In my line of work I'm expected to play a lot of similar games. I've gone through countless first-person shooters, a pile of role-playing games and so many music games that I've worn out four different fake plastic guitars. But if you had told me that I would review two completely different music-making games on Sony's handheld game system, I would have thought you were crazy. But here I am reviewing Beaterator, Rockstar Games' newest music "app" for the PlayStation Portable. And while I definitely enjoyed my time making music, there are some strict limitations that keep it from being the must-own product for any aspiring beat maker.
First things first, Beaterator is NOT a video game. It may come on a UMD (as well as a digital download, if that's how you roll) and be developed by a video game company, but this is no game. Instead it's a robust tool that allows you to lay down beats, create music, mix it all together and then export it to your computer. It's an app, the kind of thing you might see on the iPhone. This is a product for all of those people who think they can make better beats than Jay-Z or Timbaland (who shows up all over Beaterator). This game makes the argument that you don't need to invest a lot to lay down some phat beats, you just need to buy this inexpensive PSP product.
The obvious comparison would be to the other PSP music creator, Traxxpad by Eidos. When I reviewed
Traxxpad several years ago, I was struck by how deep an application like this could be. However, I was also disappointed that the game was hard to navigate and you were largely on your own when it came to figuring out what did what and how to make impressive music. Thankfully Rockstar Games doesn't make those mistakes. Beaterator features a slick menu set-up that is extremely easy to navigate and intuitive. While you are free to experiment with each of the different modes, the game offers you video guides that will help you along the way. It still doesn't hold your hands when laying down a song, but with Beaterator I felt like I had enough know-how to get the most out of the game.
Of course, to really get the most out of Beaterator you're going to have to spend hours on end figuring how what it can and cannot do. The game gives you a lot of different tools to help you compose your beats, but even after weeks of playing around I was still finding new tricks. Don't be intimidated by the game's depth. Outside of playing Traxxpad several years ago, I have no experience creating beats and laying down loops. And yet, I had absolutely no problem creating rudimentary songs. Even though my early songs were the very definition of dreadful, I still had that feeling of accomplishment after finalizing each song. And as I put more time into it, I discovered that even the most complicated beats are doable if you just learn how to navigate your way through the interface.
Beaterator is split up into three different modes. If you just want to jump in and make some noise, then you would want to select the Live Play. In this mode you select the instruments you want to play and map everything out to the different face buttons. From there you can create beats and come up with ideas for your future compositions. When you're done playing around you will find your way into the Studio Session, where you'll create your own beats. In this mode you have the freedom to pick the sounds you want, fiddle with the speed and add special effects.
Eventually you will have mapped out a few of these beats, saved them to your memory stick and moved on to the final step -- the Song Crafter. As the name suggests, the song crafter is where you go and assemble these loops, beats and other sounds. It's here that you map out the course of the song, from the powerful opening to the soft middle section to the beat-heavy moments towards the end. It's all up to you. In a lot of ways it's liberating how simple the package is. Rockstar Games didn't try to cram in video game objectives or anything like that; they simply let the product be what it is. And if you're the kind of person with even a passing interest in creating hip hop beats and techno songs, then Beaterator is a fun way to hone your skills. It sure beats the heck out of spending hundreds of dollars on the professional quality computer programs.
Eventually you will create a song that is actually worth listening to, so it's a good thing you can export your masterpieces from your PSP to your personal computer. Beaterator gives the user plenty of control over their music, something that Traxxpad never got right. Still, I was disappointed that you couldn't transfer music the opposite direction. I was hoping to be able to import small samples, something that would have added a lot to the music I was creating. This is my only real complaint about the product.
Beaterator is not for everybody, it's a niche product for people that want to create a certain kind of music. Gamers looking for a Rock Band Unplugged-style experience will certainly be disappointed, though it may give them a greater understanding on how difficult it is to develop a catchy song. If you're the kind of person who has always wanted to dabble in laying down beats, then this is a cheap way to see if you have what it takes. If anything, Beaterator could be the gateway drug that inspires you to try the harder stuff ... like forming your own band.