Riding Audiosurf's Technicolor rollercoaster

It's interesting how gaming habits change. I used to be pretty hardcore, complete with mad skillz and everything. First-person shooters were my thing back in the day, and I mostly plied my trade at LAN parties and on dormitory networks. After university, my TR test lab—essentially the entirety of my basement suite at the time—played host to weekly Battlefield sessions that would run until three of four in the morning. Then our group started dabbling in consoles, trading office chairs for comfortable couches, and shifting genres away from shooters to more varied fare suitable for analog thumbsticks.

At some point over the last few years, we started to get old. Or maybe we just found better ways to spend our evenings. Our nearly all-night sessions soon petered out at one or two in the morning. Sometimes, we'd even call it quits before midnight. We've stopped playing as often, too. What was once a weekly ritual has become a more occasional indulgence.

I'm playing games a lot more on my own these days. After years enjoying the camaraderie and trash talk of LAN parties and local multiplayer sessions, I can't get too excited about venturing online, so I've been enjoying single-player campaigns on both the PC and my Xbox 360. Unfortunately, I rarely have enough time to properly immerse myself in the latest AAA titles. Rather than losing myself inside alternate worlds for hours at a time, I'm playing in smaller bursts—20 minutes here and half an hour there. Recently, that time has been devoted exclusively to Audiosurf.

Perhaps best described as a blend of Wipeout and Guitar Hero fed through a Winamp visualization plug-in, Audiosurf offers a unique spin on arcadey, rhythm-based racing. I'm not usually a fan of the rhythm genre, perhaps because as a white computer geek, I lack rhythm in general. But I do have a rather large collection of meticulously ripped, high-bitrate MP3s culled from a collection of CDs I've been building since long before I had good taste in music. Those tracks are what fuels Audiosurf, providing the foundation for each track, er, level.

Audiosurf encourages you to "ride your music," effectively putting players directly onto each track. The tracks are treated almost like roadways, complete with multiple lanes of traffic to dodge or collect. Nearly everything, from the slope and direction of the track to the level of traffic congestion and even the colors, is defined by the music. Load up some death metal or hardcore drum and bass, and you're in for a wild ride. Or, if you prefer a more relaxing experience, try easy listening. I've played the game with everything from KMDFM to Tom Waits, and while faster tempos present considerably greater challenges, even slower songs provide ample entertainment.

The tight integration of soundtrack, gameplay, and visuals makes for a surprisingly immersive experience. I'm used to getting pulled in by realistic graphics, but Audiosurf's visuals are pedestrian at best. Instead, it's the direct link between music and the pace of gameplay that draws me in and keeps me hooked. Online leaderboards for each song help to keep things interesting, and they've inspired me to play with more obscure songs, if only to better my chances of a high score, even if it's the only one.

Bound only by the breadth and depth of your music collection, Audiosurf offers a practically endless supply tracks to run through. There are multiple gameplay modes, too, each with different rules about which traffic blocks to collect and which to avoid. These modes also give your ship different capabilities, including the ability to destroy blocks, jump over them, or shuffle the ones you've collected so far. Heck, there's even a two-player mode. Add in three difficulty levels and a special Ironman mode, and it's easy to tailor the game to suit not only your skill level, but also your mood.

Audiosurf is currently available exclusively through Steam, where it costs just $10. I think it's worth every penny, especially because a recent update added a low-detail mode designed to run well on netbooks with crappy Intel integrated graphics, like my Eee PC 1000HA. Needless to say, you don't need high-end hardware for this game to run smoothly. You might not even need a PC for long, either. The game's creator is on record as saying that a console would be a "natural fit," and it seems like a great candidate for the Xbox Live Arcade or PlayStation Network.

As much as I've been loving Audiosurf, there are limits to its appeal. The puzzle modes aren't all that cerebral, for example, and there isn't much in the way of complexity to explore. I can't see the game sustaining me for an entire evening, either, or at least not without the help of a generous serving of mind-altering substances. But that's not really a problem, because these days, short bursts of time are all I have, and I can't think of a better way to spend them than riding Audiosurf's Technicolor rollercoaster.

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