The original Amplitude created quite a legacy. Its engaging beat-matching template and memorable, eclectic soundtrack not only laid the foundation for developer Harmonix’s future projects–including, of course, all the Rock Band games–it also became a cult classic revered by early music gaming aficionados. Now Harmonix has crafted an Amplitude reboot that successfully revives those hyper-engaging mechanics, though its lackluster song catalog undercuts the quality of the gameplay.
For those who missed Amplitude in the early aughts, here are the basics: you blast notes in time with the music as your sci-fi-looking ship rockets down a psychedelic highway. That highway consists of multiple parallel lanes, each of which represents a different sonic element such as drums, bass, or vocals. Each lane contains only left, right, and middle notes, but in order to really rack up points, you must strategically switch between lanes as the song progresses. Every time you miss a note or complete a preset sequence, your current lane falls away into the abyss below, leaving you precious little time to flip over to a new lane.
Like most of the best arcade-style experiences, Amplitude proves accessible and instantly rewarding upfront but always encourages you to continue chasing your next high score. Nailing sequences built on just three notes will be a breeze for experienced rhythm gamers (and the selectable difficulty levels will help ease in everyone else), but lane-switching requires intense focus and lightning-fast decision making that underpin Amplitude’s appeal. In order to keep your note streak and score multiplier alive, you have to look further down the highway, identify the first note of the lane you plan to swap to next, and nail that note as soon as you get there, all without missing any of the notes already coming at you–a challenge that provides the game’s most demanding and exhilarating gameplay hook.
There’s also a subtle layer of risk/reward gambling that only becomes obvious once you’ve cultivated both your own skills and a deeper understanding of the scoring system: More notes mean more potential points but also more chances to break your streak, so eventually, you start deliberately selecting lanes based on the number notes they offer. When you take risks on note-heavy sections and manage to pull through with a leaderboard-topping score, a strong sense of relief and triumphant hits you like a drug. Not many rhythm games can deliver a sensation like that.
Given that pace and precision play such major roles in Amplitude, it’s important to note Harmonix’s execution here is damn near flawless. Controls–lane-swapping in particular–feel responsive, and clever design details keep the gameplay manageable without holding your hand. Smart, subtle visual cues help stymie gameplay frustration before it even starts.
Unfortunately, there’s a problem with this music game: the music. The single-player campaign consists of a 15 song electronica concept album that frames the gameplay as an attempt to repair a comatose woman’s brain, and while that’s an unbelievably cool idea, there’s not quite enough substance for Amplitude’s story-driven approach to feel fully-realized. Worse still, many of the custom, in-house-created tracks sound generic and forgettable, especially when compared to the original game’s tracklist.
That game pulled music from a huge range of artists and influences, yet every song had an undeniable energy that paired perfectly with Amplitude’s mechanics. Most of the reboot’s campaign tracks, however, sound cut from the same bland cloth. They’re perfectly listenable, but when a game revolves around music, the songs should seep into your blood and play over and over again in your head. That just doesn’t happen here.
Given that pace and precision play such major roles in Amplitude, it’s important to note Harmonix’s execution here is damn near flawless.
The remainder of the game’s 30 song tracklist does contain a number of sufficiently pulse-pounding songs–including a few licensed tracks–but many are locked behind a pointless progression wall. Some only unlock after you’ve completed enough tracks (as many as 60 plays, in some cases), while others can only be earned by performing well in the campaign, which doesn’t let you retry individual songs to improve your scores. This forces you to replay already unlocked songs multiple times to hit an arbitrary play count and restart the entire campaign in an effort to earn a higher scores, respectively.
Rewarding players for exploring content and performing well makes perfect sense, but withholding songs in order to do so holds the entire experience back. With multiple difficulty levels and different audio mixes depending on which lanes you select as you play, 30 songs would provide plenty of entertainment if every song was available in quickplay from the moment you started the game. As it stands, quickplay feels hamstrung by the limited song selection, the campaign doesn’t warrant multiple playthroughs, and the final unlockable difficulty setting will only appeal to hardcore score-chasers. Amplitude’s potential longevity suffers as a result.
Thankfully, local multiplayer partially remedies this shortcoming with a healthy dose of couch-based competition. The game is plenty demanding when playing solo, but when you add up to three other players, the action gets downright frantic. You can block opponents by diving into adjacent lanes, mess with your enemies by deploying special power-ups, and even partner with a friend for two-on-two battles. There’s no online option, but the gameplay works extremely well on a shared couch. By focusing on Amplitude’s exemplary gameplay–thereby shifting the focus away from its somewhat lackluster music selection–multiplayer extends the game’s long-term appeal.
It also encapsulates the Amplitude experience as a whole: the slick, thoughtful mechanics prove as engrossing as ever, even if the music can’t quite keep tempo. Ultimately, Amplitude fails to recapture the magic that elevated the original to cult status, but it does deliver an impressive and enjoyable slice of quick-hit rhythm gaming fun.