First, I was like "WTF." Then, I was like "FTW!"
If you're anything like me, you won't have a chance understanding Beat Hazard the first time you fire it up and load a song. There are ships and asteroids flying in every direction as stars and the fire of you and your enemies flash to the beat of the track. When the song gets frantic, it is nearly impossible to pick out enemy shots from your own stream of pulsing fire. Play through a couple of tracks, and you will soon find yourself seeing a game in the midst of this barrage of light you did not at first realize was even there.
In the great tradition of games that generate content based on user input, Beat Hazard works from your music. It has gained comparisons to Audiosurf which, while not unwarranted, betray the conceit of this game. Whereas the gameplay in Audiosurf is dictated by the music, in Beat Hazard, the levels are generated in such a way that the player will be convinced the level was designed first and the music was made later specifically to match said level. The music is much more a backdrop on which the action takes place, but the pace of the action is, in fact, dictated by the music. You will feel the action swelling as the music is about to peak. It's actually quite a rush.
Powerups come in two flavors: volume and power. Both increase the damage done by your shots, but the volume powerups will also increase the volume of the music. You also collect multiplier increase powerups when you kill some enemies. All powerups have a maximum. Volume and power fill meters on the bottom-left and bottom-right of the screen respectively. The score multiplier maxes at 200. It should be noted that, even with power and volume at max, shots will still bounce off enemies during calm parts of the song.
Like Geometry Wars, the game in its more frenetic moments has you barely escaping death at every turn. It's an incredible rush to be navigating deftly around a screen packed with enemies while the song is docile only to have it open up and allow you to clear out everything in a matter of seconds just before you run out of real estate.
Leaderboards are done very well here. Although I would like to see Audiosurf's per-track leaderboards, the game does a good job of keeping you up-to-date on your friends' accomplishments by way of a ticker at the bottom of the screen during play. You may also view the overall leaderboards or your friend leaderboards from the main menu. They are divided by track length. Overall leaderboards for survival mode are also included.
The carrot-on-the-stick comes in two forms: achievements and ranks. There's nothing here fantastically different from other implementations, but both are done well. Achievements are attainable but may force you to step outside your comfort zone occasionally. Ranks are awarded at overall point thresholds and come with rewards like additional powerups at the beginning of play. Ranks also seem to go up infinitely. The top rank is "Elite," but I have currently attained an "Elite 7" ranking.
The game is not without minor problems. It doesn't support the number of formats supported by Audiosurf. This won't affect most players, but it does keep me from using my FLAC collection in-game. In a case of poor error handling, the game seems to crash when it attempts to preview a problematic MP3. Also, the strobing comes with lots of flickering on my system (C2D 3.0 w/ Geforce GTX 260). All minor complaints in the shadow of this exhilarating experience.
I highly recommend Beat Hazard unless you are intensely averse to twin-stick shooters. It expertly iterates on the genre and allows you to put your music collection to use in a way unique even for veterans of Audiosurf. The price is a bargain given the level of polish.
Final thought: If you are sensitive to flashing lights, I recommend you not be in the same building where this game is being played.