Hands on: ‘Harmonix Music VR’

'Harmonix Music VR' pumps up the volume and the immersion

On the surface, Harmonix Music VR looks like little more than a fancy rhythm visualizer at best, and a glorified tech demo at worst. But like so many virtual reality experiences, the veteran music-game developer’s PlayStation VR launch title can’t be truly appreciated until you don the headset.

Creative lead Jon Carter describes his ambitious project as, “A way to use virtual reality to let you experience music in brand new ways … a way of exploring the immersive musical potential of VR.” Even his enthusiastic pitch, though, can’t come close to doing the transformative experience justice.

Harmonix Music VR‘s most hands-on area is “The Easel,” an experience that allows players to unleash their inner-Picasso.

Thankfully, we got our heads under the gear — and our hands on the controllers — for an extended demo of a game that’s forever changed how we want to consume our music. Requiring both the PlayStation VR headset and a pair of PlayStation Move controllers — for optimal immersion, anyway — Harmonix Music VR is far less a traditional, objective-based videogame than a fresh way to enjoy your favorite music. Featuring four levels or, more accurately, “experiences,” the title includes both player-driven and passive music-enhancing activities.

We began our demo in “The Beach.” Described by Carter as “A very chill and inviting area for people new to VR,” it features everything you’d expect from a relaxing day at the beach, from sun and surf to swaying palm trees and passing seagulls, with the added surprise that the music will alter the lighting and even affect the weather on this virtual vacation.

Those craving a bit more adventure can look upon specific objects to trigger trippy effects. Staring at a canoe’s dangling lantern, for example, will see the little light float and multiply, while looking at the moon might morph it into a pulsating disco ball. Returning to your safe, happy place is as simple as averting your gaze.

Those preferring deeper interaction will want to dive into “The Dance,” a virtual-reality party featuring a colorful cast of characters that could have spilled from a child’s imagination. Players are welcome to simply watch the various monsters and aliens dance the night away, but it’s far more fun to choreograph their moves with a controller. With a few simple directional gestures and button inputs, you can move characters to different areas of the dance floor and manipulate their limbs with hilarious results. If this doesn’t sound like much fun, just wait until you get a monster mimicking MC Hammer’s signature moves.

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Harmonix Music VR‘s most hands-on area is “The Easel,” an experience that allows players to unleash their inner Picasso from behind an intuitive set of drawing tools. Using the Move controllers, you are able to pick from a variety of artistic options that, according to Carter, “allow you to craft musically reactive 3D sculptures or paintings.” This creative collision of drawn art and pumping music led to us making something disturbingly reminiscent of a pulsating intestine, but we’re guessing those with a bit more skill we’ll see better results.

The final area, dubbed “The Trip,” pretty much plays as advertised. The game’s most passive experience by far, Carter calls it “highly abstract, very psychedelic, and highly musically reactive.” If you just want to shut out the rest of the world and get completely lost in your music, the hallucinatory effects of “The Trip” should get you there. And if you don’t dig the tunes launching with the game, you’re welcome to take your own music on this mind-bending journey. All areas, in fact, support the feature to import your songs via a thumb drive.

Whether enjoying the bundled music — which includes original tracks, as well as ones from Harmonix titles A City Sleeps and Amplitude — or adding your personal library via PlayStation Media Player, all songs get the full Music VR treatment. “We take any audio file and analyze it, break it into sections like kick drum, snare drum, beats, and all sorts of stuff, and generate a unique experience for each of the four worlds.” explains Carter.

Harmonix Music VR launches alongside PlayStation VR this October, but if you have the opportunity to take it for a test spin before then, we highly recommend losing yourself in this immersion-amping, music-enhancing experience.

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