If we reminisce about the popularity musical games enjoyed roughly ten years ago, we cannot stress enough the role of Massachusets-based developer Harmonix Music Systems, creators of the popular Guitar Hero and Rock Band franchises. Of course, for those who have been in the videogame scene for some time, it is well known that other studios had delved in the music genre long before them. However, we cannot deny that Harmonix and by extension their distributors, first Red Octane and shortly afterwards Activision, were the first ones to appeal the interest of the US and European mass markets by filling up their titles with a wide selection of mainstream rock and pop music tracks. Where Konami’s Guitar Freaks had always remained a niche title, Harmonix established a new franchise that attracted both seasoned and casual players alike with its simple, yet progressively deep and challenging gameplay, greatly cementing videogames as a social experience to be enjoyed with groups of friends.
Harmonix’s existence has been closely tied to music and rhythm games and even after the hype surrounding Guitar Hero – not anymore in Harmonix’s hands after three titles – and Rock Band faded away, the developer kept experimenting with the concept of music applied to other genres. Given the massive popularity of the first person shooting genre, it must have been a quite logical leap to combine both concepts, giving birth to the initial idea of Chroma.
First announced on the seventeenth of February 2014, Chroma constituted a collaboration between two developer teams: Harmonix itself, bringing their expertise in musical games and Hidden Path Entertainment, known for Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and Defense Grid: The Awakening among others. Chroma was simply put, an on-line Arena FPS that heavily relied on music and rhythm as an integral part of the experience. Harmonix co-founder and CEO Alex Rigopulos declared upon Chroma’s announcement that it had been “a dream project (…) for some time”.
The game was first launched at the end of February of the same year on PC via Valve’s Steam platform as a closed Alpha available on a limited basis to those who had requested an access code. This early Alpha included a two-part tutorial and an on-line Deathmatch, with the latter not playable anymore as its servers have been taken off-line. The game’s aesthetics evoke a futuristic virtual world, with vivid plain colors, neon lights and techno music, which easily remind of either Tron or SEGA’s Rez, another title that, while being a one-player on-rails experience, also fused shooting and music.
A newbie in Chroma would probably jump straight into the training mode upon launching the game for the first time. This tutorial covers the somehow familiar but also unusual gameplay and it immediately introduces the concept of the metronome, represented as an on-screen bar that signals the music beats. The metronome offers an essential help to the player, since most of Chroma’s controls are influenced by the music beats. A robotic narrator simulating an AI guides the player through all the available actions, which include jumping, fast traveling between portals, shooting and reloading. All those revolve around the concept of rhythm and reward the player for triggering the actions in sync with the music.
The second part of the training introduces the different classes and their weapons. Chroma has five classes with different gameplay possibilities:
- Assault. Equipped with a submachine gun and a grenade launcher, the Assault class provides good offensive capabilities, specially with delayed grenade detonation by using the music beats to its own advantage.
- Engineer. Relies on a set dual pistols (which display an additional HUD that will be familiar to Guitar Hero players and indicates whether to shoot the left or the right hand pistol) and a shotgun. The Engineer also offers some additional strategical possibilities by deployment of sentinel turrets.
- Sneak. Combines the stealth granted by a sniper rifle with the power of the “Streak Pistol”, whose damage multiplier gets increased by successfully syncing the shoots with the beats.
- Support. As its name implies, this class has limited damaging abilities but it can heal other players and deploy “healing stations”, that can also be targeted and destroyed if considered a menace.
- Tank. The heavy hitter of the bunch. It uses a rocket launcher, whose projectiles can become heat-seeking at any time after firing by mouse-clicking on the beat, and a shotgun that can be used as a melee weapon as well.
Chroma offered an innovative approach to a genre that has dominated the videogame scene for some years and while many players appreciated Harmonix’s ambition of expanding music games into new horizons, the general consensus regarding the closed Alpha was quite mixed. Some players described the connection between music and shooting as clunky and uninteresting, adding little to none to the overall enjoyment of the game and even making it a tad frustrating, as for instance some weapons could only be shot at a very specific instant marked by the musical beats.
Beyond personal tastes, the concept behind Chroma seemed to need much more than debugging and rather was relying on core mechanics that were not working that well. Probably aware of this, Harmonix shut down the closed Alpha just a few months after its initial launch, in June 2014. The developer sent a communication to all players appreciating the extensive feedback received and announcing that the title would, in their own words “need some substantial retooling to be the game we want it to be”. They even claimed that “the team has, in fact, already started prototyping new directions for the game based on those successful mechanics.” Promising as this might have sounded, this was the last time players heard of the ill-fated Arena FPS and the lack of subsequent information could only point out to a permanent cancellation.
Involved with different publishers and franchises after their time with Activision had come to an end, it is not like Harmonix put all its eggs in one basket, so even with Chroma canned, they still released other entries of their Dance Central series and one year later players would see another landmark release: the fourth entry in the Rock Band series, attempting a comeback of the music genre and ultimately underperforming in terms of sales. This hinted a general decline of interest in what once was a beloved genre that provided huge amounts of revenue to those who had bet on it at the right time.
Thanks to Robert for the contribution!