Are you in the mood for a very different kind of multiplayer first-person shooter? How about one in which the arena you're in morphs to the music that's playing, where your machine gun makes music, where your grenades only blow up on the downbeats and the missiles you fire will keep stalking your enemy as long as you keep tapping the shooting button to the beat of the music?
The game is called Chroma. It's very early, very rough and very interesting. It's being made by Harmonix, the creators of Rock Band, and Hidden Path Entertainment, the studio behind, among other things, the Valve co-developed Counter-Strike Global Offensive.
You've got to play this, if only because it's so odd and so unlike other games you've tried. Thankfully, you probably will be able to, because an alpha version of the game is being rolled out this month on PC. That's "alpha" as in not just incomplete but also not even locked in terms of features. Chroma is intended to be free-to-play, so it probably won't cost you anything when it's released on Steam, either.
Harmonix? FPS? PC? These are things that don't normally go together. They do for Chroma, which I played an even earlier version of a couple of weeks ago in Las Vegas.
"It's not a game about human suffering," a Harmonix rep told me when he was explaining to me what I was about to play. "It's a game about music." He meant that this is not a grisly, bloody game. It is, however, as much a game about shooting and not being shot, about learning a level and then dominating it, as any other arena-based multiplayer shooter might be. It's all just a bit slicker and bloodless and sci-fi. It might make you think of Tron or of a techno song turned into a video game.
"It's not a game about human suffering," a Harmonix rep told me when he was explaining to me what I was about to play. "It's a game about music." Be that as it may, it's a game about shooting and not being shot. It's a shooter.
(Note: that trailer is all concept; that's not gameplay.)
So much of this game is not quite like what you've played before.
Let's start with the levels. Each arena in Chroma looks like some futuristic cyberscape. Each can and will change shape in various ways as a match proceeds. Music plays throughout the match, and the music is really the key to all of the action. It's not just a soundtrack but a defining pulse. The music is all original and, for now, all electronic. Parts of a given song will transform a level. A chorus, for example, might trigger something of an earthquake and the sudden sprouting of a hill in the middle of a level. Players can see the changes coming, as ghostly versions of the near-future shape of the level appear just before the music triggers a change to the terrain. Skilled players will eventually learn to anticipate these changes in the level's shape and use them to their advantage, to stake out a soon-to-be-elevated sniper perch or to suddenly separate from their opponents behind newly-emerging cover.
Players play in teams, or at least could in the early version I played. Each team vies for control points, standing in a zone to claim it before moving to the next one. Each team of players can essentially pick a style of instrumentation which will then sonically take control of how the level's music plays out near any point that that team controls. Thanks to this system, as players run through a level, they should be able to tell with their ears which team is in control of the area they're in. Pretty cool.
Harmonix reps said that players can think of their weapons in the game, to an extent, as musical instruments, but that might be too intimidating a way to think about it. If you're thinking, for example, that you have to play Chroma with a guitar controller or drum set, no. You don't. You play with mouse and keyboard or game controller. If you're thinking you might have to know music theory or be good at Guitar Hero, again, no. Some player classes require a little more skill with music-based gameplay than others, but the game is designed to work as a shooter even if you have very little rhythm.
Let's say you choose to play as an assault character. You get a machine gun that shoots as any video game machine gun would. The sound and light that come from the gun will reflect the melody of the music playing in the level. The grenades you'll have are a little more musically interesting. They can be tossed at any time, but they'll only explode on the level music's downbeat. Even if you don't know what a downbeat is or can't quite hear it at first, you'll catch on as soon as you see and hear your grenade explode. And once you understand that, you'll probably think of new strategies for tossing and throwing grenades for maximum effect.
Players using the support class will be able to fire a healing beam or a weak beam gun. Like the assault player's machine gun, any connections to the music will be cosmetic.
The sneak class players get a sniper rifle that inflicts maximum damage when fired on the downbeat. Their alternate weapon is a "streak pistol" that adds a damage multiplier if it keeps getting fired to the beat of the game's music.
The tank class gets a rocket launcher that can lock on. A locked-on rocket will keep chasing an enemy player if the tank player keeps tapping the firing button to the beat. (Harmonix rep John Drake joked that we could think of them as "beat-seeking" rockets. Don't joke, John Drake. Name them that!) The tank's alternate weapon is a shotgun that only shoots on half notes.
The most Rock-Band-looking class is the engineer, who wields dual pistols. In between those pistols players will see a note highway, similar to what you see if you're playing Rock Band or Guitar Hero. This lane scrolls up and repeats a simple beat-matched pattern. Firing to that pattern shoots the pistols. The guns lock on to enemies, so players can focus on learning and repeating the pattern. The lane isn't shown in the screenshot below, unfortunately, but you can imagine it. The engineer's alternate weapon is a shotgun that also uses a beat-matched pattern.
The most Rock-Band-looking class is the engineer, who wields dual pistols. In between those pistols players will see a note highway, similar to what you see if you're playing Rock Band or Guitar Hero.
That's not all.
Chroma also plays with how you move in an FPS and how that can be tweaked with music. You can jump, run and sprint, as you'd expect. But you can also jump higher if you jump on the level-music's downbeat and you can sprint further, on the downbeat, once per measure. There are also jump pads. If you jump on them on the downbeat, they bounce you to the next one for fast travel throughout the level. Jump pads are spaced in such a way that correctly timing a jump on just a handful of them will get the player from one side of the level to the next.
Does all of this sound strange? Complicated?
I'm no great player of multiplayer shooters, so I can't judge for you just how well these ideas will work at high levels of play. I can say, however, that the musical tricks in Chroma are easy to grasp. The learning curve isn't that steep. And, overall, the game simply feels like a different style of shooter, as opposed to something so radically different that it's unfamiliar. I've only played it for half an hour, but in that time I was able to have fun with it, score some kills, take advantage of my guns' musical perks, dash around a level and have a good time.
Chroma might not be what you were expecting from Harmonix (well, -ahem- not entirely expecting). Somehow, though, it fits, and alongside Evolve, it may help make 2014 one of the more interesting years in first-person shooters. If you want to try the game now, you'll have to get into the alpha. You can register to do so at http://www.playchroma.com.