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Harmonix's new jam is Chroma: A beatmatching first-person shooter

February 17, 2014 | By Brandon Sheffield

February 17, 2014 | By Brandon Sheffield
More: Video

Harmonix, for a long while, was a pretty experimental game studio. It made small, weird games with a musical bent, like The Axe, CamJam, and FreQuency (they're also big fans of intercaps, it seems). The company didn't really hit the super big leagues until Guitar Hero, which led to Rock Band, and eventually Dance Central. Each game was ambitious in its own way, from new peripheral design to intuitive gesture control with the Kinect.

Today, in Chroma, a partnership with Counter-Strike: Global Offensive studio Hidden Path Entertainment, Harmonix has announced one if its most curiously ambitious titles to date. As it stands now, it's a free-to-play, arena-based, multiplayer beatmatching first-person shooter. That is a lot of things to try to be at the same time, and it takes some getting used to as a player. Jump on the downbeat and you jump further. Dash on the downbeat and you dash further. Grenades always explode on the downbeat.

But, at least in my 30-minute play experience, when you're being shot at, you just jump, or just dash, because listening and waiting for that "best" moment could mean death. This doesn't mean the system doesn't work - it does. What it means is it'll take someone with a bit more skill to spend a lot more time with the mechanics than the half hour or so that I played. This is good and dangerous - it connotes a game with depth, but also one which is not "pick-up-and-play," as most free-to-play games try to be.

The most complex thing about the game, at present, are the beatmatching classes. For these classes, in order to fire, you have to match a Guitar Hero-style scrolling beat with the L and R triggers, which in the heat of the moment is difficult for a new player. Though these classes have auto-aim, you have to pay attention to the beat prompts, as well as enemy location and jumping, and the general location of where you're shooting, on top of a dynamically shifting environment (which changes with choruses, bridges, et cetera). That's a lot to bite off. John Drake, Harmonix director of publishing and PR, told us that there were some areas that could only be reached by beatmatched jumps. Another journalist and I played the game with the Harmonix staff, and agreed that these beatmatching classes would likely be top tier for people that used them, but that it would take a whole lot of practice to get there.

Drake confirms that internal testing proves it works. "The guys at Harmonix who were on the beatmatching crew are all pretty solid at cranking through the beatmatch without hesitation," he told us. "I've found other people who are not shooter players, but who are more into rhythm games, gravitated toward it because of the autoaim."

But he also acknowledges the steep learning curve. "When they try to learn it during combat it's almost impossible," he says. It's far better to learn in tutorial sessions, which Harmonix is still working on. The build I played represented only three months of work, and the version of Chroma that a handful of Harmonix fans will get to play is very much still in alpha.

Really, this early release is a test of whether this sort of thing is even viable. Will people get used to it? Do ideas like this resonate with people, or will they wind up flailing in the wind?

I had some concerns about how wide the audience for the game would be. You have to like shooters, music games, beatmatching, and be alright with additionally complex controls in order to get into the game. "That was one of our first concerns," says Drake. "It's a Russian niche nesting doll."

The beatmatch element has been toned down since earlier builds, but Harmonix is definitely sold in the idea of a musical shooter in general. "We've tried to make inroads to other character classes that are less beatmatching, more shooter mechanics," Drake says, while adding that "theoretically the music makes the game easier, instead of more difficult."

The team knows it's a core game at heart, but also wants it to make shooters more accessible to those who wouldn't usually play them. The fact that Chroma is free-to-play may get more people to try the game than might otherwise. As of now, they haven't decided what they'll be selling, though it's likely to surround sound packs. Each team has a sound style that resonates when they shoot, jump, dash, and die. Harmonix's Nick Chester chose a cowbell-heavy set, much to Drake's dismay, and my endless amusement.

But even with free-to-play games, I posed that there's about a five minute window with which to catch users' interest and keep them engaged, before they move on to something else. "I think that five-minute window for us is explaining why it's different," says Drake. "In a community where everybody's saying 'oh, another brown shooter,' we can say 'our game is different, and here are some ways you can see that difference.' I hope on some level in our tutorial we can funnel people toward the classes that work for them."

Harmonix is assuming that the initial signups will mostly be their closest allies, who will be invested in giving the game a chance from the onset. And Drake stressed that the game is very much in a state of frequent change. Drake said that even the core mechanics are only 50 percent of the way toward being final.

For my part, I did not envy whoever had to balance characters who all have different controller inputs and weapon outputs. Every class plays differently, and has different controller layouts to accompany those differences. "Balance is a super interesting challenge," says Drake. "But if you go one on one with another player, then you shouldn't know if it's a different input. If you're a third party watching two players shoot at each other, regardless of the input mechanics, the output of those weapons should feel like both of them are musical. It looks and feels pretty good in the abstract, but making sure that when you're playing a really difficult class [you need to consider,] 'Is one of those really easy to master and crushing all the other players?' That's a big challenge."

The whole game is a big challenge - Harmonix and Hidden Path are attempting a number of things that have not been attempted before, and against all conventional wisdom. This is definitely going to be a game that requires a real time investment to learn, but that may just wind up making its fans incredibly dedicated. While this it's a rather "dangerous" move to make such an out-there project, Harmonix is in the space where it can afford to take some chances now, having won a large lawsuit against Viacom. Rather than sitting on their nest egg, they're taking this opportunity to try something new. As Drake puts it, "we've always been a little blindly ambitious in the products we've set out to do."

You can see about participating in the alpha for Chroma right here.

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