Race against friends and thorny obstacles on tracks built from your music.
PC Release: February 15, 2008
By Ian Coppock
After a big disappointment like Mafia III comes down the pipe, it’s never a bad idea to turn off the feed of big new titles and mosey on back to games from back in the day. From a time when developers knew how to craft a working PC game more often than not, and when the simple joys of life were faithfully transcribed into a digital medium. Today, that simple joy of life is music, and that faithful transcription into a digital medium is the beloved racing game Audiosurf. It’s not flashy, it’s not fancy, and it’s pretty down to the basics. But what it set out to do, uniting the media of video games and music, is a noble goal indeed. Time to see how well it did.
Audiosurf is a racing platformer game that was originally released in early 2008. The game’s core concept is the brainchild of Dylan Fitterer, a developer who wanted to more closely align music with video games. Although he received some help on development when the game was already close to completion, Fitterer’s work meant that Audiosurf is, for all intents and purposes, a one-man project. Even though it came out years ago and has since been superseded by a sequel, Audiosurf achieved what many gamers until then assumed was impossible or impractical: building a racetrack out of music.
Audiosurf‘s core novelty and chief selling point is just that; building racetracks out of players’ digital music libraries. In a feat of audio and computer engineering that’s still better off being referred to as a magic trick, the game ingests a selected song from players’ computers, and builds a race course that translates the ebb and flow of that song into the dips and rises of a physical track. It’s a great idea for a video game, one that synthesizes two media into one, and unites music and racing enthusiasts around a common title.
Audiosurf makes it pretty simple for players to ride their music. After unpacking itself, the game is automatically set to detect music stored on the hard drive, and has no problem picking up songs ripped from the Internet or purchased through a store like iTunes. Once it’s picked a song, Audiosurf will quickly ingest the music and construct a racetrack that utilizes the song’s rhythm and flow. Players can then pick a futuristic-looking car and set out onto the track, all while the aforementioned song is playing in the background. Audiosurf presents a novel way for players to get euphoria and meaning out of their music, by seeing it made manifest as a type of gameplay on the screen.
The replayability of Audiosurf is congruent with the breadth and depth of the human music experience. Because the game makes a unique track out of every song it processes, there are potentially millions of race courses that players can explore in Audiosurf. Sure, similar songs might produce similar tracks, but most people’s musical libraries will easily translate into hours of entertainment. Every novelty in every song creates a new experience on the course. On top of all of that, the game replays songs in fantastic audio quality, so it also makes for a good way to put on some headphones and unwind.
Audiosurf can be played solo or against other players; the game is enjoyable in either mode. The challenge in this game has less to do with pitfalls and ledges and more to do with gathering the most points before the end of a song. Each track is littered with moving blocks, called “cars” by the game, that players can pick up and accumulate. Generally speaking, the more rows of cars hit by each player, the more points gathered. Whoever has the most points at the end of a multiplayer match wins, but a player’s score will be posted to leaderboards in single-player or multiplayer mode.. It should go without saying that more popular songs will have much more competitive leaderboards, so obscure music enthusiasts (and hipsters) can score easy self-esteem points by crowning themselves kings of songs that no one has heard of.
Depending on the challenge mode selected, most tracks will also come packed with gray cars, which players will want to avoid. Gray cars eat up space in the players’ queues for points, and can lower both the amount of points to be scored, and the potential for combos. Avoiding gray cars while picking up the colorful ones is the main challenge in most modes of Audiosurf, and players can switch between three lanes of traffic to avoid or pick up different cars. Each racetrack in the game tends to pack more or fewer cars depending on how intense of a song it is. Really slow, gentle songs are likely to have smooth terrain with fewer cars, but intense, fast-paced songs will have much more variety.
Players can pick from a variety of vehicles, called “characters” in-game, that add their own spin to the challenges within Audiosurf. Each character changes the condition of the race, from the number or types of cars that can be picked up on the track, to new combos and even allowing for more than one vehicle. These characters are divided based on how challenging each of their track twists is, so players can start out with the basic ones and work their way up to more advanced vehicles.
The only issue with this system is that Audiosurf does a poor job explaining what each character does. The game will provide a general explanation, like “twist up the track and add more combos!” but not really specify what “twisting up the track” actually means. Indeed, most of the tutorials and documentation in this game isn’t that great. There is an intro video that explains how picking up points works, but, ironically, the audio isn’t that good, and the narrator’s already rushed explanation is often drowned out by the background music. There’s nothing wrong with a game forcing players to learn things manually, but Audiosurf‘s lack of a manual or concise explanations on what each of its characters does is a bit frustrating.
Additionally, Audiosurf‘s options menu is a bit bare-bones, with only the most essential graphics and audio options present. The game usually does a pretty good job of auto-formatting to the screen’s native resolution, but any attempt to change the resolution will crash the game. Definitely a frustration and something that should’ve been steamrolled right out of the game during development, but chances are players can load up the game and expect their native resolution to already be accounted for.
Apart from these design and options flaws, Audiosurf will run beautifully on virtually any machine. Except for the aforementioned resolution bug, the game is virtually bug-free, which is a nice change of pace from the bug-prone Triple-A games coming out these past few months. Audiosurf doesn’t have a central narrative and its characters are basically super-powered cars, but that’s okay. This game provides a great way both to enjoy new music and to go back and revisit old hits.
As can be gleaned from these screenshots, Audiosurf goes for a cyberpunk theme in its artwork and graphics. Indeed, much of the production and many of its track themes are reminiscent of Tron. Just like the tracks, the artwork and visuals present in each course are influenced directly by the song picked. Players can choose from a handful of different colors and themes, like black or white backgrounds, but everything else pretty much arranges itself. These visuals can vary greatly, from circular tunnel lighting to huge colossi made of lights floating out in space. It further reinforces Audiosurf‘s visual value and looks quite beautiful.
The graphics themselves are simple, but effective. A close glance at Audiosurf will reveal some pretty murkey textures, but these are offset by the game’s bright lights and flares. Indeed, many elements of the game, especially the vehicles’ engine outputs, almost look cel shaded. Between the variety inherent in being able to choose from any song put to digital, and the palette of novelties Audiosurf chooses from while building tracks, players won’t run out of things to look at in Audiosurf, in addition to listening.
Even though Audiosurf is a great game, it’s worth noting that it has since been succeeded by a sequel, Audiosurf 2, which was released last year. Does this older game present any advantages over the sequel? It actually does. Because even though Audiosurf 2 benefits from better graphics, expanded tutorials, and far more variety in tracks, right now the game is replete with bugs. Players have reported everything from desktop crashes to the play button not working, which is an obvious problem for a video game that depends on music.
Players have also reported having to download a patch that somehow makes the game run on a YouTube video? Or something? As of writing, it basically looks like Dylan Fitterer added a streaming option to Audiosurf 2 that has made the game unplayable for many players. To be fair, he’s announced a patch to get it fixed immediately, but who knows how long that could take. Audiosurf has remained untouched throughout all of this, so players who are intrigued by the concept of the series but don’t want to put up with a bunch of patching and development baloney will probably just want to start here. The game’s only ten bucks, and it could be a lot pricier for the value it offers.
Audiosurf is not without its rough edges and blank spaces, but it’s one of the most novel video games of the last ten years and an outstanding achievement of creativity. It’s one of those bizarre experiments that combines two things into something surprisingly smooth, and something that video gamers everywhere should buy and try. Audiosurf doesn’t bill itself on a deep narrative, but its variety is only matched by that of the human musical mind. Download it today and experience music on a fun new level.
You can buy Audiosurf here.
Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.