Dragon Age: Origins demanded considerably more subtlety and depth from Inon Zur than most of his preceding action scores. The game itself was crafted as a dark fantasy epic and required a musical score that reflected its setting, drama, and mythology. Intent to deliver, Zur explored a range of styles for the soundtrack, ranging from mystical ambience to brutal action cues to elvish hymns. The audio team at BioWare also ensured high quality production values for the title, blending recordings with the Northwest Sinfonia and Chorus with the distinctive voice of soloist Aubrey Ashburn. In December 2009, Electronic Arts released a more complete digital soundtrack for the game on iTunes, featuring 35 pieces and an one hour of music. Does the full score satisfy?
The opening theme suitably sets the tone for BioWare's dark fantasy epic and is a stunning complement to the cinematic. The first section features Aubrey Ashburn's exotic vocals beautifully interweaving with an elegiac trumpet countermelody. The power of the Northwest Sinfonia is testified at the 0:53 mark as the composition heads into a bombastic action sequence so characteristic of Zur's work. Nevertheless, the composer has the compassion to break up these sequences with a beautiful flute and vocal passage before ending the composition on an uplifting yet uncertain note. The memorable and meaningful melody makes welcome reappearances elsewhere in the score, such as in the contemplative "Elves at the Mecry of Men" and majestic "King Edrin", all the while enhancing the storyline and ensuring it remains a drama focused on humanity.
Of course, Zur's characteristically styled action music is also dominant in the score. One of the finest additions to the album, "The Battle of Lothering Village", is a slow-building imperial march featuring all the elements one might expect from an epic game music theme — string crisis motifs, chorus chanting, and furious percussion. It's far from a creative conception, but stands out at least for its high quality production values and stimulating development. It's incredible how Zur fluidly evolves this composition to enter, culminating in a beautiful trumpet solo at the 1:45 mark. Tracks like "The Deep Roads" and "Battle The Darkspawn Hordes" sound even more stereotypical and seem to be more about high quality production values than compositional intricacy. While some of these pieces could have come from a stock 'epic cinematic music' production library, others like "To Kill an Ogre" and "Challenge an Arch Demon" are genuinely artistic and fascinating. Though Zur is certainly bombastic, he rarely uses loudness as a mask to hide elephantine composing in this case.
Although Zur's musicality can be heard throughout the score, there are refreshing departures in the more atmospheric works. Some compositions like "Mages in Their Chantry" and "The Dungeons of Landsmeet" are reminiscent of Danny Elfman with their fantastical chord progressions and haunting choral support. Although quite short cues, so much emotion and variation is packed into their playtime that they still appeal on the soundtrack release. There are also some exceptional examples of cinematic underscore on the full soundtrack, such as "The Betrayal" and "The Chantries Hubris", that could easily fit in a highbrow Hollywood score. Others take a more classically-oriented approach, particularly "Human Nobility" with its elegant if schmaltzy violin and trumpet solos, whereas "Join the Grey Wardens" demonstrates Zur's capacity to use exotic forces. Note, however, that many of the biggest novelties in the soundtrack such as "Tavern Brawl" and "Rise of the Darkspawn" are exclusive to the Collector's Edition.
Aside the main theme, the vocal themes provide the main highlights of the soundtrack. "Lelianna's Song" is an exceptional beautiful elvish hymn inspired, as with much of the rest of the soundtrack, by Howard Shore. It is quite minimalistic as a composition, featuring a vocal performance against harp arpeggios and soft strings, but Aubrey Ashburn brings out so much feeling to the melody that this is actually an advantage. She returns as the co-composer and vocalist of the ending theme, "I Am the One", previously featured at A Night of Fantasia 2009. This is one of the most artistic ballads in game music. Ashburn creates so much warmth and mysticism while interpreting the elvish lyrics, while the supporting instrumentals retain a wistful organic flavour. Exclusive to the full soundtrack, the Dark Fantasy Version is of exceptional quality and embellishes all the emotions and imagery featured in the original song.
Inon Zur's score for Dragon Age: Origins is quite deserving of the acclaim it has received so far. As with most of the composer's works, it is technologically accomplished and functions effectively within the game. What's more, it's also often an emotional and entertaining listen thanks to Zur's memorable leading themes and experiments in other styles. Although a bonus soundtrack is available with the Collector's Edition of the game, the more complete digital soundtrack released on iTunes is far more recommended. It features many wonderful exclusive cues and is more faithful to the original context. However, many should be aware that many of the compositions were created as brief and intricate cinematic underscore, so not all are recommended out-of-context. Furthermore, some excellent cues were still omitted in the full release. Nevertheless, Dragon Age: Origins goes quite far beyond the boundary of being 'merely competent' and serves as an artistically inspiring work too. Inon Zur's soundtrack is one of the premiere examples of an accomplished cinematic video game score.