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February 8, 2010 • Gaming, Music Diary, Reviews

Mass Effect 2: Video Game Soundtrack Review

I recently reviewed the full soundtrack for Dragon Age: Origins, and a large part of my criticism was that it wasn’t a great value – it released well after the game was out, and suddenly made folks who paid for a ‘deluxe’ version aware that the ‘Soundtrack’ they got was really a sampler. Now the Mass Effect 2 Soundtrack has arrived, how does this one measure up, both musically and as an overall value?

The Hype:
From the original press release:

BioWare™, a division of Electronic Arts Inc. (NASDAQ:ERTS – News), announced today that accomplished composer, Jack Wall, will compose the original score for Mass Effect™ 2, the epic second act in the award-winning action-RPG trilogy. Featuring nearly three hours of extraordinary orchestral arrangements, the score explodes with a symphony of sounds that spur the game’s intense action and dramatic storytelling. Wall scored the award-winning soundtracks for the original Mass Effect.

“We are thrilled to again be collaborating with Jack Wall, this time on Mass Effect 2,” said Dr. Ray Muzyka, co-founder, BioWare and Group General Manager of the RPG/MMO Group of EA. “Jack did an outstanding job with the original game and has a firm grasp for our vision of the trilogy. His score for Mass Effect 2 perfectly blends classic sci-fi inspired sounds with unique arrangements to achieve an emotionally charged complement to the dramatic, action-packed gameplay.”

“Working on the Mass Effect franchise has challenged me to create music beyond what I’ve written before,” said composer Jack Wall. “With Mass Effect 2, the story is even more engrossing and affecting, so it was important for me, along with my team of composers Sam Hulick, David Kates, Jimmy Hinson, and music implementation by Brian DiDomenico, to develop a score that complemented the scope and intensity of the gameplay while captivating the players and drawing them deeper into the story.”

The Mass Effect trilogy is an epic science fiction adventure set in a vast universe filled with dangerous alien life and mysterious, uncharted planets. In Mass Effect 2, players will once again step into the role of the heroic Commander Shepard, commanding their crew of some of the most dangerous operatives from across the galaxy on a mission so challenging that it’s potentially suicidal. Featuring intense shooter action, a rich futuristic storyline, space exploration and emotionally engaging character interaction, the game delivers an unparalleled cinematic experience.

The Reality:

I got several comments about my Dragon Age soundtrack review saying I was ‘too easy’ in my criticism of the actual music – and also that I focused too much on the value. I thought I made my thoughts pretty clear, saying it was a “typical mixture of light fantasy themes, heavy classical bombast, and tribal rhythmic segments” that was done better by Gothic 3, constantly tagged ‘I am the one’ as ‘award-winning’ (the sarcasm was lost in print), and said the music quickly became “tired and stale, and I really don’t mind if I just turn off the sound and hear nothing as I play”. Indeed, I’ve actually removed it from my 4GB iPod Nano, giving the space to more deserving works.

Part of the attraction in any soundtrack is that it helps you relive parts of a favorite game or movie in your mind. I love Ennio Morricone’s “The Good The Bad and The Ugly” soundtrack as music, but the true joy in listening to “The Ecstasy of Gold” for me is remembering the tense scene in the graveyard and the stunning cinematography. By the time I listened to the Dragon Age soundtrack I had already completed the game and therefore knew every last bit, and by the time I wrote the review I was already playing without sound. Yet I still regard it as one of the best game soundtracks of 2009, and since I played over 100 games to completion on various platforms last year, you can take from that whatever meaning you’d like.

Jack Wall has been composing for video game soundtracks for many years, and his resume includes some popular games such as Myst III and IV, Unreal 2, Dungeon Siege II, as well as working with Bioware on Jade Empire and the original Mass Effect. As such he has a strong history working with both traditional orchestras and synthesizers and other digital composition methods. The Mass Effect 2 soundtrack mixes both styles throughout.

With Mass Effect, the soundtrack arrived a week before the game, and so I had the opportunity to listen through it twice completely before starting the game. Since then I have listened to it a few more times, and I have definitely noticed the strong contrast in my listening experience.

When I first listened to the Mass Effect 2 soundtrack I thought it was pretty cool stuff, but largely forgettable. There are some very nicely done tracks, but there is also loads of filler. Some of the themes that repeat are neither inventive nor interesting. In short I considered it a throw-away sci-fi soundtrack that was nicely done but not overly memorable or successful as a stand-alone musical work.

Then I listened again after playing the game. Well, perhaps it is more truthful to say that I was listening to the music from the soundtrack from the second I started playing Mass Effect 2. It really is amazing the difference that context makes – when I hear the music in-game I can immediately recognize the themes, but more importantly when I listen again on my iPod I am visually transported back to the scenes in the game where I heard the music.

As video game background music it works very well – the textures produce a nice backdrop for the tense shooter action elements of the game, while the motives help reinforce characters and places and themes. I found that the juxtaposition of orchestral and synthetic music really helped in terms of providing the simultaneous feeling of a sci-fi shooter action game and an epic space drama.

Compared to Mass Effect, the tone is darker, the themes more pointed and less ambient, and the songs are much, much longer. Of course the darker tone makes sense in terms of the plot and story elements, which I’ll not discuss here. I am not sure one which I like more, as there are significant differences that mirror many of the differences of the game. While Mass Effect was better in terms of ambient segments that repeated over and over, Mass Effect 2 builds stronger identification of motives associated with characters and areas and ideas.

The bonus soundtrack you get if you buy the Digital Deluxe version of the game is fully represented in the purchased soundtrack, and lasts ~35 minutes. So unlike Dragon Age, getting the soundtrack gives you all of the available music.

So I have talked about the music – and let me be very clear that it is only by direct association with the narrative elements of Mass Effect 2 the game that Mass Effect 2 the soundtrack had any traction in my brain. It is nice music and complements the game very well, but as a standalone work it really left me fairly cold.

How about as a value? For $12 on Amazon or iTunes you get nearly 2 full hours of music – which would be an excellent price for buying music in general. But in a soundtrack you know that there will be repeated themes, ambient backgrounds, and other filler. That is certainly the case here, when I was listening to the soundtrack before playing the game I estimated more than half of the songs I never cared if I heard again or felt redundant. With the filler content removed, there is still more music remaining than the entire Dragon Age soundtrack. Also, as mentioned the music included with the game is less than 25% of the full soundtrack. So from a value perspective you are actually getting a decent amount of content for the money.

But all of my criticism of the music itself ignores the fact that Mass Effect 2 has quickly become a critical darling, and is being played by millions of PC and XBOX360 gamers. That means that many folks will want to extend the experience – by grabbing DLC when it is available, using the included artwork as their computer background, and listening to the soundtrack as background music. Heck, I’m sure that there are plenty of Mass Effect 2 ringtones out there already! For that group, only one question matters: Does the soundtrack do an effective job of putting me back in the game? The answer to that is definitely ‘yes’. For anyone else, though, I advise skipping this one.

Here is the track list, with the tracks included in the ‘Deluxe Editions’ of the game highlighted:
Disc 1:
01. The Illusive Man (02:23)
02. Humans Are Disappearing (02:00)
03. The Attack (05:13)
04. The Lazarus Project (01:10)
05. A Rude Awakening (01:39)
06. The Normandy Reborn (02:06)

07. Miranda (05:22)
08. Jacob (06:02)
09. Freedom’s Progress (05:41)
10. Thane (09:19)
11. Garrus (06:04)
12. An Unknown Enemy (02:41)
13. Samara (08:53)

Disc 2:
01. Grunt (05:26)
02. Horizon (02:56)
03. Tali (05:58)
04. Mordin (06:27)
05. The Normandy Attacked (02:11)
06. Jack (06:28)
07. Legion (06:22)
08. Jump Drive (02:16)
09. Crash Landing (03:43)
10. The Collector Base (03:52)

11. The End Run (02:57)
12. Suicide Mission (04:45)
13. New Worlds (02:30)
14. Reflections (01:19)

Where to Buy: Amazon.com

Price: $11.99

What I Like:
– Music perfectly suits the game
– Some memorable themes bring you back to the game

What Needs Improvement:
– Unless you are a fan of the game there isn’t much to grab you.

3 Responses to " Mass Effect 2: Video Game Soundtrack Review "

  1. Allistair Lee says:

    GD: Video Game Soundtrack Review: Mass Effect 2 http://bit.ly/byyjWk

  2. Video Game Soundtrack Review: Mass Effect 2 | Gear Diary: Jack Wall has been composing for video game soundtracks … http://bit.ly/ckktqZ

  3. Video Game Soundtrack Review: Mass Effect 2 | Gear Diary: Jack Wall has been composing for video game soundtracks … http://bit.ly/9qDhK2

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