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Game review: Audioshield is the first VR music game

The creator of Audiosurf turns his rhythm action classic into one of the coolest games in the Vive virtual reality line-up.

There might not be any cast iron classics amongst the launch games for Oculus Rift and Vive, but it’s still been a real pleasure playing through the first wave of virtual reality titles. There’s the joy of the technology itself, but also the fact that so many of the games are so different. No one style dominates and, if the name doesn’t give it away, you never know what you’re going to come across next. Audioshield sounds like, and is, a rhythm action game. But not quite like any you’ve played before.

It now seems obvious that last year’s attempted revival of the plastic guitar fad has failed, and while the idea of playing music games through virtual reality may well be the next logical step this has relatively little in common with the likes of Guitar Hero or Rock Band. Instead, Audioshield takes its cues from Amplitude and its PC counterpart Audiosurf. And the latter is certainly no coincidence, because they’re both by the same guy.

Amplitude, and its predecessor Frequency, were the first games by Guitar Hero and Rock Band creators Harmonix, and although it used an ordinary joypad it worked in the same basic way as the later games. That is to say that icons scroll down the screen towards you, in one of several lanes, and you try to trigger each one at the right time to play along with the music. In Guitar Hero this was meant to simulate playing a real instrument, but in Amplitude et al. it’s more abstract and you’re controlling a non-descript spaceship travelling along a roller coaster-like track.

Audioshield is essentially a halfway house between the two ideas, except instead of controlling a spaceship you wait until the notes come towards you in virtual reality and then you punch them. Punch them with your shields of… sound. Or something. Creator Dylan Fitterer isn’t silly enough to try and create a story to explain what’s going on, you just do what you do because it’s fun and a great way to experience your favourite music.

As with Audiosurf, but unlike Amplitude, there is no pre-set soundtrack and instead you simply use your existing digital music collection. The game then breaks the music down into individual beats, visualised as either blue or red blobs, which then start to fly towards you in your otherwise stark and almost empty virtual world. Slower songs have the beats gently gliding towards you, while higher tempo ones see them flying at you like rotten tomatoes at a Zack Synder movie review.

Holding the two Vive controllers, one is transformed into a red shield by the game and the other a blue shield and… that’s pretty much it. Occasionally there are purple blobs that require both shields, and the beats come in varying lengths, but the only other complication is picking different sizes and shape of shield to vary the difficulty (or you can just put on some thrash metal if you fancy a challenge).

That’s fine though, music games don’t need to be complicated to be enjoyable, and despite the infinite number of possible tracks you could pick there’s still an online leaderboard for each individual song. Even if you’re the only one on it.

Because the songs are being interpreted automatically, compared to the hand-crafted versions in Harmonix games, there are often glitches, and some tracks that simply aren’t any fun to play through. Audiosurf and its direct sequel suffered the same problem, and it all seems perfectly excusable given the scale of what they’re attempting. Although it’s amusing that a glitch in a VR game means beats flying over your head or halfway across the room.

Less amusing is the menu system, and particularly the interface with the Soundcloud streaming service. This is very buggy at the moment, and you often have to take the headset off to start a new song. That will no doubt be patched over in time, but the more serious problem is simply that Audioshield seem so… one note. There’s really only one game mode and finding a song that you both like and which translates as something that’s fun to play through can lead to a lot of downtime.

Despite having the entire world of music at its fingertips Audioshield can feel frustratingly repetitive and half-finished – although both issues may well change over time. As a reasonably priced launch game it’s certainly something that’s worth playing if you own a Vive headset, but it’s unlikely to inspire you to acquire one if you don’t.

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