Audica is the intriguing upcoming VR “rhythm shooter” from veteran rhythm gaming studio Harmonix. Today we’ve got a preview of the game through an exclusive first look at one of the 10 tracks that will ship with the game’s Early Access release on March 7th.
Update (March 11th, 2019): Audica is now available on the Oculus Store and in Early Access on Steam priced at $20. The team at Harmonix has already pushed a v0.1.1 update to address a first batch of feedback (some of which applies to the impressions provided in our original preview article below). The studio is promising to continue to listen to feedback and has published a public task board to show known issues and what aspects of the game are being worked on, which is encouraging to our hope that the team uses the Early Access period to hone the game into something great. Our original preview article (before the v0.1.1 update) is below.
Original Article (March 2nd, 2019): Audica has been readily compared to ‘Beat Saber with guns’, but it’s actually quite different than any VR rhythm game that’s come before.
So before we dive into things let me set the stage for myself as a player of rhythm games: I wouldn’t say I’m a hardcore “rhythm-gamer,” but every once in a while a rhythm game comes along that hooks me. I’ve played my fair share of DDR, had plenty of fun shredding in Guitar Hero, and enjoyed jamming with friends in Rock Band. I’ve also tried a handful of VR rhythm games in recent years, but none managed to hook me until Beat Saber; I rank in the top 500 scores on a number of the official tracks on the Expert+ difficulty.
Now onto Audica. Set to launch on March 7th in Early Access, the game will include 10 songs initially. The studio gave Road to VR early access to a preview build of the game, and the opportunity to play and reveal one of the forthcoming tracks. Without further ado, here’s Lazerface by Jeff Allen, played by myself:
So let’s talk about what the heck is going on; here’s a quick breakdown of the core mechanics:
- Standard targets (circular) – can be shot in any orientation
- Oriented targets (circular with notches) – must be shot with gun in the specified orientation
- Sustain targets (diamonds) – shoot and hold until note is complete
- Chain targets (diamonds with strings) – shoot and hold until note is complete
- Spheres targets – smack with your guns
Unlike Beat Saber, which is mostly focused on flow, swing technique, and combo, Audica is primarily concerned with timing, accuracy, and combo, in addition to using the correct shot.
Each target type makes its own unique sound, which Harmonix effectively uses to make the player feel like they’re actually contributing to the beat. This is especially notable with Sustain targets which act a bit like a dynamic FX layer when you bend the arc in different directions, which means players can add a bit of their own flair.
All of the target types have great feedback between the sound, visual effects, and haptic feedback. Smashing Spheres is especially satisfying because they break in the direction you smack them.
Musically, Audica has a much different flavor than Beat Saber. Yes, it’s focus on EDM, but the songs are generally much punchier and percussion-focused compared to Beat Saber’s more chorus-y tracks.
One of the biggest differences between Audica and Beat Saber is the way that the actual beat map plays out from one level to the next. In Beat Saber, all notes come from directly in front of you, and it’s easy to ‘read into the future’ because upcoming notes are never out of sight, and in many cases you can visually see the next dozen swings at any given time.
Audica, on the other hand, uses a much larger swath of space in front of the player (~170 degrees), and notes could come from any direction, at any time. This makes the beat map less clear, because it’s possible that a target will actually spawn outside of your field of view.
The game uses a variety of tricks to draw your attention to upcoming targets, including a streak of light that points toward the center of upcoming targets to catch your eye, and large circles which hone in on the target (and also indicate timing). The beat maps themselves also sometimes effectively move your attention from one target to the next (for instance a Chain target might end where the next targer will land), but at other times the maps aren’t always great about pointing where to go next, and in some cases seem to purposefully trick you by throwing something at you from one direction while another target spawns in the opposite direction outside of your field of view.
While I understand that Harmonix wants to encourage player movement to keep things dynamic (and really utilize VR), the current approach of throwing targets at the player from such a wide range of potential directions leads to a handful of problems which I hope will be reworked throughout the game’s Early Access phase.
The current approach makes it difficult to sight-read new songs for the first time (which is, in my opinion, one of the most fun parts about playing rhythm games at a high level), and makes it harder to pick the beat back up if you lose your place. That’s because if you aren’t looking in the right direction at the right time, you could completely miss a target—and that target might have been designed to lead you to the next target, which means you could end up with a chain reaction of misses.
Missing a target because your aim or timing was off feels like something you are in conscious control of, so when it happens you just feel like you need to do better next time. Missing a target because you didn’t even see it feels out of your control and is often frustrating.
On many occasions when first getting a feel for Audica’s gameplay, I’d be looking in one direction about to make the next target only to see another one fly by me in the corner of my eye. That feeling of brewing frustration, where you gesture upward with your hands in that specific way and give your head a little shake (as if to say ‘what was I supposed to do?’) happened far more often than I would have liked, and continued to happen even when I began playing tracks at the highest difficulty level (Expert).
For the Lazerface track in particular, the Expert mode hardly felt more difficult than the less difficult Advanced mode, because the latter mode had a more convoluted map that did a worse job of directing my attention from one target to the next.
Ultimately that means that track memorization plays a fairly large role in success, and that makes Audica a less accessible game than Beat Saber. Not all rhythm games necessarily need to be highly accessible, but VR rhythm games really ought to be, because otherwise there’s a risk of turning off players who will never give it a second chance.
The good news is that Audica sets a strong foundation. The individual mechanics are deeply satisfying, the music is top-notch, and there’s a clear path forward for fixing the issues with readability and mapping. With the game launching first in Early Access, the company has time to get feedback from players and make improvements before the full launch. Let’s talk briefly about how they might do it.
First, Harmonix is using various methods to guide your attention and provide feedback, but sometimes important visual queues are lost in an overabundance of particle effects. Those effects should be toned down so that attention direction retains top visual priority.
Second, better beat mapping is key. Beat Saber relies heavily on the quality of its beat maps to guide players’ swings smoothly from one note to the next. A poorly mapped song is no fun precisely because it doesn’t create good flow (or make an effort to help players understand the flow). Better beat maps that more effectively lead the player’s attention will greatly improve the experience.
However, Beat Saber’s significantly more constrained note track makes beat mapping much easier than in Audica, which relies heavily on the mapper to have a rich understanding of how player attention can be directed (and even asks them to consider the field of view of the headset).
So, third, Constraining the canvas upon which Audica’s beat maps play out will create more consistent expectations for both mapper and player, which also means it’ll be easier for Hamonix to establish beat map patterns that the mapper can rely on to make note placement feel less arbitrary. Audica doesn’t necessarily need to (nor should it) use such a straightforward approach as Beat Saber’s note track, but at least making sure targets are spawning inside the player’s field of view would be beneficial. Constraining the note track in some way could also improve the map readability which would reduce the reliance on memorization for success while increasing accessibility.
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Audica is set to launch in Early Access on Steam and Oculus on March 7th (find links via the official site to wishlist on either platform) and will include ‘Lazerface’, along with nine other tracks. I have a strong hope that Harmonix will work with the community during Early Access to hone the gameplay and help Audica find its groove.
Update (March 3rd, 2019): A previous version of this article stated that many of Audica’s initial tracks were composed by Harmonix. This reference has been removed; at launch only one of the initial tracks will be from Harmonix while the others will be from external musicians.