Review by Aerial_Pursuit
"There's a decent gimmick here... But very little substance otherwise."
The idea of Beat Hazard intrigued me when I first heard about it, sounding like something to follow in the spirit of Audiosurf. They're both PC rhythm games that flaunt the gimmick of being able to use any song on your computer, which is fantastic compared to the many games that come with a stock selection. A lot of people remark that Audiosurf's beat detection can often be off-kilter, rarely perfectly matching expectations for the song... But it is a pretty revolutionary concept, so naturally it'll take time to perfect. Is Beat Hazard a progressive step in the right direction? Well... Let's break it down.
First, the visuals. Beat Hazard is reputed to be a very visually stimulating game... Sometimes a bit too much so. The player/enemy/object sprites are fairly decent on their own, just static sprites which can rotate. But the fancy effects and the debris being shot off the targets can make for a very muddled picture. When a song gets really intense, lights flash A LOT. It's like multi-colored strobe lights all over the screen, sometimes practically blinding. It really goes overboard at times. Another issue is that hundreds of shards of debris will chip off of large enemy ships and the "asteroids" that appear, and among all these flashing lights and chunks of metal, it's hard to tell what will kill you if you touch it and what won't. The enemies have a laser attack that can be very hard to notice in intense parts of the songs. It's certainly possible to adjust to it over time, learning what hurts and what doesn't, but it'll be at least a little disorienting for new players.
As for the game structure: It's exceedingly simple at its core. You just hold the mouse button down to fire lasers at everything that comes on screen. You need to move around to avoid enemies and lasers and missiles and collect bonuses, but that's essentially the game in a nutshell. You'll encounter asteroids at first, which seem to be composed of metallic junk, and they break apart a la Asteroids (the old arcade game). There are also enemy ships which will show up in groups, some small ships, some slightly larger and tougher ships, some small groups, some large groups (depending on difficulty). You also occasionally see "boss" enemies, which may show up on their own or in pairs (also depending on the difficulty setting). They'll all have a handful of gun turrets on them which fire various kinds of laser and missile weapons, and you must destroy these guns, then the ships' wings, then the core of the ship itself. Enemies will sometimes drop bonuses, which can increase your score multiplier, increase the power of your lasers, or increase the volume of the music.
That's actually a substantial gripe I have with the game. Music involvement. In a typical rhythm game, everything revolves around the song currently playing. The game presents itself as if you're there to listen to songs first, and the gameplay elements are supposed to build around that theme. Beat Hazard is different though. Honestly, it can't exactly be called a rhythm game, because that would imply that the player is expected to keep a beat with the song somehow. All that the player has to do in BH is hold the mouse button down constantly, and occasionally right-click if things get too thick (this uses a super-bomb, which you have a limited number of, and basically clears the screen of nearly all threats). I've heard people say that enemies enter the screen based on how intense the music is, but it's hard for me to notice. The only readily noticeable gameplay element corresponding with the music is the strength of your ship's laser. It essentially is like a visualizer that zaps enemies. This is evidently the most complex thing syncing with the music, because I sometimes see occasions where I'm all alone on the screen with a massive, deadly laser stream just wishing some enemies would show up, and other times I'm swarmed with enemies, basically dodging everything while barely fighting back because the song got really quiet, meaning my laser barely fires anything.
This brings me into the neighborhood of song compatibility. As for file types themselves, the game seems to work with any MP3, but I haven't experimented with other file types like ogg or flac. What I do know is that the game is not compatible with songs ripped from CDs using iTunes, or songs purchased in iTunes, unless they're converted to MP3 first. That's a little less than Audiosurf can boast. But there's another irregularity in the way Beat Hazard functions in comparison to a typical rhythm game. Normally, a game works well with songs of any speed. The slower-paced songs might be more boring, but that means they're calmer and simpler for a beginner to attempt, and people can move on to hyper complex songs when they're ready for a true challenge. Things are very different in Beat Hazard though. Since the strength of your laser is determined primarily by the volume and intensity of the song, it's actually very difficult to play a slow or quiet song successfully. The game doesn't adjust the difficulty based on the song you chose, so you'll have a much easier time if all you like is heavy metal and wild techno songs, rather than ambient music or folk ballads or slow jazz. A similar problem I've encountered is that I have some songs on my computer which are fast-paced and intense, but they play quietly on my computer (meaning I just have to turn the volume up to hear them as well as others) but Beat Hazard doesn't register the intensity of these songs, instead just picking up that they're quiet. I have to use a sound editing program to amplify them if I want BH to acknowledge that they aren't just playing softly the whole time. And actually, the calm songs are the most stressful to play, because you'll end up dodging a ton of accumulating enemies, constantly firing at them just wishing your laser was strong enough to do any damage to them. Some are nearly impossible to complete, even on the easy difficulty settings. The game does kind of promote a spirit of intensity though, with an emphasis on deadly laserfest space battles, rather than seeming to be all about the music like Audiosurf.
In that vein, the game seems to have somewhat of a habit of spoiling its own fun. In other words, it has certain habits that turn it into a massive buzzkill. My biggest problem with the game when I first played it is that you actually have to collect volume "powerups" during the song until you reach the maximum proper volume. These are randomly dropped by enemies, so you have to play through maybe a minute of the song before the music is actually at the intended volume. The powerups don't seem to influence the game in any way, they just make it easier for you to hear the music. This is a completely unnecessary element of the game, and entirely counter-fun. It does nothing but make the game less enjoyable. Fortunately, once you've accumulated enough points from playing various songs, you reach the highest rank, allowing you to start each song with your volume and laser power maxed out. This solves the problem for the most part, but the game still has other tricks to ruin your fun. For starters, the volume of the song will still be reduced if you ever die during the song, and you have to find a few random powerups to get it back to normal. Also, if you lose too many lives during the song, it just ends. That's it. The song cuts off early. Now, the player should certainly be punished for doing poorly, but doing things like reducing the song volume or cutting the game short are tremendous buzzkills. What it should do is simply reduce your score, and make the point reductions more substantial with every death, maybe even resetting it to 0 if you die too many times. The game has a survival mode, where you pick one song, and it automatically moves on to the next song in the folder, continuing as long as it can until you finally die. In THIS mode, cutting the game short makes sense, because the goal is to get the best score AND the best time. In the normal game, to get rid of these huge buzzkill moments, they need to just scrap the volume-changing altogether, and find some method of penalizing the player that doesn't involve interrupting the game.
Overall... The main attraction of Beat Hazard is the ability to use any kind of song you want. If it didn't have that going for it, it would have almost no long-term redeeming qualities. It does have its moments though. When you're playing a complex grand-scale song, and it gets quiet just before a boss enemy comes on-screen, and you know the song is seconds away from giving you a full-force laser blast right back at your opponent, it can be genuinely thrilling. But my bottom-line recommendation is to buy this game on sale if you absolutely need to get it. Also, if you don't yet have Audiosurf, you might be better off just getting that game. At its easiest, Audiosurf is simple enough for my mom to enjoy, but has a high enough skill ceiling to make the best players seem to have inhuman skill. Beat Hazard lacks that wide range of difficulty, the greater variety of gameplay modes, and the compatibility with all varieties of music (both file-type-wise and genre-wise).
Reviewer's Rating: 2.5 - Playable
Originally Posted: 06/28/10
Game Release: Beat Hazard (US, 04/15/10)
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