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Video game soundtracks are perhaps the most underrated part of any video game. Usually, critical criteria will venture far more towards the gameplay or presentation, but rarely an in depth dissection of the soundtrack. Soundtracks not only are key to creating a mood in video games, but they are usually excellent pieces of music in their own right. This is a flaw we seek to reprimand with our list of greatest video game soundtracks.
Deus Ex: Human Revolution
Despite the somewhat mixed critical reception of the new Deus Ex game, one undeniable fact is that its soundtrack is epic to the scale of a Hollywood blockbuster. This story of a world enveloped in political intrigue and technological advances is twisted together with motifs of renaissance evolution theory to create a soundtrack that utilizes both the electronic nature of the world in which Deus Ex: Human Revolution takes place as well as the underlying themes of evolution. There’s something peculiarly eerie but altogether immersive stalking the streets of Detroit as a subtle thumping electronic beat sets the mood of a tense stealth mission perfectly.
The Fallout series has always been known for their amazing soundtracks. The twisted sense of 50s doo-wop mixed with a post-apocalyptic world has gone a long way to make Fallout iconic in the gaming industry. However, rarely do people mention the original soundtrack as much they do the pop culture references. This 60+ track behemoth of a soundtrack goes all the way from inspiring, to terrifying, breaching the gap with every sort of mood you could possibly be in when playing one of the best games of 2015. The main theme gives me goose bumps with rousing timpanis and swelling orchestral strings that climb towards that ever recognizable melody. Any player of Fallout will recognize it instantly, and boy does it make you want to dive straight back into that hell hole of a world.
Upon the release of Destiny, critical reception was mixed to say the least. However, one aspect that no critic even dared to criticize was the soundtrack of this flawed, but enjoyable game. Drawing from the greats of orchestral composition such Michael Salvatori and C. Paul Johnson, even with a surprise appearance from no other but Paul McCartney of The Beatles, the Destiny soundtrack does much to sell the world of far flung sci-fi and tranquillity in space. Although no one likes waiting in a loading screen, there was something strangely calming about watching your spaceship float about in the great dark expanse with wistful strings and voices building an almost imperceptible but altogether engrossing musical accompaniment. And that’s to say nothing of the boss battles wherein their unique music is used for, and holy moly does it make the fight feel epic. I’ll never forget fighting Crota for the first time and hearing that rousing melody beat along to our desperate fight, undoubtedly making this one of the best video game soundtracks.
Bungie, the developer behind Destiny, also made one of the most famous game franchises of all time, Halo. This is where the studio first partnered with the aforementioned Michael Salvatori and C. Paul Johnson as they composed an orchestral suite with now iconic tenor choirs to accompany perhaps one of the greatest games of all time. Halo is very much an action game through and through, so it’s not entirely surprising that the soundtrack has some great action set piece music that get the blood pumping even if you’re not playing the game. The theme of Master Chief and the eponymous Halo can be found everywhere in the genes of video game soundtracks. Although not the very first soundtrack to use a full orchestral suite, this is perhaps one of the first that truly made the idea mainstream in AAA video games.
The Borderlands franchise is pretty interesting to me, especially from the perspective of musically scoring it. The world of Borderlands is altogether grim if you were to simply relay the basic facts about it, but when playing the game the characters are full of life and the sardonic sense of humor informs most of the dialogue and flavor text of the game. Luckily, the Borderlands 2 soundtrack steps up to the task in spades. Using electronic music as a basis for much of its boss fight and action set piece music, Borderlands 2 embraces the silliness of its premise, and some of the lifted music from outside sources such as “Ain’t No Rest For The Wicked” by Cage the Elephant truly makes the soundtrack of Borderlands 2 one of the best video game soundtracks that I can think of.
The entire premise of Watch Dogs is based upon a civilization that is utterly engrossed in technology. The soundtrack reflects this in lots of ways you might imagine, using electronic baselines in most of its original score moments, especially in the more climactic boss fights. However, the surprise stand out from the Watch Dogs soundtrack is the music that was lifted elsewhere for the in game radio. Here we have an eclectic selection of indie rock and straight up rock from years gone by from the likes of Smashing Pumpkins and Kid Cudi to give the game a sense of individuality from the games many accuse it of trying to impersonate. This may be a strange view point, but I do think that Watch Dogs has one of the best video game soundtracks in recent years.
Far Cry 4
I don’t think anyone was really expecting the success of Far Cry 3, least of all me. However, it proved to be one of the smash hits of its release year. One of the most interesting elements of the game for me was how it mixed ethnic tribal music with a more modern electronic soundtrack. This ethos is continued into its sequel Far Cry 4. Far Cry 4 takes place in Kyrat, a fictional equivalency for Tibet, and lots of ethnically enforced music appears in the soundtrack. Although this may appear gimmicky at face value, it does a great deal to help sell the authenticity of the entire affair. Far Cry has now become famous for its drug trip sequences, so you can imagine the soundtrack does these moments of hallucinatory silliness great credit.
Mass Effect 3
I remember playing the demo to Mass Effect 3 a few years ago. I was a big fan of its predecessors, so I was hoping to find a game that I was truly enthralled by. Indeed, the gameplay was a lot of fun and the world that I had learned to love was back in stunning fashion, however, what I didn’t expect was in that demo’s climactic emotional moments was the soundtrack. “Leaving Earth”, composed by Clint Mansell is one of the greatest solo pieces of video game music I can genuinely remember. A relatively simple piece of music to start off with, the music completely informs the story of the game, gentleness mixed with brutal oppressive electronic roars. It may be difficult to understand the beauty of this track without context, but this track alone makes the Mass Effect 3 soundtrack one of the best video game soundtracks ever made.
Call of Duty Black Ops: Zombies
The story of how the Zombie mode in the Call of Duty games ever came to be is a fascinating one. Originally an idea that was put into one of the games as a throwaway idea, the game mode has evolved into one of the main reasons why players will purchase these games. One of the reasons that the Zombies mode is invariably so great is the soundtrack. That opening eerie, distant arpeggiation quite literally haunts me. Every time I hear it I can see myself with a few friends sitting down for a few hours to play the game mode over and over again. The soundtrack is mixed with a lot of hard rock and metal to really sell the grungy feel. Even finding these songs within the Zombie levels was a game within itself.
Assassin's Creed 2
There was so little doubt in mind which soundtrack I would put at number 1. At the hands of Jasper Kyd, the Assassin’s Creed 2 soundtrack does the impossible and manages to evoke both Renaissance Italy and a futuristic world into a single soundtrack. Walking around the streets of Florence never felt more real as simple guitar arpeggiation was combined with a high soprano voice, but it could just as quickly transition into a futuristic industrial rock track. And lest we forget the incredible track known as, “Ezio’s Family”. Of course I won’t spoil the game if you were hoping to play it, but this one track has become iconic, not just across the Assassin’s Creed franchise, but across the entire game industry. It does such a simple but wonderful job of evoking strong emotions that it still flings me back to when I first played that incredible game. Assassin’s Creed 2 has undoubtedly one of the best video game soundtracks of all time.