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Monday | June 14, 2021



I race furiously down the track, frantically trying to avoid grey blocks. As Led Zeppelin’s Kashmir swings into one of its faster parts I’m struggling to keep my lunch down. The bumps on the road may match the rhythm down to the last beat, but that doesn’t make my nausea any more enjoyable. As Page does one of his trademark guitar solos the resulting quick succession of grey blocks on the road ahead leaves me no choice but to smack headfirst into one of them and kiss a new highscore goodbye. Welcome to Audio-Surf, the game where you can literally see the music!

Minimalism at its best

Before we get down to the actual gameplay, let us first address the game’s setting and background. Unlike several puzzle games which have been trying to incorporate some kind of story (Puzzle Quest comes to mind), Audio-Surf doesn’t care much for all that fluff. In fact, when it comes to the presentation the game couldn’t have been more bare-bones if it tried. Even the main menu is all but empty, with only three options available – play, credits and exit.

So, with no overarching story whatsoever, what is Audio-Surf all about? Experiencing the music. Which music? Yours! The game takes any song on your PC and transforms it into a race track of sorts based on its beats, melody, tempo and a gazillion other parameters only the developers know about. When I say any song I literally mean any song, so you’ll be able to use all of your *cough* legally *cough* acquired songs (the game supports most if not all popular DRM-free formats) and audio CDs with it.

So let’s say you picked a song and are ready to play, before you can get on the track you’ll first have to choose your character. The 14 available characters are split into 3 groups, each of which represents a different challenge level. The easiest are the casual characters – Mono, Pointman and Double Vision. Each basically represents a different game play type and the only thing they share in common is the basic controls. The medium difficulty aptly named Pro characters has 6 characters to choose from. Three are only more challenging versions of the casual characters, while Vegas, Eraser and Pusher round up the cast. Elite characters mark the hardest difficulty level. All five of them are just harder versions of the Pro team with Vegas missing.

Before I get down into the roots and explain how each of the modes works, let’s first note down the things that are shared between all of them. First of all, except for the individual gimmicks of each mode, the controls are shared between all the modes. You can move your character between lanes by using the left and right keys, use the mouse to steer him/her/it left and right or use the ASDF keys with each key representing one of the lanes (A leftmost lane, F rightmost, no key central lane).

I’ve mentioned lanes enough times now that it should be pretty clear they are another thing shared between the modes. The three central lanes are where the action is at, with blocks of various blocks slowly moving forward on each of the lanes. You’ll be trying to either hit or avoid these blocks. The ones you hit get added to that lane’s stack of up to 7 blocks while the ones you miss pass harmlessly off the screen. Your goal is simple – erase the collected blocks by ensuring 3 or more blocks of the same color are touching. This can mean horizontal or vertical lines of three blocks, as well as L, T, Z, S or other shapes. If you have ever played the ages-old game Tiles, the concept should be familiar.
That is pretty much it as far as the basics go. If you manage to overfill one of the three stacks you’ll simply lose some points and spend a few seconds respawning, unable to pick up new blocks in the meanwhile. As a result the game doesn’t end prematurely if you have an unlucky streak but keeps going until the very end of the current song. The different character tiers only ramp up the number of tiles that appear at any given time, so faster reflexes and better coordination is required to stay competitive.

Time to talk about the characters. Mono, as the name suggests, only has to deal with a single color of blocks. Before you start yawning I have to warn you that there are also gray blocks scattered about the song highway. These blocks have the nasty habit of dropping your score whenever hit and what’s worse, staying in your stack for a while taking up space before slowly crumbling (in the Mono Elite mode you actually have to overfill that stack in order to clear it) and freeing up the space. Since there are no side lanes in this mode you have to constantly be on the move and try to avoid the grey blocks. The upside is that the colored blocks come in only one variety so unless you manage to completely fill your stacks with grays, you should have no trouble connecting the collected blocks.

Pointman gets rid of the grey blocks, but instead throws 4 different kinds of colored blocks at you. The blue, purple, yellow and red blocks all net you different amounts of points when cleared from your stacks, with the hottest colors yielding the most points. To make some sense of this, the yellow and red blocks rarely appear in the mellow parts of the songs. The fast and frantic parts of the songs are a different story however. And since the speed of your character is directly proportional with the speed of the song you can imagine that it quickly becomes near impossible to collect/avoid the blocks you want to pick up/pass by. Unlike Mono mode, Pointman characters have access to one extra lane on each side where they can take a breather and wait until an opportunity to collect a specific block arises.

Double Vision is Audio-Surfs take on multiplayer, although it can be played by one player as well. In this mode two vehicles drive on a 6 lane highway, with each only being able to ride on 3 of the lanes. The left character is controlled with the keyboard while the left one reacts to mouse movements. The goal? The same as in Pointman with no side lanes available to duck out of harm’s way.

The remaining three characters are all variations of the Pointman mode. Vegas plays exactly the same and the only difference is that staying on one of the side lanes long enough shuffles the collected blocks, potentially creating combinations that get cleared. The Eraser, as the name suggests is able to erase all collected blocks of a given color simply by being in eraser mode (hold left mouse button) when picking up a block. Finally the Pusher can “push” blocks left or right into the neighboring lane by holding the left or right mouse button.

I know that all of the characters sound incredibly similar and that the differences appear more cosmetic in nature than actually gameplay affecting. This is true on paper, but like some of the points I’ll be making just a bit later, you have to play the game to see how different each of the modes actually are. A bystander might not be able to pick up on the various intricacies of each mode, but believe me when I say that playing Vegas is one thing while pushing blocks to the side with Pusher is an entirely different beast to handle.


So far things went smoothly and as far as concepts go, Audio-Surf deserves your attention simply because of its originality. Outside of the racing the game doesn’t offer much in terms of features, but it does sport an excellent online scoring system. Each race score is immediately sent to the main server where it is compared to scores of players from all around the world who have raced the same song. I was convinced that this would be the downfall of the scoring system but I was surprised to find out several players actually raced the same songs as I did (Kashmir, a plethora of Apocalyptica songs, etc.). Not only are the scores tidily sorted by difficulty, you even have the option to compare your score directly against your steam friends and people living in your area.

Because nothing in this world is perfect and the more you pay, the more you play (Audio-Surf costs only 10 bucks on Steam) this little piece of code has to have some serious issues in order for the universal laws (based on Murphy’s theorems) to hold any water. To deal with the most glaring issue of them all first, the game often feels like a beta product and not a finished game. The list of issues ranges from minor annoyances such as the game always starting in windowed mode or the occasional crash to more glaring issues such as the lack of text in most pop-ups, including help dialogs and even the credits screen. The performance also takes a severe beating at higher resolutions even though the graphics aren’t all that great.

Speaking of graphics, the game has one of the most unique looks I’ve seen in a while. It’s hard to describe it and even pictures don’t do it justice. Suffice it to say that when people on substances say that they can see the music probably have something like this in mind. I’ve already mentioned that the track and block positions match what is currently going on in the song. Well, the same holds true for the speed of the vehicle, visual effects and pretty much everything. Even the camera zooms in and out slightly.

On the audio front… Well, depending on your music collection the game either has the best sound track ever (which happened in my case *grin*) or something you’ll wish you never heard. Just kidding of course. For those of you with absolutely no music at hand, you’ll be glad to know that the entire Orange Box soundtrack is supplied with the game, so you should have plenty of material to work with. Speaking of music, you’re probably wondering what genres work best with the game. From my experience pretty much anything you throw at the game results in an enjoyable ride. I tried racing to classical music, heavy metal tunes, folk music and pretty much every other genre I could think of. Songs with clear beats obviously result in a more dynamic ride while slow, mellow songs make the entire experience more relaxed. Heck, even spoken word works, though the results are often unexpected.


Original gameplay concepts are few and far in-between these days. The ones involving music are even rarer. Which is precisely why Audio-Surf deserves your attention. In terms of content the game is as bare-bones as they get and saying the game is finished would be stretching it a bit. But don’t let that push you away from the best musical game released in a while. Sure, Rock Band has higher production values and is unrivaled at a party, but if you want to experience an entirely new way of listening to your favorite music, Audio-Surf is the way to go!

A mix of Tiles, a racing game and Dance Dance Revolution. If you like arcade/puzzle games, you’ll love this.
The highly stylized look makes the song virtually come alive on your screen. Too bad the game feels unfinished.
Your music, your rules.
With 6 unique playing modes each song can be played for hours upon end. Multiply that by the number of songs you have. And all that for only 10 dollars.
(not an average)
An entirely new approach to incorporating music and gameplay. Highly recommended.


About Author

Stuart Davidson

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