by BONZO, HSM team writer
Q-games is one of those companies, much as thatgamecompany, that make amazing, deceptively simple, heavily stylized games.
If you haven’t toured the PixelJunk museum in Home, do so! It is a great environment that gives you some insight into their games, gorgeously decorated in a heavy handed, graphic, colorful style that perfectly reflects their titles. Pixeljunk is not a company in and of itself, but a series of PS3 games developed by Q-games, downloadable from the PlayStation Network Store. The game series with the PixelJunk prefix includes Racers, Monsters, Eden, Shooter, Shooter 2, Sidescroller and — coming soon — 4am.
If you haven’t tried any of these games, download the demos. They are amazing, fun and addictive, and I defy you to resist purchasing at least one of them. My absolute favorites so far are Eden and Sidescroller (seizure warning for this one though), but 4am is poised to quickly become my favorite thus far. This project, originally called PixelJunk Lifelike, includes a music collaboration with Japanese multimedia artist Baiyon. Currently, 4am is on beta testing until its May 15th release. This month, Plus subscribers got a taste of it with the beta live viewer and some lucky users got codes to actually try the game itself.
So, what is 4am about? These are my first impressions; as a very fortunate recipient of a beta code I have been playing the single event available as often as I can.
This is another step in augmented reality gaming. It’s a music video game, but not like any you have seen before. The closest I can reference from experience is probably My Singstar Online. Singstar was karaoke, but My Singstar Online had a fun social element that allowed you to watch other people’s performances, and if there was a performance you enjoyed you could follow that user and see any future performances they created.
4am is like SingStar for DJs or pseudo DJs, but it’s always LIVE. If you have never tried being a DJ before, you probably don’t realize what an art it really can be. Although you are playing with music tracks from established artists and mixing them in a cohesive sample that works together in both tempo and rhythm, it’s not that easy. Just as compositing images in Photoshop may seem simple, we can all recognize bad Photoshop from good Photoshop. A Disc Jockey basically does the same, only with music, making a composite of music tracks that flow sinuously. Although most professional DJs don’t just mix and match songs, they also make their own beats and samples.
Most of the PixelJunk’s series have been very linear, two dimensional, though beautifully stylized platformers or sidescrollers. 4am differs in that it remains two dimensional visually, but the interactivity of the game gives it a multidimensional feel. As far as the PixelJunk series go, this is a huge leap for Q-Games. This is a digital instrument — better yet a digital orchestra, with you as the conductor.
There are different “events.” Each event will have a different sample library to choose from. You use the Move controller – something new to PixelJunk games – and in essence you don’t play the game so much as you perform it. As you take the event you chose, you go live on PSN and anyone that has the game or the free viewer can join and be an audience to you performance. This is what makes this title so amazing: it runs LIVE. You aren’t recording a performance to post to some site, you are performing as you play for anyone to join and observe. No pressure, it’s all in good fun.
Four one-shot sounds, you perform by tapping the move controller in a specific direction at four points around you from each instrument with a total of 16 per event.
The instrument loops just repeat themselves, but you can control these by switching between samples at any time, layering the instruments on four tracks, or focusing an instrument to play solo by holding down the corresponding button.
The one-shot sounds you can use as many times as your arm’s stamina can handle. With four tracks to add loops to, you are looking at about 160 different sound samples to mix from.
You can also apply effects to each track by holding down the move button and manipulating the move controller’s position, making the tracks reverb, flanger, or chorus among other effects across four tracks.
If you shake out a really cool beat with one-shot sounds on the move controller you have the option of dubbing the motion into a recorded path and looping it into the music and still add live one-shot sounds on top of that.
If that sounds confusing, let me assure you once you get the hang of the controls you will be amazed how much you can conduct the music. 4am will support two move controllers for dual performance, or — if you have the dexterity — operating both controllers yourself.
For your visual cue or your audience’s visual pleasure the performance works in tandem with a graphic visualizer. Off the bat, five visual graphics are available with more un-lockable as you play or perform regularly. The visuals react to the different sampling and playing that you perform, so if you add effects or tap one-shot sounds the visuals respond accordingly.
The learning curve of the controller will probably take some time, as each of the four PlayStation buttons – triangle, circle, square and cross – correspond to their respective colors green, red, pink, and blue, which determines the instrument samples and one-shot sounds to choose from.
You then choose which of the four samples from the instrument to bring in by pointing the controller towards one of the four directions, and while holding the trigger button dragging it onto the screen. The tactile response of the controller vibrating as you point to a sample and drag on to your screen is the kind of immersive experience conducive to augmented reality.
You really feel like you have control of the music, and the more you play the more intuitive the controls become. This is what separated this music title from the many available out there. If you for some reason are thinking of Rock Band or Guitar Hero, it’s not. Those games are really based on the follow along, Simon Says mentality where you are matching, in time, the cues as they appear on screen. Auditorium HD didn’t give you control over the music either, at least not to this extent of sampling. It merely presented a musical puzzle you had to solve by manipulating and reflecting the stream of music playing.
I am extremely excited about this title, as it presents a great deal of potential. It works on so many layers that it can be appreciated as a user or as an observer. Even if you don’t wish to perform it but merely want to play your own music, you can still use it as an extended visualizer over the one presented by the PlayStation 3’s media player.
It introduces a level of social interaction by allowing you and your friends to observe performances together and share in the experience, or perform for each other.
The few bumps I see are that there may be a limit of sample libraries, which can be remedied by future DLC add-ons. This is a Move game; most games only support the Move controller, but this one is geared for the Move so it is a must. You perform live, so you have to be signed on to play. The boundary between playing field and the accessible sample library hovering in the air is a little hard to recognize at times. The vibration function helps to establish it, but in the excitement of playing you can easily overshoot the boundary. Honestly I found myself dancing along to the music as I played it.
Practice will help to acquire more control. It does have a kudos system that allows your observers to give praises to your performance, and allows a fan base to follow you so anytime you are on to perform they can see you are active and join to observe. No word if you can record the performance to your HDD through the application. That would be a huge plus, but could bring up licensing issues for Sony; if you really want to, you can always video capture. From what has been available for listening and observing there seems to be a heavy influence on electronic/dance music, which I love, but if you don’t like this genre it may not be for you. Hopefully there will be more variety on musical styles in the full game release or in future add-ons.
From what I have seen so far,this title is filled with potential — and my first impressions are that it will be an engrossing experience, bringing a touch of integrated reality that should appeal to all musicians and pseudo musicians alike.