If there were a game that could bring mainstream appeal to the niche genre of rhythm games, this would be it.
When it comes to sequels, there are certain things you expect. You want improved gameplay, but nothing drastically different from the original. The graphics should, of course, be cranked up at least a notch or two. Basically, you want more of what you liked about the original, and less of what you didn't. Amplitude, the follow-up to Harmonix's excellent rhythm game Frequency, handles all its obligations as a sequel with aplomb. Like its predecessor, it features highly addictive rhythm-based gameplay set to some excellent songs. Amplitude also boasts a great online multiplayer mode, as well as new power-ups and improved visuals. It isn't so radically different as to woo players unimpressed by Frequency, but fans of the original, and fans of rhythm games in general, should be very pleased indeed.
You'll occasionally see sections of rows with different-looking markers, which, if cleared, will net you a power-up that can be used at your discretion. The autoblaster will clear out a row, which is helpful for dealing with patterns beyond your skill level. The score doubler will, as the name infers, briefly double your score for clearing a row. The freestyler power-up works a bit differently than it did in Frequency, and for the better. In Frequency, the freestyler would unlock a pair of rows where you could do some turntable-style scratching and/or some synthesizer noodling, depending on the song. In Amplitude, the freestyler pulls the camera view above the rows, giving you a beneficial third dimension to work with. It's certainly much more visually appealing, with the scratching represented by zigzagging lines and the synth represented by a pulsating ball of particle effects, and the scratching also sounds significantly more authentic. There's one brand-new power-up in Amplitude, the slo mo, which reduces the speed of the song, making more complex patterns more manageable. All these power-ups help keep things interesting.
Amplitude is about as bewildering to first-timers as Frequency was, though it does take several steps to alleviate the confusion. First off, Amplitude has a comprehensive tutorial, something that Frequency lacked. Also, Amplitude provides a lot more visual cues to help you keep track of what's going on. Each row is color-coded to a specific instrument--red rows are always percussion, green rows are always vocals, and so on. As you gain multipliers, you'll see arrows pointing to any of the rows where you can potentially continue your combo. Rows containing power-ups are lit up with towering beams of light, making them easier to identify from afar. Also, the difficulty curve in Amplitude is much more gradual than in Frequency, making the game a more accessible to the casual rhythm gamer. This has the unfortunate side effect of making the most difficult tracks in Amplitude slightly less challenging than the most difficult tracks in Frequency. The game will definitely challenge your rhythm skills, just not to such an extreme.
Amplitude's multiplayer is generally better, partially because of the new track design, which allows all the players to see the action without resorting to a split screen. But the most significant enhancement to the multiplayer game--and, really, to Amplitude in general--is the addition of online play. With the help of the PlayStation 2 Network Adapter, players can go online and compete against up to three other players simultaneously. Harmonix didn't half-step with the online mode, which features a ranking system and downloadable content and works well over both narrowband and broadband connections. You can only play through a song by yourself so many times, but when there's some real competition to go up against, the replay value is increased considerably.
Another returning feature from Frequency is the remix mode, where players can reconstruct the songs in the game to their liking, using an interface that is similar to the actual game. Though the nuts and bolts of the remix mode remain largely unchanged, this mode is way more intriguing this time around, due to Amplitude's online support. Once you've completed your remix, you can upload it to the Harmonix servers, where it will be evaluated--and if it's up to snuff, posted online for other players to download and play. Whether the online component of the remix mode will catch on remains to be seen, but it's an ambitious effort on the part of the developer, regardless.
The visual presentation on a whole is markedly better in Amplitude than in its predecessor. While Frequency sported a kind of Tempest-like abstract minimalist look, Amplitude piles on the eye candy. The playfield itself is much more colorful, featuring lots of bright textures, particle effects, and neon highlights, and the area surrounding the playfield is beyond psychedelic. You'll travel across bizarre quasi-futuristic landscapes and through spinning, pulsating tunnels of varying colors and patterns, all of it peppered with vaguely mechanical-looking scenery objects and small video clips of the bands. Your freQ, a customizable avatar that hangs out in the corner of the screen, has gone from being a static 2D image to a fully animated 3D character. The whole experience can have a truly hypnotic effect on onlookers, though you'll probably be too focused on the action to pay much attention. There are times, though, when it can all be a bit overwhelming, and all the flashing lights and particle effects may actually interfere with the gameplay.
While the developers of other rhythm game franchises, most notably PaRappa and Dance Dance Revolution, are perfectly happy with releasing the same game over and over again with minimal improvements, Harmonix has upped the ante for the genre with Amplitude. It's an engaging, addictive experience that outstrips its predecessor and brings innovation to the genre. If there were a game that could bring mainstream appeal to the niche genre of rhythm games, this would be it.