Friday, December 11, 2009

Save a Horse, Ride Joe Thomas

Whenever I travel, I like to have a certain CD in the car with me. Well, two CD’s, actually. One is the Maria Rita CD that I seem to mention every time I do a longer entry on here. The other is a mix CD that I’ve labeled the “Feel Good Mix”. I tend to pop it in on the last leg of my journeys, and for whatever reason, “Jessica” by the Allman Brothers Band always seems to come on when I’m arriving in the town of my destination.

Music, in this sense, seems to be a vehicle of sorts, controlling the emotions we feel, taking us to certain highs and lows. There are moments of excitement during the drive, and moments of relaxed cruising. And while I acknowledge that this is a terrible way to set up the game I’m about to review, you could see how music is like a road to travel on.


Right then, Audiosurf. A couple of months ago, I bought Audiosurf on Steam (it was on sale… as are most of my game purchases anymore). Audiosurf is a game that takes your music and makes an interactive “road” to travel, challenging you to pick up blocks and make combos for points.

Each song that you put into Audiosurf goes through a quick analyzer that finds the song’s high points and low points, basic rhythm, swells in the music, and changes in volume. Through whatever mysterious process, these are all taken into account when making the “path” of that song. In slower, quieter parts, the path tends to go uphill, and in faster, louder parts, the path goes downhill. It’s like a musical roller coaster, if you would.

Except I now redact the roller coaster simile to return you to the “road” theory, as along the road are “cars” (ie, colored blocks) that correspond to the rhythms of the music. You play as a spaceship of sorts that collects (or avoids) the cars in order to make clusters of similarly-colored blocks in a grid beneath you, which makes the entire thing feel a lot like Guitar Hero mixed with a match-3 puzzle. Larger clusters score more points, but also, warmer colors (which pop up more often when the music is more “intense”) also get you higher scores. If you gather up too many blocks and overfill a row, your ship is temporarily paralyzed, and you have to wait a bit to be able to collect blocks again.

There are (if I remember right, I’m typing this up on a different computer) 14 different “characters” (spaceships) to play with, spanning three difficulty levels and six specialized skills. Playing a “Mono” character means you’re collecting any colored block while avoiding grays. Playing an “Eraser” character lets you remove blocks of a certain color from the grid, then throw them back up later to grab some extra points. Other characters let you randomly shuffle the grid, shift blocks before they land, and even let a second player join in for co-op play.

In a nutshell, that’s Audiosurf. This game literally lets you “ride your music” (catchphrase, that) with a pretty trippy neon roller coaster theme that’s engrossing and fun.

Unfortunately, you also realize how boring of a human being you are.

Way back when I used to geocache (man, I need to get back into that again), I was on a cache trip with a friend where we discussed his iPod, and my reluctance to get one. If I remember right, my primary arguments for not getting one were (1) cost, (2) I have the tendency to doom myself to be the last to catch on to most tech trends, (3) there was always something slightly unsettling about having a portrait of your personality (via the music you listened to) that could be seen by anyone who touched the thing. I still don’t have an iPod, but I’ve got iTunes, and taking a look at my list, I don’t have much to be ashamed of. It’s mostly jazz with a few scattered oldies, high of 69. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.) There are a couple whole albums of classical music and liederwhatnots, mostly stuff I purchased when I was still a music major, but likely never listened to (except the Debussy album, that’s a good one). I suppose if there’s anything that would stick out as “abnormal”, it’d be the more ethnic bits, like some Portuguese jazz, zydeco, or a group known as “Slavic Soul Party!” (Really, they’re good. Look them up.) Since I really don’t host any social functions in the rooms where I keep my computer, my iTunes list stays pretty well under wraps, and if I need music, I throw some good stuff onto a CD (or use the ones mentioned at the top of this post). On the whole, you could say that my music is fairly easy listening, if not outright relaxing.

However, Audiosurf is a game that’s dependent on fast guitar riffs, heavy drum beats, and loud singing for a lively (and therefore higher-scoring) ride. You can play through your slower songs and still have fun, but after a while, you begin to feel the slowness of your music, which becomes apparent after a string of slow songs. On rides like these, you might average about 30k-40k points, which pales in comparison to the 700k scores you see topping the high score charts on “more exciting!” songs. Granted, if you’ve never heard of the song, you can’t blame yourself, but you wonder what it’s like on the heavier side of the game.

To counter this sense of boredom (and to create a sense of community), the developers of Audiosurf select a few songs every week or so that are available for download and playing within the game. They usually pick a good mix of songs, often all by one or two indie artists, and occasionally fitting a theme. There’s usually a longer techno/RPM piece, a guitar-heavy fast piece, maybe something slower but still active to change things up, and a few other treats thrown in for good measure. If you like what you hear, links are included to download or purchase the songs. So everyone has a chance to hands on some more active music, if you don’t mind the weekly shuffle.


That all said and done, I have one more complaint to file about this game. Songs that rely less on guitars and vocals and more on the percussion and bass tend to “jerk” along as you play the game. Since the drum beat is what registers as the more dominant sounds in the song, they will be what the program makes the faster portions of the song. When every quarter beat is just a smidge faster than every eighth and sixteenth beat in between, the road usually moves very slowly, but incessantly speeding up and slowing down. In certain modes where avoiding certain bricks is key, this is intensely annoying.

It’s also worth noting that you won’t gain tremendous amounts of musical ability by playing this game, so I wouldn’t recommend it for use in a music classroom, or at least not more than I would recommend Guitar Hero or other faux musical ability games. It’s basically DDR for your hands, except the rhythm of the song is taken only as a suggestion for the actual patterns of movements you make. It’s a shame though, because unlike so many other music games on the market, this one doesn’t jeer at you for doing a less-than-stellar job. Even if you suck something fierce at this game, it never insults you, and you’re always allowed to continue playing the song and finish racking up more points. The only exception to this is if you decide to play in “Ironmode”, where your abilities are more limited and overfilling a column automatically ends the song. (Frankly, I don’t see the point of using Ironmode. The game only suggests that Ironmode is done “for the bragging rights”.)

Other than a couple minor quibbles and the self-induced paranoia about your music collection, Audiosurf is a good game and worth every penny of its (low!) price. If you’re still trying to come up with some good gift ideas for Christmas, this might be something worth giving to the music fanatic in your life. It’s simple to get the hang of and family-friendly (well, pending the music you use, of course), and good for quick ten-minute breaks from working. Whether you’re a hardcore music nut or just someone who likes to sing along with the radio in the shower, Audiosurf is well worth a shot when you just want to have some fun with your music. The hard part is resisting the urge to throw your hands in the air when you go down a hill.

Official website
Steam website

1 comment:

Kyle E. Moore said...

I highly recommend:

Avenged Sevenfold
Coheed and Cambria

I mean, if you are going to go, go all out.