Frequency Review: Let’s All FreQ Out

The following was originally posted on ThoseGuys.TV by rowsdower.

Thanks and congratulations to http://microscopiq.com/ for having the one image of Frequency gameplay that shows unactivated tracks and isn’t some weird dev build.

True confessions time: not only am I too much of a baby to regularly play a regular online team FPS, but I’ve also played a Guitar Hero-like game only once. It was Rock Band, back in college when I lived in a triple with a guy who really liked the Beatles. It was a really exciting time that lasted for about three weeks.

The point is, I’m not a real expert when it comes to rhythm games, much less the guitar-based ones. However, I have played some of Harmonix’s earlier entries in the genre, Frequency (PS2, 2001) and Amplitude (PS2, 2003). They’re both behind and ahead of Harmonix’s later games, and are both interesting historical pieces and fun games in their own right. Today I’ll be talking about Frequency, the first game in the series.

Harmonix was founded in 1995 by two MIT grads interested in creating rhythm-based video games. Their first game, The Axe: Titans of Classic Rock, was a PC game that used a joystick to play sick guitar riffs. It sold about 300 copies. Frequency was Harmonix’s first major release, and it found enough of a audience to become a cult hit and fund a sequel and future Harmonix endeavors.

The gameplay should be familiar to anyone who’s ever seen a Guitar Hero or Rock Band game before. The game is divided upon into a series of songs, each of which is divided into smaller sections filled with notes flowing towards the player. The player hits buttons (square, circle, and triangle, or L1, RI, and R2) on their PS2 controller in time with the notes to score points and not lose life on their life meter. The unique thing about Frequency is that you play all of the song’s tracks: guitar, bass, drums, synth(s), vocals, and other effects. There’s only three possible note locations per track (versus five for your guitar games), but part of the challenge comes in switching between tracks to play unfinished tracks and keep getting points/not lose.

Speaking of points, Frequency‘s scoring system is based on the sectional division. As mentioned above, each song is split into a number of sections, each of which contains 16 measures of music. The player gets a set number of points for playing two measures of a track without missing any notes, and the track plays out for the rest of the section. If you mess up, you begin to slowly lose life until you either finish two measures or lose all of it. If the player activates all the tracks in a section, they unlock two freestyling tracks: an electronic/guitar thing and a scratcher. At the start of each song, the player will have to re-activate each track in each new section of the song. Towards the end of the song, certain tracks will already be activated at the start of a new section, leaving you more time to rack up points freestyling.

The basic challenge of Frequency, then, is to activate enough tracks to get through the whole song. Getting high scores, however, involves two other factors. First, there’s a multiplier (normally up to 4x) for each completed track, but the streak depends on your ability to keep completing measures. Second, there are special power-up notes that, when successfully played, give you a deployable power-up. There are two of these in single-player: Autocomplete, which automatically activates an entire track for a section, and a temporary Multiplier that doubles your base score and stacks with your streak multiplier. The power-up notes are generated randomly with the song, so properly timing your Multipliers and keeping your streak going are the key to racking up the highest scores.

The gameplay is fast, frenetic, and fun, but the power-ups add in a level of complexity. If you want to get high scores and earn enough points to unlock the bonus stages, then you need to become adept at keeping your streak going and using your multipliers at the right time. Everything, like the notes you have to hit and the little background elements in the game’s eight arena, is on beat, which is fairly crucial for a rhythm game. Frequency is split up intofive stages of five songs (four regular, one unlockable bonus), with two extra bonus songs after the ultra-hard fifth stage. As far as the soundtrack goes, there’s a few vaguely recognizable artists and a heavy emphasis on electronic music. The most commercial Frequency gets is either The Crystal Method or a remix of a No Doubt song, depending on what your definition of “commercial” is.

Frequency’s graphics are quite nice for the early PS2 years: there’s a very techno-futuristic “I’ve jacked into a greener Tron and there’s maybe a rave going on” vibe to everything. You can create your own avatar, i.e. a FreQ, out of a combination of flat 2-D shapes. The FreQs have both a kind of restrained geometric quality to them, being made out of shapes, and appropriately techno-futuristic-y, in that you can put cool glasses and spiky hair on your shapes. The game’s story is more or less non-existent: the instruction manual says something about being a future DJ doing DJ things in cyberspace, but that’s referenced exactly no times in the course of game play. Even though that story isn’t especially relevant, it fits together with everything else–the soundtrack, the game world, the FreQs–into a cohesive aesthetic, giving the game a certain feel that I don’t think the sequel entirely captures. But that’s a topic for the next review.

Outside of the main campaign, Frequency has both a multiplayer and remix mode. The remix mode is fairly intuitive, but it’s not something that I, due to my lack of rhythm, have gotten a lot of use out of. There’s also a local multiplayer mode for up to four players. It has slightly different mechanics than the regular game, as tracks don’t autocomplete and there are several new power-ups. Again, I haven’t ever really used the multiplayer mode, partially because I don’t have a lot of friends who are into competitive rhythm games, but it’s still fully functional. Frequency had online multiplayer, as it was one of the first PS2 games to use the Network Adapter, but the servers were taken offline a while ago.

Most of issues with Frequency are just small nitpicks. As mentioned above, I either haven’t got the best grasp of how the regular streak multiplier works or it’s a bit floaty, or both. Either way, just be sure not to take too long in getting to another track. Some of the arenas, the backgrounds that the game generates behind the track, can be a bit distracting on more complex tracks, but you always have the choice of turning them off. The power-ups are generated randomly in each song, so your ability to get a new all-time high score is partially down to chance. That being said, that element really only enters when you’re trying to get 1,500+ points on a song in Hard mode, at which case you’ve finished more or less everything else the game has to offer. Speaking of finishing the game: the last stages, 4 and 5, are only available on Normal or Hard difficulty. This may keep some players from seeing everything Frequency has to offer, but Normal isn’t too bad and Stage 5 is made up of songs composed by people on the Harmonix staff that are designed to be super difficult.

These are all minor complaints, though. Frequency’s a a damn fine game and something I’d recommend for anyone with even an interest in rhythm games or electronic music. Even though it’s a forerunner , Frequency is a game and an experience that nothing else quite replicates. If you want to play it, I think copies are available to buy through the usual Internet channels (i.e. Amazon).If you want to see the game, I heartily endorse this guy’s Let’s Play. LesBeardly is both very good at the game and very knowledgeable about the game’s history and fan community, and aside from a pusher robot subplot towards the end the LP doesn’t drag. Either way, my main point is Frequency is a cool game that more people should be aware of and have the chance to play.

FINAL RATING: 90/100

Come back for my thoughts about Frequency’s sequel, Amplitude.

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