The massive success of the original Halo not only guaranteed a sequel but threw Microsoft's marketing machine into full gear. In retrospect, the launch of Halo 2 felt more like the premiere of a summer blockbuster than a game, with marketing tie-ins aplenty. Returning for the second installment were composers Martin O'Donnell and Michael Salvatori, whose elegant combination of orchestral and electronic sounds had defined the first game.
The sequel's mantra of "bigger and better" applied to the music as well; rather than a single album, Halo 2 would see two volumes of music released. Major bands were signed up to provide original songs for the albums, while O'Donnell and Salvatori were able to power up their music with better synths and live instruments recorded by the Northwest Sinfonia, resulting in a noticeably deeper, fuller sound. Volume 1 featured 30 minutes of music from O'Donnell and Salvatori alongside 40 minutes of music from acts like Incubus, Breaking Benjamin, and Hoobastank.
Of the album's seven songs, only "Follow" by Incubus really fits in with the sound of the game's score (and, unlike many of the others, actually features in gameplay). The other three Incubus tracks are more like extended jam sessions than anything else, and while good enough in their own way, they are far too mellow and grungy to fit in with the other instrumental tracks. The less said about the songs by the other artists, the better — they don't fit the style or tone of the game or its music at all, and are really nothing more than shameless marketing tie-ins. Their inclusion is the biggest misstep in Volume 1; they break up O'Donnell and Salvatori's music into two and three track chunks leading to a very inconsistent listening experience as the music seesaws between genres.
The original score material is very strong in general, weighted toward the lively electronic fusion elements of O'Donnell and Salvatori's music. Most of the tracks are rather short, especially when compared with the mammoth 10-minute Incubus songs, but in general maintain a high standard of quality. A "Mjolnir Mix" (really just an electric guitar overlay) of the original Halo theme opens the album on a pleasing note; several other rearrangements of themes from the original are sprinkled throughout the music, notably a very nice version of "Walk in the Woods" in "Heretic, Hero."
Triumphant but troubled music from the game's trailer is present in "The Last Spartan," which features a more faithful presentation of the original game's theme as its coda. But it's "Earth City," the lengthiest score cue on the album, that's the real standout. Swaying piano set against jagged strings creates a contentious mood (and subtly reprises fragments of the main theme) while a soft chorus adds weight at key moments. It sets a soaring yet tragic mood that's very compelling, and, interestingly, features no obvious synth parts or electronic overlays.
The Halo 2 Original Soundtrack Vol. 1 is a wash, a mixture of some very good O'Donnell/Salvatori material (including the absolutely essential "Earth City") and songs that just don't fit in with them. It's an album any Halo fan should have on their shelf, but as a listening experience it falls flat considerably.