Amplitude (PS4)

amplitude-0-0Much like the career of Vernon Kay (officialvernonkay.com), the rhythm game genre seems to resurface every ten years – although unlike Vernon ‘The Crippler’ Kay, no rhythm game has yet to serve as a spokesman for Beefeater restaurants.

Rhythm games have their genesis in the year 1264 (stay with me on this) when Simon de Montfort captured King Henry III, which meant that any order given by King Henry III (the third in a trilogy is always rubbish) could be countermanded by Simon. From this was derived the parlour game ‘Simon Says’. An electronic version followed a few hundred years later and in 1996 we had a dog rapping about kung-fu onions and the perils of peritonitis. The genre surged again in 2005 with Guitar Hero, a franchise which throttled itself several thousand iterations later with the release of Guitar-Hero: Prague Philharmonic Orchestra which featured four hundred special controllers and a Multitap adapter which could be seen from the Moon.Vernon Kay
Which brings us somehow to Amplitude – a sequel to the game…er…Amplitude. Surprisingly, this is not a game about the differences between the extreme values of a given variable (I know, I was shocked too) but is in actuality a rhythm game featuring little or no references to Vernon ‘Crusher’ Kay (host of All-Star Family Fortunes). Before we find out (222 words into this review) whether it’s worth trading in your copy of Cyber Sled (PS1 – 1993) for this amplification of ‘tude, let’s read a poem that I’ve written:

Amplitude
Are you a cool dude?
Not to review you would be rude
With Vernon Kay I’m having a feud
Which may result in us getting sued

The storyline, such as it is, features an unseen patient named Sarah (although it’s never made clear that she’s a person, she could be someone’s pet chinchilla for all we know) and an experiment to raise her consciousness by sending a tiny spaceship into her brain which will blast her with electronic music. While medically dubious, you could read a subtext of the healing power of song into the game. Which is nice.amplitude-screenshot-03-ps4-ps3-us-05dec14
The quest to enlighten Sarah the chinchilla looks rather like a standard shoot ’em up, but be not fooled gentle reader, the only thing you’ll be blasting here is beats – so many, many beats. There are a few innerspaceships to select and if you’re anything like me (nearly forty, balding, conviction for public indecency) you’ll immediately choose the entertainingly-named ‘Chub’ (oo-er). So off you go in your role of futuristic super-vet, piloting your Chub down a literal and figurative track, using the L1, R1, R2 buttons (or the secret button on the underside of your controller, the one marked ‘Crenshaw’) to blast them beats to bits. Each track represents drums, bass, synth, vocals or kazoo and it’s genuinely satisfying to build each track up layer by musical layer. Unfortunately, messing up doesn’t quite yield the jarring discordance usually associated with failure in rhythm games, something which I always felt was more punishing than a simple ‘Game Over’ screen. Unlike others in the genre, your timing doesn’t have to be microsecond accurate either so you can often get away with having the same sense of rhythm as Michael J Fox playing Dance Dance Revolution. Even so, you occasionally have to be lightning quick when switching tracks.

The front-end is refreshingly minimalist and a mere three button-pushes from the game loading will fling you on your merry way, reliving the white-knuckle experience of being Simon De Montfort (or something). The game yields four levels of difficulty and I romped through ‘Beginner’ and ‘Intermediate’ inside of of three hours, though the game gets markedly tougher from there onwards. The campaign sees you travelling to different regions of Sarah’s brain, in an attempt to do whatever it is we’re trying to do to a comatose techno-chinchilla. Occasionally a disembodied voice will chime in with “We’re losing her” or “I euthanised fourteen cats this morning.”amplitude_08
I’m not sure if this sort of therapy would be for everyone though. If my father ever suffered a serious neurological breakdown, we’d have to zap his synapses with Chris DeBurgh. In my case you’d have to arouse my amygdala with “I’ve Been Thinking About You” by London Beat on continuous loop. Meanwhile: The central conceit of Amplitude is that points are awarded (and energy is retained) by completing sections of a song, rather than just being able to hit three notes out of every four. On the harder difficulty levels, this is not a game you can muddle through because the focus here is on consistency. A little forward-thinking goes a long way too.

Graphically the game is visually arresting and appropriately psychedelic although the shooter genre has seen prettier (Rez) and the rhythm genre has seen crazier (Vib Ribbon).
I suppose that’s the crux of the matter with Amplitude – it all feels a tad unambitious. Lacking a special controller, tracks by major artists, original graphical presentation or gameplay which is particularly novel, this just feels like a marginally more attractive alternative to 2006’s Frets On Fire. Sure it’s fun but the only reason to come back to this time after time, or to choose it over other titles is because you really love the music. Personally, I just thought the tracks were alright, so until Amplitude: London Beat is released, this will go back on my digital shelf to gather futuro-dust.

Vernon Kay was not harmed in the writing of this review. More’s the pity.

 

6/10

Amplitude was reviewed with a download code of the PS4 edition, provided by Brown Betty PR

Dying Light (Xbox One)

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The dead aren’t walking anymore. They’re running.

Under a parachute’s shadow, Techland drops us into familiar territory. A crumbling, sun-bleached ghetto creeps beneath us, our cruelly protracted descent into its moribund streets delaying an inevitable confrontation. As we hit the ground, the hoodlums hit us.

A gunshot.

The fracas draws attention, undead rushing in from all corners. It’s only thanks to a band of survivors from a nearby tower block that we manage to escape – but not without being bitten first. With dwindling stocks of Antizin keeping the infection suppressed, the Tower is far from a permanent sanctuary.

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Kyle Crane has been inserted into the fictional Middle Eastern city of Harran. He’s on a mission to retrieve a sensitive file, stolen from the GRE (Global Relief Effort) for purposes of blackmail. The thief, Suleiman, could be anywhere. He could even be in the Tower, amongst Crane’s saviours. Trapped between competing allegiances, our protagonist shuffles awkwardly over moral lines, lurching towards his ultimate choice.

In many ways, this is just another zombie apocalypse in the vein of Techland’s Dead Island series. But with a zombie horde that is more than shambling, parkour (also known as free running) brings a unique skill set to equal the threat. Avoidance is the sensible tactic for survival in a city brimming with the undead at every corner. A versatile array of moves (developing with experience as you level up) give you everything you need to stay out of harm’s way.

First rule: don’t touch the floor. Leap across rooftops, vehicles, walls and fences to get where you need to go. If you do fall, get back up as quickly as possible, launching off from a zombie’s shoulders if you have to. Catch your breath where you can, and make use of the various safe zones across the city…as long as you’ve managed to clear the zombies out of them first.

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Second rule: choose the right weapons. To begin with, they’re weak, fragile, and almost useless in a crowd, especially when your swinging arm starts to feel heavy. While you might find a gun on rare occasions, don’t think that’s the easy option. One shot will attract a legion of fast, predatory zombies that can run and climb almost as well as you can.

Third rule: be wary of the night. Before you venture out of that safe zone in the dark, just know that it won’t take a gunshot to draw attention to yourself. The undead are stronger and more alert. Utilise stealth, disguise yourself with zombie entrails, or just stay indoors. If you must go out, be ready with that UV light to throw the pack off your tail, or use the various traps set up across the city. It’s a huge experience boost for you if you survive the night.

From the outset this is a serious survival horror experience. The zombies of Dying Light demand your fear and respect – at least initially, they are nothing like the gory playthings of Dead Rising 3. That said, as you level up and attain better weaponry, taking on the undead becomes a risk worth taking. Care is still required to avoid losing experience points upon death, but beyond the steep learning curve lies an accessible adventure.

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The game opens up further in four player co-op, allowing for a more combat-focused attitude (and the extra experience that naturally brings). Playing co-operatively is as fun as you might imagine, not only for the brute force advantage but the thrill of scaling the city’s buildings together. A trip to the top of the suspension bridge before jumping into the sea is a high point in more than the literal sense.

In terms of progressing Crane’s story though, co-op play can be a dissonant experience. Only Crane is recognised as a participant in the events that unfold. In practice, this means everyone having to literally stand in his footsteps to interact with other characters or objects of importance. Consequently, the story itself is best played alone if you want to be at all invested in it.

Just don’t expect too much. While the story isn’t terrible, it does maintain a confusing focus on Crane’s moral choices while giving you absolutely no freedom to influence them. Every move towards redemption is a forced hand. Dying Light’s main antagonist says it best:

“All of this, and still you had your choice made for you. Disappointing, Crane.”

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The meat of the adventure itself fares better. There are a handful of lazy arena battles as you might expect, and there are far too many fetch quests to be found. Yet for the most part, Techland is respectful of the game’s stand out feature – the parkour. Particularly towards the end of the game, intelligent use of climbing and traversal skills are what it’s about, with zombies used only as an obstacle to leap over.

Such moments recall Mirror’s Edge, which until now has been a woefully untapped idea. More than that, they show that the idea has room to grow. What could have been just another zombie title turns out to be barely about the zombies at all. It stumbles and it falters, but ultimately Dying Light runs with its core idea. When the sun comes up, I think it’s going to be a survivor.

7/10

Dying Light was reviewed with a download code of the Xbox One edition, provided by Microsoft Xbox