Beat Hazard Review
I'm a sucker for any game that can integrate music into how it actually plays. Rez? Definitely. Every beat-matching music game from Frequency to Rock Band and Activision's Hero games? Played every single one of them - well, except that 80s one a while back and the Van Halen game - but hey, by the end of 2009, who wasn't sick of plastic-guitar games? Anyway, AudioSurf - played that for many, many hours. So when I heard that another independent developer called Cold Beam Games was following in those footsteps to now integrate the music I supply it with a Geometry Wars-style dual stick shooter, I was extremely interested.
Beat Hazard, available for $10 on Steam, will make a custom "stage" out of any song you feed it and you can use either an Xbox 360 controller or a mouse & keyboard to fire away at enemy spaceships. Stages start out with some simple Asteroid-style space junk to blow up, but it's not long before ships flying in formations will start flooding the screen, some of them shooting at you, others just making for patterns that you'll have to avoid as you frantically fire to clear the screen.
Volume (as in, the loudness of the music) and Power icons appear when you blow up your enemies, and when you pick up enough of them max out both, you enter Beat Hazard mode and get a beam weapon along with a nice wide spread shot. Multiplier pickups allow you to increase your scoring potential. Eventually boss ships will appear, sometimes two medium-sized ones or one massive one, and they can have a random selection of different weapons that you'll need to learn how to deal with. Take out the guns, then take out the wings, then take out the body - and you'll need to do this quickly, as the game only allots you a certain amount of time to kill the boss before more crap appears on the screen to kill. If you fall behind, you may find yourself staring at the Game Over screen before long.
This is because a death will remove some or all of your powerups - blow up at the wrong time, and you may find yourself losing the rest of your lives in quick succession, especially on the harder two of the game's four difficulty modes. It doesn't help that the game offers no way to gain back lives, and it only gives you new bombs once in a while. As you level up by playing songs, you'll be able to start a session with a few powerups (eventually starting with Beat Hazard right off the bat) and retain some of what you've gathered whenever you die.
Beat Hazard also throws you a curveball by essentially making your main guns a spectrum analyzer of the music that's playing. When the music gets quiet, your guns slow down to a trickle and you'll be scrambling to kill opponents before more crap appears on the screen, and when it speeds up again you'll be at full bore. Your guns do fire to the beat of the music and mid- and high-range instruments will get their own spread-gun shots. The quietest, slowest music is the bigger challenge for sure, while the fast and loud stuff make for a high-powered, intense experience that you should turn up the difficulty for.
There are some downsides to Beat Hazard that hopefully the developers will work on. To start, there are no cooperative or online modes. The number of enemy types is pretty low and the actual arrangement of enemies (and the appearance of bosses) doesn't really match up with the music very well. Beyond that, the game's leaderboards simply count your total score across all songs, making them a function of time played rather than the skill of the player. There are a lot of ways one would theoretically be able to have bragging rights with his friends - lasting longer in Survival mode on a given song, beating a song with a higher score, simply surviving a slower song in insane mode - but none of that's built into Beat Hazard. All you can do is compare total scores with your friends.
Finally, there's the presentation. Each song does make for a new "level" to play, but rarely will you find that the pace of the music has much bearing on the enemies that appear - only on how intense your own gunfire it is. And Beat Hazard does put on quite the visual spectacle, but it's constantly flashing and shimmering, making it one of the most seizure-inducing games I've ever played. It's basically a colored strobe light right in your face that makes it nearly impossible to see some of the enemy shots that are fired, so you'll often have to just guess or fire a bomb when you're unsure of where the ordnance is coming from. Also, there's a VSync option for those who hate screen tearing (and on a fast video card, there's a lot of it here), but with that option enabled, the game exhibited some very strange dips in the action for me - even though the frame rate was locked at 60fps.
Even with Steam achievements, Beat Hazard is still largely a solo experience that's fun for several hours - but it won't last long for most gamers with what's offered right now. With some proper post-release support and some solid feature-adding patches, this could become a very addictive game in the long run. For now, while the action is much more involving than some modes in other music-based games, you'll "feel" the music much more closely in something like AudioSurf. With some new social features, online play, or even some adjustments that more closely tie in the arrangement of enemies with the pace of the music, Beat Hazard's value could ascend well beyond the $10 asking price. Until then, it's still worth at least a shot with the demo, but you won't be playing this one for weeks like many do with other music games.