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Game Review: Beat Hazard

July 23, 2010

This is actually the most exciting that the game gets.

There has been a bit of a viral game going around the office recently. Apart from the rampantly macho and more than slightly homoerotic Bad Company 2, a large number of people have picked up a little game called “Beat Hazard”, and here, I’m going to tell you why. Beat Hazard is from indie developer Cold Beam Games, who, from my cynical perspective, have come up with a very clever scheme. They have produced a game which looks incredibly fun and visually stunning, that is, provided that you are standing over someone’s shoulder – because the game itself . . . well, is somewhat lacking. It’s a beautiful idea – assuming that someone in an office has worse taste than the average Counterstrike player (and there is always someone), the developer can pretty much guarantee sales for anyone who happened to walk behind them. It’s a lot like a disease, actually.

You can't tell what is going on, and not in the enjoyable way.

Beat Hazard is an attempt to make lightning strike thrice by combining the musically-powered likes of Audiosurf and the crazy retro arcade action of Geometry Wars. Unlike both of the games it is trying to rip off, however, they missed a key component – that of not sucking. The concept is straightforward – you use your own music to generate a top down, asteroids-with-enemies level, accumulating points by staying alive and increasing your point multiplier. Your gun shoots to the rhythm and volume of the song, and you have get-out-of-jail-free cards in the shape of the ubiquitous nuke. The package is all wrapped up in a seizure-inducing, multicoloured, kaleidoscope of visuals – which is arresting, to say the least, and also key to their distribution strategy. I have to admit, I fell for it entirely – the graphics looked like nothing else, and the concept was clear and exciting. When the Steam sale came around, I snapped it up for a bargain price, fired it up, and immediately got annoyed.

UI? What's that?

The game expects you to use your own music (you even have to buy an additional DLC pack to use iTunes songs), and provides possibly the worst interface known to man to select it. Despite taking up the entire screen, the music selector doesn’t provide any ability to mark multiple tracks, create playlists, or seek through a song to see if it’s really the one you want. It adds insult to injury by skinning it in a very Xboxey UI, complete with three key navigation (two of which are “up” and “down”), as well as some wonderful text based representations of a filesystem. Nevertheless, even I am willing to overlook a bit of shonkiness – after all, these guys are indies – so I chose a track and dove in.

The enemy ships are so bland as to be almost invisible.

It was an underwhelming experience to say the least. Thinking I had just picked a bad track, I fired it up again – this time with some insane trance song. Again, I felt the same thing. In fact, I think I may have even experienced the same thing – the levels are all pretty much identical, the difference this time was only in length. Throughout the game, there are only three types of fodder enemies and two types of bosses. That’s it. Oh, there are some asteroids too. They all have rudimentary behaviour, and the bosses are amazingly predictable. All in all, I felt rather let down. The problems are yet compounded by some very weird decisions by the designers – your music doesn’t start at full volume (the idea being that you power up your ship and, correspondingly, the music gets stronger – sort of), but even that seriously weakens the most enjoyable part of the game; listening to your own music. The bosses are the most boring bosses I have ever seen in a top down shooter – they have all of three weapons, (two in the case of the smaller bosses), and identical AIs and graphics. The fodder enemies are simply annoying rather than challenging, while the asteroids feel like they just didn’t know what else to jam in the game.

The "other" boss. You've seen them all now. How depressing.

I’m not even done with the issues too – the whole game feels, for want of a better word, “floaty”. I don’t feel like I’m there, and I certainly don’t feel like the enemies/asteroids/bosses are there. It has no physical, tactile, visceral level at all – I have done better-feeling asteroid games for speed developer competitions. Even the graphical style falls apart quickly when you play it – from the vantage of the captain’s chair, the underwhelming textures and cheap effects become obvious, especially on the enemy ships. The promised seizures never came, and I found myself being irritated at the general muddiness of the imagery – the uninteresting grey looking enemies are quite capable of hiding under some flashing neon cloud textures, making the game a lot more difficult than it should be. The way the game spawns bosses at climaxes in songs is another interestingly unbalanced feature – for a song with a crescendo followed by a quiet bridge, you’re often left with practically nonexistent guns against a boss ship. Not only is this an exercise in frustration, but it reveals just how little a part the music plays in the game – when you can’t shoot back, you can really watch the enemy behaviour, and it becomes obvious that there is no link between it and the music, which further detracts from the experience. All in all, it feels like wasted potential in an extreme way.

I think I have (just about) got my money’s worth with this game – because I bought it on sale. And, to be honest, the best part of playing it was when I had all the powerups – so my music was on full blast near the end of a level – and the game itself became a vehicle for me to listen to my own music. I guess as a visualizer it is more interesting than staring at Windows Media Player, but really, don’t you have anything better to do?

Good concept, bad execution. 3/10
Art Direction
Looks great until you play it up close. 3/10
Story and Writing
Sound and Music
Massively uninspiring SFX, BYO music. 3/10
Every single level is basically the same. Practically nil, unless you use it as a visualizer. 1/10
The music isn’t used nearly enough in the game – they just didn’t have a sufficiently sophisticated way for generating AI responses or randomizing enemy appearances and loadout. 2/10

This game could have been so good, but fell far too short of the mark. It’s hard to say whether it was let down in design or implementation (I suspect a bit of both), but the end result is a half baked product that seems, frankly, amateur.

Links: Steam Store

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