There are many, many things to love about the HALOverse. The games are landmarks of the FPS genre; every single one of the original games is epic in scale and scope, addictive to play, and immensely good fun. Even HALO WARS, which most fans consider to be the weakest game in the series, has some great features which I love. But no game can be truly complete without a phenomenal soundtrack behind it.
Every one of the 6 games before HALO 4 has had this. The original HALO: Combat Evolved had an amazing soundtrack, composed by the great Martin O'Donnell and Michael Salvatori. The music completed an already incredible game, adding texture and depth to the combat and atmosphere and wonder to the backgrounds and levels. There is nothing like listening to the soundtrack to bring back memories of fighting the Covenant aboard the Pillar of Autumn, or the horrors of fighting the Flood and the dread of battling through levels like "Two Betrayals" or "343 Guilty Spark".
Marty and Michael carried on their outstanding collaboration through HALO 2, HALO 3, HALO 3: ODST, and especially HALO: Reach. To me, though, the greatest game of all time also has the greatest game soundtrack of all time- nothing and no one could possibly top HALO 3 in my esteem.
Or so I thought, until Neil Davidge came up with the music for HALO 4.
When Bungie left the HALO series to Microsoft and moved on to a 10-year deal with Activision to create their new MMORPG series, Destiny, I had my doubts about whether 343 Industries could pull off a really great HALO game without a really great soundtrack. I thought there was simply no way anyone could possibly come up with a soundtrack that was as rich, textured, and sublime as what Marty O'Donnell could so consistently come up with for the HALO games.
Boy, was I wrong.
Neil Davidge would be instantly recongisable to fans of electronica as one of the masterminds behind MASSIVE ATTACK. I personally don't listen to electronica very much at all, so I had no idea who this guy was before I played HALO 4, but whoever he is, he's a goddamn genius. The soundtrack to HALO 4 was released in two parts, with part 1 released concurrently with the game and part 2 released on April 9th.
Part 1 is the better of the two, with a total of some 16 tracks (plus 4 bonus dowloadable ones if you bought the CD version). The greatest and most moving songs on the game are on that album, and the sense of childlike wonder and stupefied awe that you feel when playing H4 are perfectly conveyed by listening to tracks like "To Galaxy", "Solace", "Ascendancy", "Awakening", or "Belly of the Beast". The final, terrible battle against the Didact, in which Cortana sacrifices herself to save the Chief, is beautifully conveyed in "Arrival", which along with "117" is my favourite track on the album.
The showcase track is of course "117", which is the perfect anthem for the Master Chief; somehow it perfectly captures the power, stoicism, honour, and dedication of the Chief in his desperate battles to save humanity. The Chief's theme is simple yet solemn, driven by strings and backed by powerful percussion; I never fail to be inspired by this song, for it reminds me of everything that I admire in the Chief, everything that he stands for. The theme repeats itself in various permutations throughout both volumes of the soundtrack, and it reminds me very much of "Finish the Fight" and "The Storm: This is the Hour" from the H3 soundtrack album in its power, purpose, and strident resolution.
Part 2 contains all of the music that they couldn't shoehorn onto the first volume, rather like the way the HALO 2 soundtrack was split into two parts. This volume is weighed down with some of the more boring tracks, which is unfortunate, but there are still some amazing tracks here that are completely worth the price of admission. Take "Mantis", for instance, which starts off with an electronic beat and quickly segues into solemn, dark strings backed by a driving percussive rhythm that bring back awesome memories of thundering through the UNSC Infinity's hold and smashing the Covenant lines on the way to the automated defences of the ship to drive off the Didact's Cryptum. This is a track that I really wanted to hear on the first volume, but which was left off.
Possibly the greatest track on Volume 2 is Kazuma Junnouchi's take on the Marty O'Donnell classic "Never Forget". This track is itself a reworked version of "Unforgotten" from HALO 2, and is the most emotional piece of music in the entire series. I never fail to be deeply moved when listening to these tracks, and "Never Forget (Midnight Version)" takes that emotional connection to a whole new level with its sweeping strings and mournful horn section, to which a beautifully solemn piano accompaniment is added. This song is the perfect way to end the game, reflecting upon the emotional shock of Cortana's death and the deep wound that it leaves upon the Chief (and, by extension, the player), yet promising that the Chief will return stronger and more driven than ever. The closest analogue that I can come up with is the alternate version of John Williams's "Funeral for a Jedi" from the Return of the Jedi soundtrack- the one with the really stirring and powerful string section that was actually left out of the original movie and subsequently released as a B-side of sorts.
The more electronica-style tracks are a bit of an acquired taste; personally, I don't mind them at all, especially tracks like "This Armour" (released as "Armour" as a bonus track for the first volume). There are a few which fall rather flat, but overall the second volume is still an extremely solid album with some real emotional highs that make it extremely easy to listen to.
I love listening to great game soundtracks because they provide very pleasing background noise while I'm working, without making me want to get up and headbang (which would be rather a problem at the office, it must be said...). And there is no set of game soundtracks quite like the HALO series. Every single one of the soundtracks in the series is amazing. I get something different from each one every time I listen to it. And this soundtrack is no exception. The soundtrack to HALO 4 is what changed it from merely a great game to a truly magnificent one, and when I finished playing it through for the second time two weeks ago, I found that my appreciation for the game had grown by leaps and bounds, simply because the soundtrack itself had grown on me.
Neil Davidge has done what I thought was truly impossible: he has matched and in some cases even exceeded the impossibly high standard laid down by Marty O'Donnell's sublime work. His collaboration with Kazuma Junnouchi has worked spectacularly, and I am really looking forward to hearing and seeing what happens with HALO 5, which in my opinion cannot be released soon enough.
Verdict: 5/5; truly brilliant, absolutely essential, magnificent work
KILLER KUTS: "117", "Arrival", "To Galaxy", "Mantis", "Sacrifice", "Never Forget (Midnight Version)"