Beaterator is sort of a hard game to review. But believe me when I say that's not at all a bad thing. Scribblenauts turned out to be a bit hard to review also, and it appears to me that there's certain problems with giving useful, accurate information to potential buyers when you're dealing with innovation. There's really nothing to compare it to, is there? Let me start, then, by drawing your attention to a couple of things from the outset: things that make this review a little different, perhaps, to many NZGamer.com has brought you.
1. Sound has been given 10/10. This game is all about sound. I might go as far as saying that if this game wasn't worth a perfect score for sound, then it would be a failure. I might. I might. Don't test me...
2. The learning curve for this game is 60 minutes. That's the longest learning curve I have ever given (I think - don't quote me. I hate getting quoted, especially if I am lying).
3. I can't decide if this is a review for a 'game' or an alarmingly sophisticated piece of recording software (alarmingly so, at least, when you consider how easily you can carry it around).
Okay, that's three things. Technically that's a few, not a couple. But if that's the sort of pedantry that gets you going, then you might love this game. Attention to detail, patience and a willingness to quest (often fruitlessly) for perfection will all be rewarded in Beaterator.
Beateratror was made by Rockstar Games (the same studio as GTA) and is, quite simply put, a game that allows you to mix and record your own electronic music. Using thousands of pre-recorded loops for synthesizers, guitars, bass, flutes, organs, drums and many more besides, you can craft new songs by breaking them up, mixing them up and generally messing them up. You can also record your own songs from scratch, in a mixer that allows you to get right down to basics - adding your drums beat by beat, or your keys A by D#. To be honest (and this only points to what a many layered experience Beaterator really is) at first I had no idea what was going on, and even thought my options were pretty limited. How. Wrong. I. Was.
When you first start the game up, you've two options: Play Live or Studio. In Play Live, you can experiment with different tracks, record your own, or mess with a number of songs and loops mixed for the game by the hip-hop sensation Timbaland. The musician's influence on Beaterator goes much deeper than his alias: Timbaland has laid down hours of beats for the game, and given the player full ability to tweak each and every one to his or her own requirements. Play Live is essentially the 'arcade' setting. Here you'll be able to get straight down to it.
In the Studio, your options suddenly get a lot more varied. In the intro video, Timbaland helpfully explains a bit about the three play modes, and the explanation for the Studio is essentially that it's where you can further customise your tracks. You have access to a melody editor, which allows you to add to or subtract from the loops that make up your overall song. You can put together a song in Live Play, and carry it with you to the studio for further refining, and there add pre-mixed songs, parts of songs, loops, parts of loops... basically you're in one of the most technically rich gaming sandboxes of all time. If you don't want to make your own stuff, of course, you can just riff off Timbaland's. You can change as much or as little as you like using the in-built tools.
From the Studio, there is an option to move into the Song Crafter menus. This is an area where you can construct loops and melodies beat by beat, and place loops into any arrangement you like. Again, the range of pre-recorded loops is staggering, but if they're not good enough for your high standards, you can make your own.
I said already this was a hard game to review, right? Well, after laying out the three modes, and saying I was floored by the total control I had over my song-making, I don't quite know where to go next. Can you record vocals? Yep! Can you add effects? Yep! Can you share your music? Yep! (The game is Rockstar Social Club compatible, and you can also export your beats as WAVs, so once they're on your PC you can pretty much do what you want with them).
The controls seem like they'll be quite simple at first, but take some getting used to. This goes back to the high learning curve. The menus aren't all that intuitive, and so the video and text tutorials included are both very valuable. This is also a game where you'll want to keep the paper manual handy. By today's standards, overly complicated control systems aren't really tolerated, but in Beaterator they're easily forgivable because of the depth and breadth of functions. There's 12 usable (function) buttons on a PSP, after all, so when you start needing to hash out combos just to navigate from one area to another, it's easy to get lost.
Graphically, there's nothing much going on but it's all passable, and where opportunities to spice things up have been available the developers have taken them. Like your songs, the way much of the game looks while you record is open for the tweaking, but it's merely a distraction when what you'll really want to to do with Beaterator is sit down and explore all the fantastic sounds it has ready and waiting. I think all amateur DJs will love the ease with which one can create a really professional sounding track, just by re-arranging what's already there. The sheer number of possibilities means that each time you arrange a track, even if it is using pre-recorded material by Timbaland and Rockstar, you'll likely be creating something fairly original.
I must admit, being more game-minded than sound producer-minded, I liked Live Play for its (relative) ease of use. Groups of loops are assigned one of four corners of the screen, with an option to scroll to get to another four sets of loops (that's 32 loops each time you want to make a track even in this 'arcade' section of the game - think about that). Unless you start really looking for them, there's not many options immediately evident in this section, which means you can just hit a button (each loop in a section is assigned one of the classic PlayStation four) and let it run. You then add another. And another. If you like how it's sounding you can record it. Simple. Ish. For any kind of pick-up-and-play, Live Play is all you've got.
It's a PSP game, so it's not a full, exhaustive recording studio, but it is the best approximation of one I've ever seen away from a PC. Those who like the idea of this game but aren't really willing to put in the hours to craft truly original material might find it runs out of puff. But to be clear, this will most likely be boredom on behalf of the gamer - not a lack of tracks to play with in the game. But for those of you who are really excited about getting a huge range of producers' tools and the ability to bust out some beats on the PSP, I think you'd be hard pressed to find epic fault with Beaterator. Anyone who's into making music will enjoy Beaterator, and as an alternative to taking your laptop with you on the bus if you're already a pro working in the industry, this is a pretty reasonably priced one.
Perhaps we should be worrying that game hype from the developers has pitched expectations a little high, but honestly this is one time where the PR machine hasn't gone too far overboard. I wouldn't say you're ready to start your own label with a PSP and a pocket full of dreams or anything, but certainly your start in the world of commercial hip-hop and electronic music making has never had a more accessible leg up, or been so much fun. Oh, and if you don't have a PSP, you can get it on iPhone and iPod Touch real soon.