column to overflow, and the blocks are destroyed leaving you unable to pick up any more for a short time. Confused? Just watch a quick video and it'll become clear.
Your score depends on how many blocks you chain together, and the colour of the blocks in question. Hot reds and yellows earn the highest points per block, with blues and purples worth less. There are also score modifiers, from simple x4 multipliers to percentage bonuses for completing the course with an empty grid, or for hitting most of the red and yellow blocks along the way. It's pitched at just the right level of moreish addiction, so there's always an itching temptation to go back and see if you can improve your totals.
Audiosurf's greatest trick is that the actual content and pace of the game is completely up to the player, since it uses your MP3 collection to generate its tracks. Faster, more intense music results in terrifying downhill rushes, comparable to expert-level Guitar Hero, with blocks galore. A more chilled out musical selection will find you gently travelling uphill, with plenty of time to plan your strategy.
Unlike other rhythm games, there's no penalty for missing blocks or mucking things up. Whatever you do, you'll reach the end of every song you play - you just won't get a great score. This rather neatly leaves it up to you to decide how you want to play. If you're not fussed about being the most hardcore arcade daddy in town, the game is happy to let you find your own level of amusement without punishment.
If you want a ferocious challenge, however, there are also different ships across three difficulty levels, which mix up the gameplay in fun ways. The Vegas has the ability to shuffle the blocks on your grid into winning combinations, should you coast along the shoulder lanes for a short time. The Eraser can delete all the blocks of the next colour you hit. Control is via mouse or arrow keys, with the keyboard option shunting you from one lane to another while the mouse allows for smooth motion across the track. As the additional abilities are only available on the mouse buttons, this can lead to some awkwardness if you prefer the key method.
There's even a two-player mode, where an extra lane is added and you each take charge of separate sides of the grid. The Mono craft, meanwhile, are almost a new game in themselves, removing the colour-matching element entirely and tasking you with collecting as many blocks as possible while dodging nasty grey blocks that clog up your grid. As this mode offers a hefty 30 percent score increase for avoiding all the grey blocks, the eye-boggling Elite Ninja Mono - with no shoulder lanes and a punishing pace - is where you'll find a lot of the hardcore score-chasers.
None of this would work, of course, if the game fluffed the actual translation of musical track to racetrack. Amazingly, the process is not only extremely impressive but remarkably fast. Most tracks take only a few seconds to convert, and yet not only are the beats translated seamlessly into blocks but the feel and texture of the music is subtly recreated in the level layout. Swooshing tunnels enhance the intense moments, while bumps, loops and barrel rolls are mapped onto the tune with impressive accuracy. I loaded up Sign O' The Times, and the level turned purple. Coincidence, or terrifying sentience?
Either way, you really are playing on a 3D map of your top tunes and it's easy to waste hours just going through all your favourites to see how they turn out. It's never quite as visually immersive as Rez, probably because the gameplay requires fairly intense focus on the centre of the screen rather than encouraging you to look around, but there's still a pulsating wow factor to the minimalist graphics, all the more impressive because of the game's amateur roots. And you can always tweak the look of the game with different background colours and screen effects, and even edit the colours of the blocks to suit your own taste.
If you create your own Audiosurf account, every track you play through gets added to the online leaderboards, allowing you to see which music other people are playing along to, and how you compare to those who have played the same tracks as you. It's a neat idea, straddling both online competition and Facebook nosiness, especially as the game emails you if someone beats your score, goading you to have another try. The leaderboards were well populated within 24 hours of the game going on sale, with scores nudging 100,000 already commonplace. You can also browse the most popular song choices, although it's somewhat dispiriting to see that so many simply choose tracks like Knights of Cydonia or Through the Fire and Flames, already famous for mangling the fingers of Guitar Hero players. Well done, original thinkers!
There are minor grumbles, but it feels a bit churlish to dwell on them too much. The instructions and tutorial are a bit piecemeal, meaning that some features feel a little vague in intent. In fact, the whole front end could do with a little tightening up, as sifting through a large folder can be cumbersome. The game already uses the MP3 tags to pull artist and track info, so it'd be nice to be able to sort by genre. It's also a shame you can't sticky your favourite tracks, or create your own mix-tape tournaments by compiling the best tracks one after another. While the game remembers previously used songs, speeding up loading, you still have to cue up each song as a separate entity. You can put a group of MP3s in a folder and play from one to the next that way, but that's a right fiddle. It'd be nice to be able to organise this sort of thing in-game rather than moving the actual files around. A little media player functionality would go a long way, basically.
Considering the game's lo-fi roots, such rough edges are to be expected and - to a certain extent - forgiven. Hopefully they'll keep updating and patching it until it shines a little brighter. However, given the low price, that's certainly no excuse for fans of music games not to throw a little money in this direction. At the very worst, it's an ingenious multimedia toy that'll have you dusting off the untouched corners of your MP3 collection for a few happy evenings. But for those twitching fingers that still enjoy the thrill of the high score, Audiosurf has the potential to become a bite-sized obsession thanks to its quick fix gameplay and infinite musical possibilities.
7 / 10