Release Date: 19/07/2016
Played On: PC
Available On: PC
Time Played: 2h 30m
Progress: Completed each track a couple of times (still playing)
Developer: MURA Interactive
Publisher: WOBBL3 Entertainment LLC
Rhythm games are another genre that I've never been all that good at, but love to play. Perhaps it's because I'm a big music fan, but it could just be because Audiosurf is one of the greatest games ever made. However, unlike Audiosurf, most rhythm games are stuck to a rigid progression tied to some average music. There's no better case of an entire genre living and dying by the quality of its soundtrack.
This is where most rhythm games have fallen short for me in the past. Most feature an electronic soundtrack, which can easily hit or miss for my own tastes. Even as a big music fan in general, there are some sub-genres of electronic music that I can't stand listening to. It's why I couldn't get into the horrible sounds of Hatsune Miku, and it's why I prefer a game like Audiosurf, which uses my own music library.
Therein lies another problem though, as Audiosurf is quite the anomaly when it comes to procedural rhythm games. For some reason, the formula Audiosurf uses to create a level based on any piece of music, does so in a way that feels really good to play. It's a shame that nobody else has nailed it quite so well, as I am always going to enjoy playing music from my own library, so it becomes an evergreen experience.
Of course there have been others that I've tried, like the twin stick rhythm game hybrid Beat Hazard. Instead of creating levels based on your own music, Beat Hazard distributes enemy types and quantities in an Asteroids style arena instead. It's a neat way to mask any shortcomings in the procedural formula, as there's often enough going on that you can easily miss a beat drop.
There are many others that try to emulate the same system in interesting ways. Melody's Escape is an infinite runner with the platforming adapting in response to the music. It's a neat idea, but falls flat on its face when you start mixing up genres that the algorithm can't handle. Basic EDM functions well enough, but load up some hardcore metal and the whole system falls apart.
Despite all this, Audiosurf (and Audiosurf 2 for the record) still manages to work well across genres. I hope that one day the magic formula will be available to every other procedural rhythm game so we get some more variety in the genre that actually works.
So it's no surprise that most of the really good rhythm games are not procedural at all and rely on meticulously crafted strings of inputs tied to a prescribed piece of music. Some examples like Guitar Hero and Rock Band, offer a wide variety of songs to choose from, which is a welcomed option, but no doubt a result of large budgets. With rhythm games being a bit of a niche genre, it's no surprise that most of the variety comes from independent developers who aren't able to acquire expensive licensed music and hand craft hundreds of tracks.
While some rhythm games offer something of a more refined experience like Beyond The Echo (hit the button at the right time). There are some others that experiment with other features and gimmicks like Crypt Of The NecroDancer (move in time with the music, but explore a dungeon and fight enemies at the same time).
DubWars is no different in this regard, as it blends a twin stick shooter with a rhythm game in an interesting way. Instead of the intensity and dynamics changing procedurally in a game like Beat Hazard, every enemy and level in DubWars has been crafted from start to finish. The only thing for the player to do is move and aim, as even the player's weapons are tied to the music and fire automatically. On paper it sounds like a pretty dull experience, but when you get your hands on DubWars and begin to learn your way through each level, the precision of the structure shows its worth.
As the name suggest, DubWars features mostly dub step tracks throughout its ten levels. You can get through every level pretty quickly, but you're going to want to replay them all over time. There are difficulty levels for each, which unlock as you progress, but you also pick up "wubs" to spend on weapon upgrades and health each time you play. This effectively makes the levels easier as you progress through a difficulty level, before ramping it up when you move on to the next.
I found the tracks varied and enjoyable enough to not get annoying, even though there are some that clearly stand out from the pack. However, it's a matter of taste and if you can't stand EDM/dub step music, then look away now because there's nothing for you here.
Fortunately, the real meat of DubWars comes from its weapon system, which auto-fires and has been carefully programmed to suit each track. Auto-fire is an immediate con for me in most shooters, as I prefer to have a bit more control, but there's a pay-off in this game that makes it all worthwhile.
It feels like every instrument in each track has a weapon associated with it. You'll get some short range wide pulses when the kick hits, all the way up to piercing lasers firing in time with stabs and flourishes. The flow of each level is emphasised by the way your weapons change and react to the music in different ways throughout. While similar themes are kept along the way, there's enough difference in each level's loadout to make them feel unique and separate from one another.
I can't emphasise enough how the flow of each level creates a visceral feel through the changing weapons. In mellow sections you're getting close with short range powerful weapons, before lighting up the stage at the high points with colourful lasers flashing all over the place. There's a real ebb and flow that comes from having that control taken away, as it seems to have allowed the developer to create a visual landscape complimenting the natural dynamics of the music.
One of the only criticisms I have for DubWars is that the backgrounds of each level can often be confusing, as they make it hard to see enemies against such busy backdrops. The art is certainly interesting and unique, which I like a lot, but at times with all the visuals happening on screen, it's easy to lose track of what's actually going on.
At ten bucks on Steam, it's hard to hold too much against DubWars, as it's clearly a passion project that loves some EDM. There may only be ten levels, but I found myself wanting to replay them again and again, even just to get some more "wubs" to upgrade my weapons. I can't stress how satisfying it is to be running away from a mob of enemies as the music winds down, only to unleash a barrage of lasers into the crowd, right as the beat drops.
There's a fantastic marriage between music and gameplay in DubWars that I haven't seen in many other games. While Audiosurf stands as the pinnacle of procedural rhythm games, I think DubWars might find a place at the crafted end of the table.
Did I mention lasers? There's a lot of lasers… and I'm totally cool with that.