Thursday, 8 March 2012

Review: Beat Hazard Ultra (iPhone)

Every so often I come across a game that seems so perfectly fitted to my tastes, that I'm surprised I'd never heard of it before. I'm a sucker for music and rhythm based ideas, especially if they're tied with interesting visuals. Luckily there are a number of great ones available on iOS devices. I've spoken in the past about my love for Groove Coaster, and recently I was completely charmed by Beat Sneak Bandit, but I think Beat Hazard Ultra might be my new favourite.

A frenetic twin-stick shooter, Beat Hazard has you blasting away at swarms of enemy ships in a dazzling flashy neon light show. Scores are racked up as multiplier bonuses tumble down the screen, and warnings flash as bosses approach. In keeping with the best arcade shooters, the relentless nature of the game can leave you breathless, and a lack of concentration will see you die in a matter of seconds. But the interesting concept behind Beat Hazard is that the pace of each game is driven by your own music library.

At the start of a game, you can select which tune to play to from a list of what you have on the device (Don't worry if you've got nothing, there are included tracks and radio streams to choose from). As the song evolves and beats get heavier, the action gets more and more frantic. Visuals pulse and flash as the screen is flooded by enemies and bullets. Weapons evolve into screen filling lasers, smart bombs send shock waves across the screen to give you a moment's respite. And towards the climax, boss characters approach to challenge you further. Levels are only as long as the track you've chosen, and once it's finished the game ends with a suitably large bang.

High scores are earned by making use of multipliers and perks, as well as how much you manage to progress through a track. Finishing a level means you've 100%-ed the song, and you can increase your high score by further increasing the difficulty. Through high scores you unlock more perks, which add an extra element to the game suited to your needs. One might give you some extra lives, while another offers you a reflector shield, or an increased number of items to pick up. Only a couple can be active at any time, so it encourages experimentation to see what works best for you.

Control is relatively tight overall. You're offered the choice of either the standard twin stick approach, or a single stick for movement with auto-fire enabled. The latter is a useful addition if you're having a hard time keeping up with the action, but you'll most likely find yourself yearning for the balanced control of the twin sticks. However, the two "sticks" have a tendency to float around the screen as you're playing, dragged by your frantic movements. It's a problem I've noticed on other iOS games (Speedball Deluxe comes to mind), and it leaves me wondering why the sticks can't just be fixed in place. It's doubly problematic when you activate weapons and powerups by tapping above or below the relevant stick; and on such a small screen it's all too easy to lose your ship under a thumb.

From a distance, it's easy to dismiss Beat Hazard as a souped-up interactive visualiser. It even contains a "Chillout" mode, where you can enjoy infinite lives and a stream of easy enemies to blast. But the interactive connection with the music is what's so brilliant about it. A heavy drop feels all the more intense when it signals the approach of a neon-spewing space starfish. Lulls in the beat give a well-needed break from the action, and a pulsing bassline means a constant visual flare in the background. By the end of a particularly intense track, your senses will be a bit overwhelmed.

Some genres of music will work better than others. I can't imagine the pace of the action being particularly well dictated by, say, a chilled bit of Satie. But for the most part it works, and works very well. It adds a great twist on what would otherwise be a fairly standard arcade shooter; and in terms of replayability, your music library is the limit. Just make sure you're wearing headphones.

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