What a strange game Audiosurf 2 is. It landed on Steam Early Access last week, just when I was in the mood to take a long road trip along Total Eclipse of the Heart. I tuned in, hoping to turn around at high speeds and make it to the end of the line. Here's how it went.
Chances are your MP3 collection is the densest folder on your hard-drive. My collection is just a dump of folders and files that I make sense of with tags, a music player's inbuilt search function, and a bit of witchcraft. Audiosurf 2 has none of those. The server browser is laughable, currently just a list with no filters and a laggy menu crammed into a tiny box. I ended up pre-selecting a pile of songs that I thought might provide interesting tracks and putting them in their own folder. I can't imagine that this won't be fixed, because the previous game already allowed you to search with a Windows-based browser pop-up, and you could see a lot more songs in the default browser, but I'm surprised that it went up on Early Access with a such an intrinsic flaw. Ride my music? You need to help me find it, first.
The other major and upfront mistake is to force Wakeboarding onto the players the first time they play. Wakeboarding is a new way to play Audiosurf: you're dragged along the song between two engines on either side of the track. You have to use the wake of those engines to jump into the air at big bumps on the track. Once up in the air, you pull tricks, flipping and spinning to gain points. It's a confusing addition, and tough to master, with the move from sliding to actively riding the wake being a jittery motion that's fairly disorienting. That's not what you want when you're haring down Bonnie's raspy tones. You want precision and control. In the air, you're supposed to select one of four moves to perform, and if you have the time you can combo them together. It didn't matter if I used the keyboard, mouse, or joypad controls, they felt pre-canned and unsatisfying, and I was only doing them for points. On top of that, the first mode won't allow you to attempt a trick if it knows there's no time. Later on, when I unlocked all the modes, the game does allow you to pull off moves without being blocked, but for the first hour I was actively fighting against these strange, joy-sapping tricks when all I wanted to do was ride my music.
But that frustrating mode is all that's open at the beginning, with the other levels, including the classic Audiosurf challenges, greyed-out until you pull off moves and earn a certain amount of points. That's a particular problem when you select a track from your music that doesn't support a long enough jump to pull off the large score. It took me a few goes, clumsily hunting for a song that would allow me to pass the prerequisites of jump length. Thank you Mister Thomas Squarepusher, your ridiculous and wonderful Dark Steering gave me the bounce I needed to succeed, but if you don't click with it there's nothing you can do until it's over. (It should be noted that Audiosurf 2 comes with some tracks that will allow you to perform the tricks, but I only discovered this after about an hour because I don't have much of a reason to play on tracks that I don't already understand.)
Even when I did manage to do what the game asked me to, I just didn't see the point. Wakeboarding's visually spectacular, but it removes you from the intimacy of the original's challenge. That excitement of seeing a music track you know every single beat of being turned into squares and hills, the joy of knowing a track's bumps because you know the song's beats - it's gone when you're spat into the air. Everything you loved about the song is below you, out of reach, as you lamely twist in the air for points. It's a huge disconnect.
Things got better when I finally unlocked Mono and fell into it like a needle slipping into a groove. I was sliding along 212, scooping up coloured blocks and dodging greys, attempting to pile up the coloured blocks as Azelia Banks blasts filth. There's a subtle change in this mode: in the original game, grey blocks had to be removed manually, a heart-breaking moment because when you hit it the multiplier would reset. Here it fades, and the blocks don't seem to pile up for a multiplier, which kind of takes away from the tension.
A few more tracks—Britney's Radar and Gaga's Just Dance—reminded me of why I spent so much time on Audiosurf when it was released: it was a place to take those filthy little pop secrets and connect with them on an entirely different level. That's why the Wakeboard parts don't do it for me. There's no connection. It's Audiosurf gamified. I did play the original for points, but they were secondary to the music.
It's a theory I tested out with my all-time favourite Audiosurf track on the newly unlocked (sigh) Wakeboard Grid mode. You collect coloured blocks to build up a multiplier that boosts the score for your jump, so the challenge is to hit the jump with the maximum multiplier. I deployed Girls Aloud's Biology. It is the most glorious track you can possibly ride. I lost hours to it on Ninja Mono on the previous game. The additional challenge of collecting the blocks gives Wakeboard Grid a bit of a boost, but the two modes together are clumsy, like an exciting mashup that chooses the wrong bits of each song. I struggled with my timing, I pretty much failed at figuring what moves would slip into the grooves of each jump, and when I landed I felt lost. I should feel part of this song and not be fighting against it.
At least the integration of Steam Workshop changed my outlook. There are already new skins, models, and most importantly new modes. I downloaded a 'dodge' game mode that was a nice and relaxing inversion of the typical game scheme, avoiding every block that Britney's Radar threw at me. That was particularly fun using the arrow keys. There's a mono nitro mode on there that rubbed You Could Be Mine with neon polish and blasted it at me. I bumped across every drum beat, slid around the guitar solo, and was spat out the end of level, buoyed on a wave of Axl's primal scream.
It was heartening: the potential is there, hidden beneath some poor menus and an insistence that you give a new game mode a shot. But it's not the immediate slam dunk that Audiosurf was.