Preview: Audica

Ever since the end of the Rock Band boom, developer Harmonix has become much more experimental in the games they produce. Aside from Rock Band 4, which they continue to support with updates and DLC, Harmonix has also jumped into board games, social games, and virtual reality.

Their board game, DropMix, was an interesting music-mixing card game that never really seemed to take off (although I still break out my copy once in a while to play a few rounds with my roommate). Their collaboration with streaming site Twitch, Twitch Sings, appears to be gaining traction within the streaming community, despite still being in closed beta.

It’s their VR games, though, that I’ve been much more interested…but until now, haven’t had the chance to play any of them. Rock Band VR was exclusive to the Oculus Rift, and VR karaoke game SingSpace could only be found on Oculus Go and Samsung Gear. And here I am with my Vive, unable to play either of them without jumping through hoops.

Luckily Harmonix’s latest VR experiment, Audica, recently launched in Steam Early Access, which meant I could finally put my Vive to use!

Audica is a rhythm game with a first-person shooting element, and the first place my mind went to was that this game may be a reimagining of Harmonix’s now-dormant experimental shooter Chroma. After some hands-on time with it, there’s a different comparison I can make: a mashup of Beat Saber and Osu.

The base gameplay of Audica has you shooting at targets to the rhythm of a song. There’s two color targets each corresponding to a pistol in one of your hands (which you can change the color of to suit your preference). Aim, fire, and groove.

Of course, there’s a bit more to it than that. Some targets require you to hold your pistols in a certain orientation, others require you to hold the trigger down or trace a line, and you even get to punch things with some targets requiring melee attacks.

While Harmonix is planning for Audica to have at least 25 songs when it officially launches, as of right now, the Early Access version has ten. I was able to run through the whole setlist on medium in about an hour…after attempting to jump right into expert and getting my ass handed to me.

This game requires what is the bane of my existence in rhythm games: dexterity. I can button tap rhythms all day long, but once you add in any kind of movement, things get more difficult for me. I can’t count the number of times I missed a target because I pulled the trigger right before I was aiming right at it, or I moved a bit too far past it.

My comparison to PC rhythm game Osu comes in the way targets are laid out and how they lead your eye around. Targets can appear anywhere in your field of vision, occasionally away from where you’re currently looking. Much like in Osu, though, subtle lines appear between each target to lead your eyes toward the next one. Once you learn to look for these, it’s easy to get into a groove even on a sightread of a map.

In fact, it was when the targets were incredibly spread out that the game was at its easiest. It’s when targets all start appearing in a smaller area that things get chaotic. With multiple note kinds, lines shooting between them, and a timing outline that approaches each note to let you know when to hit them, things can get kind of messy.

Outside of the mechanics, though, the most difficult part of Audica was keeping my arms from fatiguing after playing for about an hour. The most ideal way to line up shots is to aim down your gun’s sights at a target, requiring you to hold your arm out to do so. The game even grades you on your form, docking points if you just hold your guns down at your sides to rest your arms.

Of course, I’m an unhealthy and out-of-shape gamer, so this issue may just be my own fault, but I did find it hard to play Audica for significant amounts of time.

After practicing for a bit, though, it felt fun and rewarding to pull off long combos of shots in a song. Holding notes with one pistol while swiping away melee targets with the other, having my arms moving in different patterns to shatter targets appearing on opposite sides of the field; when my arms aren’t crying from fatigue, working my way through these maps is engaging. Really, though, nobody can say that Harmonix doesn’t know how to create note charts for rhythm games.

As for the music itself, while it does fit the gameplay perfectly, it really isn’t my cup of tea. All ten tracks here in Early Release are various forms of EDM, which is an incredibly hit-or-miss genre for me. The only real standout track for me was “Collider” by Noisia, which also had a visceral melee-heavy notechart during my initial moderate-difficulty playthrough. Coincidentally, Noisia is also a band featured in another PC rhythm game which I’m a huge fan of, Aaero.

Overall, I think Harmonix has a great game on their hands here with Audica. My own stamina aside, Harmonix’s skill in charting rhythm games blows other VR rhythm titles I’ve played out of the water. The subtle ways they get your eyes to follow the chart around the play area is also a wonderful touch. I’m looking forward to spending more time with the game to up my skill for its final full release.

I should probably also start doing some arm workouts as well.

Preview copy provided by Harmonix for PC (Vive). Screenshots both taken by author and sourced from Audica Steam page.