Music and gaming have long had a close relationship, and nothing makes a game more satisfying than a solid soundtrack. Many games have made their name on the quality of the music which is utilised to amplify the gaming experience, and when it’s done right the audio track can have a massive impact on the success of the game overall. Back in the mid-to-late 90s, Wipeout caused a huge stir with its range of popular electronic dance tracks and even to this day people remember darting around futuristic racecourses whilst pounding out some of The Prodigy’s finest basslines. Fast-forward to more recent titles and it’s clear that this relationship is still strong: GTA is renowned for its range of varied radio stations and intense orchestral score, while games like Zelda and Skyrim have won the hearts of gamers with their combination of soothing tunes and epic adventures. But what about games where the music is the main focus?
Every so often a game comes along where the player has to respond to the music to make the game work. Original success stories may make you think of Parappa the Rapper on the original Playstation or games like Rez, Patapon and Vib Ribbon but games of this ilk have been around for much longer than you may think. Add to the equation the age of rhythm-action music titles that hit hard in the early part of this century (when Guitar Hero, Rock Band and DJ Hero brought full-blown musicality onto our consoles) and some less-successful titles that allowed players to feel like they were playing the music through more subtle means – if you never played Child of Eden then you missed out on a true classic (and one of the only reasons to have owned a Kinect on the Xbox 360) – and you can see that this is part of the industry which will always play a vital role.
Aaero brings the classic space shooter mechanic into the 21st Century with a wonderful combination of simple-yet-edgy graphics, easy to pick up controls, exhilarating gameplay and an absolutely pounding soundtrack that links perfectly to the action. This is an on-rails shooter with a difference.
As soon as the game gets underway, you recognise that the controls are intuitive and you quickly learn how to pilot your craft so that it glides smoothly along the bright whitish-blue ribbons that appear on the screen. Each time you match your trajectory to these lines the music kicks in as you essentially create the melody through your actions. Miss a line and the music is subdued; hit it and follow its curves and the tones screech and bend to your will. There is something immensely satisfying about this mechanic and although keeping on-track is essential to achieving a high score, sometimes you feel the urge to drop off and on to make the music sound like it is being remixed on-the-fly. Well, I do.
The developers have truly crafted each level around the music, so much so that it feels completely immersive as you fly through twisting caverns and avoid hazards that appear at the last second. It’s so natural that you barely notice it to begin with, but every beat of the music counts and once you connect with the song you find that most of your movements become instinctive. Walls crumble as cymbals splash, rolling rhythms cause rocks to cascade from the cavern walls and you have to swithc your flight path as the breaks hit just to avoid disaster. Over-think what you are doing and you are likely to fail; relax your mind and find your focus and you will soon settle into a brilliantly sublime lucid-dream-like experience.
What surprised me the most about Aaero is probably how engrossed I became in the music – I’m not really a full-blown bass-head, and I couldn’t tell you the first thing about Dubstep (other than the fact it sounds like distorted Jungle mixed with squealing Drum-n-Bass and cats in a microwave), but the game draws you in so deeply that you really feel every beat drop; each track feels entirely distinct. If I stood in a dark club and listened to the soundtrack back-to-back I would probably moan that it all sounded the same, a sign of my ever-increasing age no doubt, but in the midst of the action it feels fresh from start to finish. I even found myself humming and…well, I want to say ‘wahmping’ but I doubt that’s a word (certainly not a correct spelling)…my favourite tracks once I had returned to the real world. Do yourself a favour: play this with decent headphones on or through a really good sound system and crank it up loud. Proper loud. You can thank me later (but your neighbours probably won’t).
In some ways this is a game of two halves: one aspect sees you trying to weave your way through tight caverns with the left analogue stick, trying to match every tiny twist exactly to maximise your combo; the other half is focussed on shooting various enemies and is exactly what you would usually find as the bread-and-butter of this type of gaming experience. Put them together and it’s a sweet ride for all involved.
When it comes to shooting down your space-foes your controls switch to the right thumbstick and trigger, which may seem initially strange as you will have just become accustomed to the flight patterns with the left. Initially you only have to contend with either line-tracing or shooting, but it’s not long before you start to blend them together as you dance your merry way around the dystopian environments as they pass you by (and by the end you have no choice but to become a split-minded, ambidextrous shooting god if you want to survive). Your right stick aims (unsurprisingly) and the trigger unleashes your volley of missiles (unsurprisingly) with the ultimate goal being to link together multiple shots simultaneously to take out your enemies. Many of the enemy crafts/objects will fire at you if you don’t hit them quickly enough, but many will also spew out shots which can home in on you as they explode in a colourful shower of pixels. This certainly keeps you on your toes when groups of enemies attack at the same time and the constant sense of threat during these skirmishes helps to keep your eyes tied to the screen as you blaze your way to victory. Many of the enemies soon become simple cannon fodder as your skills develop, yet it’s all too easy to let your guard down at just the wrong moment and fall prey to a sneaky shot from the side of the screen. And then there’s the boss characters…as a great man once said: ‘Don’t get cocky, kid.’
Although this is not the kind of game that can be ruined by spoilers, I don’t want to discuss the individual boss types in too much detail. Let’s just say that they can be quite large and rather bothersome. The music ties in brilliantly to these epic battles and it generally feels like the gameplay goes into hyperdrive whenever you encounter one of the bigger baddies. Rapid movement, non-stop incoming fire, inverted camera angles and blisters on your trigger finger are the order of the day as the music builds to immense crescendos in perfect sync with your balletic laser flurries. Chances are that you will die. A lot (especially if you play on the harder difficulties). But once you find your rhythm these are a huge amount of fun.
Overall, this is brilliant little blaster which takes something that has rarely been done and tries to put its own stamp on it. If you liked Rez you’ll love it. If you’ve never played Rez then you should probably sort your life out, but that’s beside the point. Aaero is a fantastic game that won’t break the bank (it’s less than £15 through most outlets), yet it is likely that you will come back to this more than your average high-priced blockbuster. It’s not perfect by any means, and some of the levels are a little bit longer than is essential, but it’s one of those games that hooks you in and holds on tight. Get it, love it and then show all your friends how awesome you are. They’ll be jealous of your skills, trust me.
Review by PSY-23