Friday, March 21, 2008

Audiosurf Review

Audiosurf, developed by Dylan Fitterer and published on Steam.
The Good: Great use of user-supplied music, addictive gameplay, adapts most genres of music well, simple controls, essentially infinite replayability, online scoreboard, ludicrously low price
The Not So Good: No playlist options
What say you? Just listening to music is passé once you experience this fantastic puzzle game: 8/8

MP3s have certainly thrust the music industry head-on (apply directly to the forehead) into the computer industry. With people able to fit thousands of songs on their computer and portable players, the delivery of music has changed from dingy stores to futuristic online marketplaces. If everyone has all of this music on their PC, why not make a game around it? We’ve seen music-based games that have utilized licensed (or emulated) tracks in the console Guitar Hero and Rock Band franchises, but not really anything that took the consumer’s already existing collection. Well, here comes Audiosurf, a game that does the thing I was just talking about. Coincidence? I think not! Audiosurf adapts sound files and converts them into a puzzle game. Does it make for a fun fusion of music and gaming?

Audiosurf uses a simple 3-D setting, but the way it incorporates your music makes the graphics compelling. Each song is converted into a track: uphill sections represent slow parts of the song, and downhill sections represent fast tempo. You are collecting “cars” (represented by simple colored blocks) along the way in order to make matches and score points. While the game may not be a technical marvel, Audiosurf certainly does a good job matching the road, the background, and special effects to the current song. The view also adjusts to which lane your ship is in, making the game easier to navigate. Audiosurf looks no worse than your standard matching game, and while the simple 3-D interface may not have the background detail that music games such as Guitar Hero have, most of the time you aren’t paying attention to what’s happening away from the track anyway. The game does not like to be alt-tabbed (it takes a couple of seconds for the graphics to reset) and the menu system is rudimentary at best, but Audiosurf functions well enough. Audiosurf contains the best soundtrack you can imagine: yours!!!!(LOL!!!)! Being a release on Steam, the game also comes with the soundtracks for essentially all of the Half-Life games. While most of these songs are basically generic background music, you do get the increasingly famous “Still Alive” song from the end credits of Portal, which everyone seems to have an unhealthy obsession with.

Audiosurf is a puzzle game that uses sound files to generate each level. You pilot a ship at the bottom of the screen and capture colored blocks as they come towards you, trying to make matches of three or more. The abilities of your craft depend on the mode you choose. Mono has you collecting all colored blocks and avoiding grey blocks, and the rest of the modes have you matches blocks of different colors. Pointman is the classic matching mode, Vegas allows you to randomly arrange your blocks (to potentially get matches), Eraser lets you choose a single color to remove, and Pusher picks up blocks and puts them in another row. There is also a Double Vision mode for two players on the same computer (no online play). The tutorial does a decent job teaching the mechanics to new players, though I found the constant interruptions to be jarring (bordering on annoying). It probably would have been better to display hints in the corner of the screen instead of pausing the action every five seconds or so during the tutorial. Still, it’s not like Audiosurf is the most complicated game in the world to play. The control sensitivity is adjustable, and playing the game with the mouse is the preferred method, giving the user precise control over their ship.

Audiosurf lets you choose any song in MP3, CD, OGG, or iTunes format (though iTunes songs must be burned before they can be played…they can’t let us actually own our music). It then converts the song into a level, where the blocks match the lyrics and instruments and the undulations of the track match the tempo. Most songs work very well in the game: there is certainly a difference in playing slow versus fast songs. Songs that have mixed or well-defined rhythms work really well, and it feels like you are actually playing the song. There are basic difficulty settings that adjust the available of “emergency lanes” and how many notes are converted to blocks, and some songs are just more difficult than others. Scoring is done by making matches; obviously the more blocks that are matched, the higher your score will climb. Blocks gathered during fast song portions (red and yellow) are worth more points than the boring blocks (blue and purple). To help you out, the multi-colored modes come with a number of power-ups along the way that can fill in the grid with a single color, attempt to make matches automatically, or otherwise help you out on your quest for musical dominance. You will also get very important bonuses at the end of a song if you finish with no blocks in your tray, collecting almost all yellow or red blocks (fast song parts), or not hitting a grey block in Mono mode. I’ve found that the points compare well across the different game modes, and it’s just up to you as to which style is most desirable. Personally, I like the straightforward Mono modes: if it’s colored, get it.

Audiosurf keeps a high score list of every song ever played. If you are good enough, you might get the global high score for a particular song, and the game will e-mail you if your score is ever beaten by another player. The in-game scoreboards also display the path and time of other players to prevent cheating (suspicious high scores can be reported with a simple mouse click). Audiosurf also keeps track of the most popular songs, and you can search songs by artist name as well. Audiosurf certainly is an addictive game, and you’ll certainly want to try out most (if not all) of the games in your library to see how they play. Then you’ll want to perfect your technique and own all of the high score. Checking your e-mail and seeing that someone has beaten your score on your song results in immediate retribution. There is always time for one more song, even if it’s past your bedtime.

In short (too late), Audiosurf is brilliant. It has essentially infinite replay value thanks to the ability to easily import user content with great results. All genres of music I have played (from ska-punk to Old MacDonald Had A Farm) have translated well, with changes in tone and individual beats being emulated convincingly. The controls are tight and the mechanics are easy to learn. The system requirements are so low that almost everyone can enjoy this game. Audiosurf makes you want to play some of those old CDs you have and see if others have attempted the same songs. This is one of those games that you can play for five minutes, but then five minutes turns into a couple of hours. There is really only one complaint: the inability to create a playlist. You can do songs from the same folder in order, but there are no other options (like a shuffled list) to keep the music playing. But that’s a very minor complaint in what otherwise is a fantastic game. Do you like music? Do you like computer games? (Do you like nachos?) Then get Audiosurf! Oh, and it’s only $10. I got far more than $10 worth of enjoyment out of this quality game. Audiosurf is well worth your time and money.