Just like 2011, 2012 was a year chock full of great games with equally great soundtracks. We were wowed by gaming’s diverse soundscape, from the smaller titles to big releases, and here we share some of our personal favourites.
Max Payne 3 – “Tears”
In the words of former Press X Or Die contributor Miodrag Kovacevic, “Max Payne 3 is a good game on its own, but an abysmal addition to the series.” Although I am personally inclined to agree, regardless of how you felt about Rockstar’s early 2012 revival of the series, no “Best Game Music of 2012” list is complete without at least giving some mention to Max Payne 3’s soundtrack. Composed by West Coast noise-rock group HEALTH, Max Payne 3’s score twists, turns, and builds with every level, finally climaxing on a hyper-violent note as Max fights his way through an airport terminal while the gritty and psychedelic “Tears” blares into the player’s psyche. I wasn’t exactly happy with where Rockstar took Max Payne 3’s story, but if the inevitable Max Payne 4 is able to properly follow the atmosphere and tone set by Max Payne 3’s score, I might play it just to hear the soundtrack.
Atelier Ayesha – “Maria”
I loathe reaching the final boss in a game only to find the insidious bastard accompanied by something melodically absent. That jaw-clenching encounter should be magnificent, one of those rare proper uses of the word epic. The music should reflect the gravity of the situation, the intensity of brandishing your weapon against your greatest foe. “Maria” marshalls that feeling wonderfully. There’s a sense of dismal resignation in the vocals; that you’re stepping into the battle despite how one-sided it may be, fully aware that your life may very well be forfeit. It’s also a shining example of the mood shift in this, latest Atelier game: from blithesome to a more grim state.
Dishonored – “Drunken Whaler”
I don’t think this song is featured in the game at all. Some NPCs will whistle a fraction of the tune—very inharmoniously I might add. Otherwise, it’s mostly absent. That said, “Drunken Whaler” was fairly pervasive in Bethesda’s marketing, so anyone who keeps up with gaming should have stumbled upon the piece in a trailer.
So why choose it at all when it’s placement in the game is perfunctory at best? There are tracks I found more acoustically sound (ho ho ho) in-game, but I feel as if this piece in particular set the mood for the world better than the rest. It encompassed the dismal state of affairs with an unsettlingly eldritch touch: a keen taste of what to expect from Dishonored. “Drunken Whaler” is as close to a fitting theme song as you can get, and it’s exactly the sort of morbid sea shanty you’d expect to hear children crooning throughout Dunwall.
Mass Effect 3 – “Das Malefitz”
So I’m one of those people that wasn’t overly fond of the ending of Mass Effect 3, and the Credits song playing as it sinks in what just happened has thus somewhat seared the song into my brain. It’s also about the only game I’ve sat back and not been hitting Escape/Space/Alt+F4 once the credits start rolling. Both from shock and due to the pretty cool tune going on. It’s probably the only credit song (that wasn’t just the main theme) that I would be able to pick out for you, so it’s not just my track of the year but my ending song of forever. It also stands out rather distinctly from the rest of the soundtrack which is mostly fairly samey orchestral tunes and a departure from previous more techno, sci-fi like, electronica.
Hotline Miami – “Knock Knock”
I came dangerously close to putting Hotline Miami forward as my personal Game Of The Year, and its music played a very big part in why I enjoyed it. One track in particular that sticks out to me is “Knock Knock” by Scattle. It’s played on one chapter near the end of the game, while your character rampages through a police station in search of a lead. It absolutely nails the tone of how much of a badass your character is, just marching in completely unarmed, and laying waste to three floors’ worth of Miami’s Finest. The entire soundtrack can be streamed over on Soundcloud if you want to take a listen to it.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown – “Hidden Movement”
Another game that I loved a lot this year was XCOM: Enemy Unknown. Its soundtrack, composed by Michael McCann and Roland Rizzo, had an almost-perfect blend of creepy, atmospheric music, and cinematic action music, and its many missions float back and forth between both. The one that best captures the essence of the game, I feel, is Hidden Movement. This track encapsulates the fear and dread of your team – some of which are likely to be on their first mission – experience in the field. It’s eerie in that you don’t really know what’s going to happen next, or who or what you’ll encounter on your mission, and it matches that by leaving you guessing as to whether or not the slow, cautious pace of the almost-ambient tone, is suddenly going to ramp up and catch you off your guard.
Mass Effect 3 – “I Was Lost Without You”
As the Mass Effect series shifted further into space opera and sci-fi blockbuster territory, so did its soundtrack. However, while Clint Mansell scored some moving pieces, my pick comes from a composer who has been there since the beginning: the outstanding Sam Hulick. He’s well-versed in combining classical music forms with electronic elements, and shifts the balance back towards the traditional here for a track that I fell in love with ever since I heard a preview snippet (featuring an alternative piano part which I have included in an edit here).
The change in tone marked by Mass Effect 3’s story is matched by the track, emphasising the fleeting moments shared by Shepard and companions during their struggle to save the galaxy. Opening with a melancholic piano melody, it eventually swells into a powerful ensemble that combines uplifting themes with mournful sounding violins, underscored by synthesizer, all to terrific effect. Just like the series in which it features, the track means different things to different people, depending on their (or their Shepard’s) perspective. Does it a suggest a final glorious moment together, a celebration of everything they’ve shared or is it hopeful for the future?
Assassin’s Creed III – “Trouble In Town”
The whole soundtrack is actually rather good, if perhaps made a little less interesting sonically by the shift in scenery (Revolutionary America just ain’t no Renaissance Italy). The game sees Lorne Balfe taking over from Jesper Kyd, a long-time composer on the series, and doing a great job of beefing up the themes to grander proportions. It’s unfortunate that, on many occasions, the game sabotages the whole dynamic.
This piece is a standout for me, but you’d be forgiven for missing it in-game; arriving during a sequence that features quite possibly the series’ most finicky and horribly-implemented use of scripted elements, and where even control hiccups will have you questioning the existence of Ubisoft’s QA team. The song is booming with heroism and menace, casting you as the avenging badass, but the game reduces you to the part of an actor who keeps missing his action beats and must go for another take. Ultimately, though, I highly recommend sampling the soundtrack in isolation.
Double Dragon Neon – “City Streets 2 (Mango Tango)”
This came pretty much out of left field. I was playing Double Dragon Neon at a friend’s place and found all the ’80s aesthetics and self-parody “neat”. However, as soon as we got to the second level, the OST decided to help the game’s atmosphere jump from “neat” to “amazing”. My first reaction was “This has to be a licensed song from the ’80s. No way someone made this specifically for the game”.
And that’s possibly the greatest success of both Mango Tango and the Double Dragon Neon OST in general: it manages to cherry-pick everything that was good about the 80s and create an authentic atmosphere. Rather than go the “cheap” route and just buy a bunch of licensed music to evoke a retro mood, it recognizes all the motifs of the era and creates something both retro and modern at the same time. And while that statement sounds pretentious as hell, I fail to find any other way to describe the sensation of listening to this track. Jake Kaufman, this was amazing work. (You can find the complete soundtrack available at a neat ‘Pay What You Want’ price over on Bandcamp).
And that wraps it up from us. No doubt we’ve missed some of your own picks, so don’t hesitate to let us know about some other gems, either in the comments or over on the forums!