The more I play Amplitude, the less inclined I am to simply call it a music game without adding a hefty disclaimer. Both Amplitude and its predecessor, Frequency, take the player to another more intimate level of the music creation process. Instead of experiencing the music through taking on the role of a dancer, rapper or guitarist, Amplitude lets the player function as an omnipotent creator who has the ability to construct a song from scratch by unlocking one instrumental track at a time. The player therefore has the impression of being inside the groove itself and not just observing it from a safe distance. Yet rather than being able to ultimately transcend the stereotype of the music game as Frequency attempted to do, Amplitude instead gravitates in a different direction towards a genre that many gamers are already familiar with: the first-person rails shooter.
If this idea seems far-fetched, consider first the fact that Amplitude defies every stereotype that the music game genre has thus far incurred in its relatively short history. Beyond the conspicuous absence of J-Pop and cute anime-inspired graphics, Amplitude also does away with the idea that music games are supposed to be something that we can sit back and relax to without breaking too much of a sweat (unless we're grooving on Dance Dance Revolution's dance pad). Amplitude is not relaxing. It is intense and often frustrating, with a soundtrack that has nary a J-Pop tune to be heard and instead features a selection of electronica, hip hop, techno, and rock.
The way that Amplitude is structured lends itself more to good reflexes, the memorization of patterns, and concentration rather than simply a good ear for music. Frequency's abstract notion of popping scrolling sound nodules by pressing the corresponding controller button has been replaced in Amplitude by a physical object: a spaceship that shoots three calibrations of lasers at the nodules to break them. Furthermore, Frequency's 360 degree rotating hexagonal tunnel has given way to flat tracks arranged side by side on a horizontal plane. The player therefore pilots a ship along a virtual highway, complete with hills, valleys and turns. The only difference between this and any rails shooter is that instead of wailing away indiscriminately at anything that moves, the nodules must be shot at specific times to correspond with their place in the metric organization of the song segment.
Shooting the sound nodules in correct rhythm in an unbroken string is the key to unlocking new sections of the song. When a whole phrase of music has been activated in this manner, the entire musical track will become unlocked and will continue to play, leaving the player free to move to another track to repeat the process. Each time a track is successfully cleared, the ship receives a boost of energy. Interrupting a perfect string with mistimed shots and flubs will make the player's energy drain away, and will eventually cause the song to end prematurely. The frenetic nature of such an activity leaves little room for daydreaming or only half-heartedly paying attention to what's on the screen. Indeed, during the most taxing of the four difficulty levels, hand-eye coordination and speedy fingers are more important than any attempt to "feel" the rhythm or the musical line. In situations like this, it would of course be the more tenacious gamer that would triumph over the most sensitive and accomplished musician.
To take the analogy even further, Amplitude is divided into several "worlds," which need to be visited in a chronological order. Each world contains three songs that, when beaten, unlock a fourth boss song, and then a fifth bonus song if the first four songs are cleared with high enough point totals. The terminology of "boss" to describe a piece of music is particularly interesting. If I were to take the above description and replace the word "song" with "sub-level," it might as well be describing a shooter, or at very least an arcade game of some sort.
Anyone who has played Frequency will immediately recognize these subtle changes in Amplitude—the "highway," spaceship and boss songs—as a push toward more mainstream acceptance. Some of these changes are not so subtle, and Amplitude is not necessarily a stronger game because of them.
For example, Amplitude's music is much more of a mixed bag. While Frequency's songs showcased mostly DJs and artists than made music off the beaten path, so to speak, Amplitude is chock full of recognized chart-toppers such as Papa Roach, Blink 182, Weezer, Pink, Slipknot and David Bowie (who contributes a surprisingly bland offering). The underground feel of Frequency is kept alive by the Symbion Project's Synthesize, Garbage's Cherry Lips, and Freezepop's Super-sprode, yet the focus of the game has obviously shifted toward more commercially established artists.
While Amplitude is less edgy than its predecessor, enough of the Frequency vibe is still intact for fans of the original to get an experience that is in most ways close enough to the original to provide satisfaction. Yet, at the same time, Amplitude can't help but feel like a consolation for gamers who felt that Frequency was too hard or couldn't connect with it for whatever reason and needed some of the recognizable comforts of other genres to make the game more accessible to them. I can only hope that this series will continue to be something a little different and not turn into a totally watered-down experience or, worse, an undisguised showcase for the music industry's flavors of the month.