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Audiosurf – Music-adapting Puzzle Racer Review

”’Platform: PC Windows”’

Even having spent the last hour having ‘just one more go’ I’m still not sure I can call Audiosurf a game. Your arty types might call it DIY synaesthesia, while your cynical types might call it a glorified MP3 visualiser. I’m not going to call it anything – I’m just going to tell you what it is and what it does and why I really think you ought to try it.

In a way, Audiosurf is a combination of the music action game (e.g. Amplitude or Guitar Hero) and the traditional block puzzle game (e.g. Lumines or Columns). Your mouse controls a sort of sleek, Wipeout-style racer that speeds above a ribbon of undulating track. Sitting in the different lanes of the track are a series of coloured blocks, and by running into the blocks you add them to a grid superimposed beneath your racer. Clump three blocks of the same colour together and they disappear, adding points to your score. Allow a column of your grid to overfill with blocks and your racer explodes, forcing you to wait for a while as it respawns. At the end of each track you get a score. Nothing particularly imaginative or exciting here, you might think.

Graphically, the game wears its influences on its sleeve. It looks a little like Harmonix’s pioneering music game, Amplitude, while the ships and tracks remind you of Wipeout Pure. There’s a lot of blurred neon psychedelia being splashed around, and that – combined with the simple vector shapes – instantly puts you in mind of Tempest 2000, Rez and the Geometry Wars/Everyday Shooter school of retro shooters. As weird structures slip into view and stars explode like fireworks in the background Audiosurf can look quite amazing, but then so can the visualiser effects built into the Xbox 360’s media player – and I don’t spend hours of my time staring at that. Again, there’s nothing that new or unexpected.

Well, actually there is, and the clue is in the game’s title. The tracks in Audiosurf are created from the music files found in the various libraries and stores on your PC. Pick a difficulty level and a game mode then locate and select your track and the program analyses the music, transforming the different beats, instruments and variations in pitch and tempo into blocks, climbs, drops, twists, turns and background scenery. The game works with CD audio tracks and MP3s, plus WMA, OGG and iTunes Plus tracks (though not the standard DRM-enabled efforts). What this means is that your experience of the game will depend entirely on the tracks you feed it. Give it slow, ambient tracks and you get a slow, ambient game with a spare, minimalist style. Give it fast tracks with layered instruments and a lot of beats and you’ll get a fast, frantic game with a lot of visual fireworks.

Stick on ”13 Steps” from Radiohead’s ”In Rainbows”, for example, and the jarring beats, Thom nervy vocals and sparse guitar figures at the beginning give you a stretch of track with sudden bumps and clusters of blocks. Once the bass kicks in and the song builds into the chorus, you’re rewarded with faster downhill stretches, lots of blocks and a whole lot of activity on the screen. ”All I Need” from the same album is even better, the game gaining pace and getting ever more hypnotic as the song builds momentum. Air Traffic’s anthemic ”Shooting Star” is another winner, the game holding back during the restrained verses then going hell for leather during the big chorus. Put Audiosurf together with the right song, and you get these magic moments where the music and the visuals and the simple but engaging gameplay all come together and you suddenly find yourself taken somewhere new. It can be overwhelming, and you might not want to come back.

To mix things up a little more, the game offers several different modes for each difficulty level. In some, you only get blocks of a single colour and nasty grey blocks that just jam your grid up, making the challenge hitting the coloured blocks and avoiding the greys. In others, you get added abilities, like the power to jump over unwanted blocks or pick up blocks and use them later, or just the wherewithal to shunt blocks left and right with clicks of the mouse button.

Now, all of this would be very interesting for a while just on its own. The more tracks you try on Audiosurf and the more interesting the results you get, the more tempted you are to try out other tracks. You wonder what it’s like on heavy rock, on low-key classical works, on Pink Floyd’s ”Dark Side of the Moon” (predictably ace, in case you’re wondering) and on a little of Miles Davis’s cool early sixties Jazz. You may even want to take it to play Daft Punk – (”Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger” is an obvious winner) – or Glen Campbell’s “Wichita Lineman” (I’m not sure how this ended up on my PC, but it works!). The more you like music and the bigger your collection, the worse your Audiosurf addiction is likely to be.

However, there have been games before that use your music collection in a similar sort of way, but what turns what might be just a novelty game into a keeper is the fact that your efforts are tied into online leaderboards for each and every song. Somewhere out there, other people are playing Audiosurf with the same song as you, and as the program’s analysis should produce the same results in every case, their score is directly comparable to yours. Can you stand the fact that there are 290 other people out there with a higher score in Mono mode, on Difficulty medium level, on ”Great Gig in the Sky”? Well, you’d better go back in and do something about it, then. Cleverly, you can switch between global and local leaderboards, and even compare scores against any friends you have added to your Audiosurf account. What’s more, the game also works with Steam’s achievement system, adding awards and points to your profile just like those in The Orange Box.

Obviously, some leaderboards are more competitive than others. Key tracks from ”In Rainbows” and ”Dark Side of the Moon” are hotly contested. Less key tracks from Bob Dylan’s ”The Bottleg Series, Vol 7” are not so. I suspect I may be the only person on the leaderboard for a recording of Arvo Part’s ”Summa” by the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra for some time to come. You’ll also notice that tracks that were big in the Guitar Hero games are also big here, which is why Muse’s ‘Knights of Cydonia’ and Dragonforce’s ‘Through the Fire and Flames’ are such Audiosurf battlegrounds.

It’s this sort of thing that makes me think Audiosurf must be a game, but to be honest I’m still not 100% sure. When playing it, it’s actually a struggle to remind yourself that you’re meant to be grabbing those blocks and not those other ones. The better the music gets and the more the whole experience gels, the less inclined I am to remember any plan or strategy I had in place before the track started. At times, it’s all so damn frantic that it’s hard to keep anything in mind, and you just find yourself sweeping the mouse from left to right and back again in order to gather anything you can. This isn’t particularly a fault – if the aim of Audiosurf was to give you a powerful experience or just a new way to enjoy your MP3 collection, it effortlessly succeeds on both counts.

Still, it’s a hard game to score. Some people will give it a go then shrug their shoulders, while others will lose their enthusiasm once the novelty of trying new tracks is over. Others still will get caught up in the clash of scores on the leaderboards, while some people out there will just get thoroughly obsessed with the whole affair. I think there’s a very good chance that you’ll find it fascinating for a while, and a decent chance that you’ll come back periodically even once the initial rush burns out. The key thing here, I think, is the price: at around a fiver Audiosurf is cheap enough to get into even if you don’t stick with it long-term. That’s partly why I’m giving it an eight, but your mileage may vary – mostly depending on your love of music (or high scores) and the size and breadth of your collection. Me? I’m off to give ”13 Steps” another crack.


Whether you can call it a fully-fledged game or not, Audiosurf is a compulsive, habit-forming activity, and one that really does let you experience music in a new and interesting way.

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