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Beat Hazard (PC) artwork

Beat Hazard (PC) review


"A quick glance in my iTunes library reveals that I have 4968 songs stored in my computer, for a combined total of approximately 14.2 days of music. This means, in theory, that my copy of Beat Hazard contains 4968 unique levels for a combined total of approximately 14.2 days of play time. "



A quick glance in my iTunes library reveals that I have 4968 songs stored in my computer, for a combined total of approximately 14.2 days of music. This means, in theory, that my copy of Beat Hazard contains 4968 unique levels for a combined total of approximately 14.2 days of play time.

Audiosurf did this first: Dive into your music folder, choose a song, and the gameís tools will sculpt a level unique to that particular track, basing its structure and audiovisual landscape on the musicís volume, tempo and instrumental arrangements. Audiosurf molded virtual roller coasters that would climb, drop, accelerate and decelerate in sync with each song, all while colorful shapes twisted and contorted in the background. It was breathtaking, which made it all the more disappointing that the extent of the gameís interactivity was this Klax-style matter of collecting colored blocks with little in the way of depth, challenge, or any perceivable threat. The novelty quickly wore off for me, and it wound up being one of those instances in which I liked the idea more than the final product.

Itís a good thing, then, that someone has come along and done it better. Beat Hazard falls into the category of Geometry Wars-style dual-stick shooter, which has been done to death, but for a good reason: Itís fast, intuitive and easy to get into, making it a solid candidate for a game that most will spend playing in four-minute musical bursts. Out of context, Beat Hazard is no more spectacular than anything else in its genre, but the gimmick is that it bases its level design around your song selection. Strobes and color schemes are employed as visualizer effects, and arrangements of enemy ships are synchronized to the melody of your music. Same general idea, only now itís tied to a game thatís more inherently fun.

Iím going to recommend a song now, partly because Iím about to describe what it looks like it the form of a deep-space dogfight, and partly because itís a damn good song.

The song is "Idiot Heart" by Sunset Rubdown. You can seriously just click on that link with the middle button and listen in a separate tab while you continue reading. Or hell, if you donít trust my taste in music, you can just not listen to it at all. Itís not important.

Most levels in Beat Hazard start out in the same manner, with asteroids ominously tumbling across the screen. You can either shoot at them to warm up, or restrain yourself and earn multipliers for being a pacifist. (Really.) Fittingly, ďIdiot HeartĒ opens simply, with a nothing more than a couple of chirping guitars. The gun on your ship actually fires in tune with the music, and for the first minute or so of the song, your shooting pattern could practically pass for sheet music as the guitarist bangs out the same one note over and over. Since not much is happening dynamically, your weapon isnít very powerful either, but more on that later.

Spencer Krug starts singing, and itís not a big moment in the song; the guy has range, but heís not known for having an especially pretty voice. The first ships start to fly in, quickly (itís an uptempo song) but one at a time Ė and theyíre weak ships, so itís no biggie. Once the drummer starts tapping on the cymbals, ships appear in groups. Itís always the same number of ships, flying in from the same directions, so itís an easy pattern to decipher, but holy crap are they moving quickly. Beat Hazardís often breathlessly intense pace can make you wish you picked a slower song in a big hurry.

After just over a minute, the drums kick in and the song has officially started. Strobe effects pulsate in the background like a nightclub in space. Your ship begins firing a steady and powerful stream of lasers that quiver and change colors in sync with the beat of the song. Bigger, more heavily reinforced ships weave back and forth, and if it looks like theyíre dancing, well, they basically are.

The cool thing about ďIdiot HeartĒ is that it doesnít follow the traditional verse-chorus structure, lacking, in fact, any real chorus at all and instead simply growing in intensity until it finally settles down for one last slow-building, 90-second stretch. Beat Hazard generally places its boss encounters in what it deems are the most climactic points of the song. So what happens when youíve picked a track that continually tops itself? Playing ďIdiot Heart,Ē there comes a point when the game just slams you with one boss battle after another, even presenting one before youíve taken down the last one.

Over halfway through the song, weíve reached the climax: Backing vocals kick in, guitars wail, and the drums double up in tempo, and this is the point where the screen is shaking violently and your shipís gun is noisily spraying lasers in a 30-degree cone in front of you. Four and a half minutes in, I lost my final life. You see, at this point in the song, everything save for the percussion and Spencerís voice drops off, and the drastic downshift in tone reduced my laser fire to a few pitiful airsoft bursts. Only a few seconds before, the song had been so loud that Beat Hazard saw it fit to produce a particularly enormous boss ship. Only a moment later, I was defenseless. This damn song.

I donít know what Beat Hazardís process is, how what musically becomes what visually. I can tell you, however, that getting the most out of the game is a matter of song selection. Itís not the quality of the song that matters; a guy singing solo and strumming an acoustic guitar can make for a good song, but itís not a good fit for Beat Hazard. You need something with dynamic range, something that demonstrates just how drastically different the game plays at different speeds, different volumes, with different instruments.

Itís not just audiovisual; if anything, itís one of the few cases where the gameplay and presentation work hand-in-hand. One of my big complaints about Geometry Wars was that the game was so visually busy that the screen became cluttered, yet Beat Hazard uses this to its advantage, with a songís growing potency making it more and more unstable. Tumult becomes a physical obstacle. Youíre riveted by such intensity just as much as you cherish moments of peaceful quiet.

Beat Hazard actually has volume power-ups that also cause more enemies to spawn, thereby making the game more difficult the louder and more colorful it gets. Conversely, when you die, you lose your power-ups, the screen goes monochrome and most of the enemies disappear. It's a relief, yet at the same time, youíre instantly and frantically striving to snatch up enough volume pickups to reach the exhilarating level of visual and audio hullabaloo that you werenít quite skilled enough to make it through the first time. That's why strong range in dynamics and tempo is important in the songs you choose, because you value both ends.

The best song Iíve ever put to use in Beat Hazard is LCD Soundsystemís magnum opus, ďAll My Friends.Ē Itís a fantastic, critically acclaimed piece of music, and I can name several well-regarded publications that named it one of the best songs of the last decade. But I know a couple of people who absolutely hate it, simply because itís so godforsakenly slow. The whole thing is underlined by a guy hitting one note on a piano over and over again; itís at least 30 seconds before any other instruments are heard, 80 seconds before the vocals kick in, and almost seven minutes before the guy gets to the point.

Yet I challenge anyone to play ďAll My FriendsĒ in Beat Hazard and not be blown away by its momentous pace. The gradually added layers of instruments and increasing intensity in James Murphyís voice create a rather steady difficulty curve, and the resulting levelís downright boring opening moments are worth the payoff as the game grows more colorful, more intense, more overwhelming in a slow build to that devastating final 45-second stretch. Being able to physically battle your way through songs in such a manner makes it so easy to admire their form.

With no actual structure and very little variety in enemies, many claim that Beat Hazard is a shallow game. The 4968 songs in my library beg to differ. Seeing the near-countless ways the dual-stick shooter formula can be shaped and twisted to the melody of music I know and love has been a fantastic experience, and I keep sacrificing time I could be spending with bigger (and arguably better) games just to find out what another of my favorite songs looks like in Beat Hazard. To genuine music fans, my recommendation couldnít come strongly enough.

Rating: 9/10

Suskie's avatar
Community review by Suskie (January 08, 2011)

Mike Suskie is a freelance writer who has contributed to GamesRadar and has a blog. He can usually be found on Twitter at @MikeSuskie.

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Feedback

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overdrive posted January 09, 2011:

Holy damn! You did good with this one, Mike!
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zippdementia posted January 09, 2011:

It's a good example of bringing other talents to bear on a video game review... this is really two reviews in one. That's like bringing a rocket launcher to a fencing duel. It will be hard for the judges to say no to this.
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Ben posted January 09, 2011:

Man, you make this game sound awesome. I also loved you talking about the specific tracks on a musical level and how well they translate into the game. I might actually have to buy this on your recommendation if it's fairly cheap. *checks Steam*
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Suskie posted January 09, 2011:

Holy shit, thanks! I sort of had to attack this game from a different angle and I had no idea how that would work out, so I'm glad to hear you liked it!
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EmP posted January 09, 2011:

I actually have this game on XBLI and once spent an hour or so making a mental draft to when I played it along with Blur's Song 2. Then I dumped it because I didn't think the approuch would work.

You've proved me quite wrong -- great review.
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Halon posted January 09, 2011:

I played this game for 10 minutes and thought I was going to have a seizure. I've never seen so many flashy lights in my life.
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Suskie posted January 09, 2011:

Baha. Doesn't the game have a seizure warning right when you boot it up?

This review probably should come with a "nobody else seems to love this game as much as I do" warning, but like I said, I'm convinced it comes down to careful song selection. Also, if any of you do want to check it out, know that the game accepts Xbox 360 controller input and I strongly recommend playing it that way. Mouse and keyboard is, understandably, not the best way to play a game like this.

Anyway, thanks a lot for the comments.
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Ben posted January 09, 2011:

I played the demo - it was fun. First impressions are, not quite as good as Audiosurf, but more than good enough to make me want to play further and see how the rest of my music library fares in here. The dual-stick action is not as tight as Geometry Wars, but the music does add a really cool and absorbing layer to each stage. Now it's just a case of whether I want to spend £7 on it right at this moment. Because it's Steam, it's blatantly going to go on sale again at some point.
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Suskie posted January 09, 2011:

Hilariously, it was just on sale.
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Halon posted January 09, 2011:

Think it did have a seizure warning. Well I doubt I would've had a seizure but the flashing lights was enough to make me instantly uninstall it. It's a shame since it seemed like a decent game.

You just missed a sale where you could get Beat Hazard, Audiosurf (decent), Geometry Wars (good), Bullet Candy (supposedly good), VVVVVV (good, I just reviewed this one last night), and one other indie game for $5.
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Ben posted January 09, 2011:

Man, that's an excellent deal. I've already played Audiosurf, Geometry Wars, and VVVVVV (the latter two not from Steam), and they're all good games and are worth at least $5 individually, let alone together in a pack.

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