Review: Beat Hazard Ultra (PC)
Last year’s Beat Hazard fused the musically-generated ideas of Audiosurf with the gameplay of Geometry Wars. This novel mix entertained, but there was little depth or variety to sustain it. The new Ultra DLC aims to rectify that.
Like in the base game (review here), you move a spaceship around a single screen, dodging bullets and shooting incoming enemies with streams of weaponized equalizer light; the twist being that the gameplay is based on whatever music you provide for the game.
The most significant change in Beat Hazard Ultra is the addition of new enemies and power-up weapons. The original game lacked tactical depth and these new additions succeed in elongating game time.
All the new enemies force you to adapt your playstyle and tactics as they come into play. For example, the Swarmer waves surround you with small, tough enemies that slowly move towards the center of the screen, forcing you towards the center unless you use a Superbomb power-up to clear them away.
Similarly, the three new power-ups offer new ways in which to dispatch your foes. The Micro Missiles and Ultra Beam are fairly straightforward; the former, good for clearing out spread-out targets, and the latter, good for taking down clustered foes and bosses. The truly interesting one is the Reflect Shield, making you unkillable and reflecting any projectiles that hit you. You can use this offensively, taking advantage of the invincibility to keep the pressure on, or saving it for when you really need to get out of a tight spot.
The power-ups are unlocked through perks. Ranking up allows you to unlock perks, which can then be improved upon using cash picked up during play. You can only have a certain number of perks active at once, which provides an interesting choice once you start to have a decent number unlocked.
Because there are so many perks (23 in total), earning the money to unlock the strongest rank for all of them becomes a significant grind that feels both too long and completely unnecessary in the first place; 10 hours into it, I’m still not close to finished. In a way, it also lessens the significance of offering such a wide range of perks; most players will likely spend all their cash into maximizing a chosen set, making it unfavourable to branch out and play with the other ones. The game would have been better off having the perks available from the start.
Ultra also introduces two-player multiplayer, locally and online. You can play in co-op and a rather weird form of head-to-head gameplay where you try to grab the most enemy kills, but can’t do anything to hurt each other.
The genius of the multiplayer is that when playing online, if you’ve chosen to index the tracks, the game checks against your partner’s list, and lets you play on any matching track. If no tracks match, however, the game’s own limited library is your only option. The difficulty doesn’t scale with the addition of a second player, but that little bit of inherent latency in online play, and the visual chaos of having another player firing his weapons at the same time, keeps it from getting too easy. Unfortunately, the difficulty instead seems more frustrating and less actually challenging than in the single-player.
In the goal of increasing the depth and game time of Beat Hazard, Ultra does a fine job. However, it is not without faults of its own.
Beat Hazard was already quite visually overloaded and only remained manageable because of the relative simplicity of the gameplay. With the additions in Ultra, it is way too easy to get lost in the sea of special effects, especially in multiplayer. There’s an option to turn down visual intensity but even on the lowest setting, “Wait, what just killed me?” becomes an all too common question. It’s a more frustrating experience than playing the original Beat Hazard.
As a whole, Ultra feels messier than the core Beat Hazard. After I had grown tired of the new power-ups, I felt myself missing the more clean feel and design of the original. On the upside, if this becomes a problem, Beat Hazard Classic mode is always available, so you can play it in its original state before the engine changes that came with Ultra.
In conclusion, Ultra builds on what Beat Hazard had to offer but doesn’t feel entirely faithful to the original’s more minimalistic gameplay design. The gameplay additions add longevity and some degree of depth, but introduce tedious grinding, and its visuals go a bit too crazy to the point of making the game hard to play. Despite these flaws, Ultra is good for all the reasons Beat Hazard was and I would recommend it to anyone who liked the original.
Ultra is the Aliens to the original game’s Alien, if Aliens were a 5 dollar expansion that required the original movie to be installed, and the titular aliens were gameplay features.
Platform: PC, PS3
Developer: Cold Beam Games
Publisher: Cold Beam Games
Genre: Twin-Stick single-screen shooter
Time: I got 10 hours out of Beat Hazard Ultra.
Gripes: Messy visuals, grind-filled perk system, frustrating difficulty.
Get it for the: Added depth and variation, local and online multiplayer mode.
Full disclosure: PXOD was given a PC review copy of the game from the developer.