Master Chief is back in this installment of one of modern gaming's most high flying franchises. Microsoft took a big risk forming a new developer (343 Industries) from scratch to take on a new trilogy of Halo games. They added into it a new race of aliens (the Prometheans, not to be confused with Mass Effect's Protheans), a more personal story, and some interesting new features, including the ability to play as the flood, a new giant walking mech vehicle and an episodic story based co-op mode. Though perhaps the biggest change in the franchise is the new direction for the music. This is the first game in the main series not to be handled by the acclaimed duo Martin O'Donnell and Michael Salvatori. Instead Bristol-based producer, composer and songwriter Neil Davidge best known for his work with Massive Attack is responsible for the score of this game. He brings a new sound to the saga while staying true to the series' past heritage. The intention according to Davidge was to add "a touch of romance" to the score as well as some new electronic sounds.
The soundtrack opens with "Awakening", which is a hard-hitting first foray into the new Halo soundscape. The opening is slightly misleading as it opens with this really atmospheric, crescendoing, shimmering soundscape from strings and light choir. It's a fantastic album opener and stays true to the series' heritage, but this section lasts for just over 30 seconds, which is disappointing. I was hoping for a bit more development of this material, instead what we get is slightly generic electro-orchestral action music. It's not bad it's well-produced, boasts some interesting harmonies and I like it when the choir comes in lightly backing up the interesting harmonic movements. However, there's nothing else that's particularly evocative about this track and it's not as compelling as what preceded. It's a shame as there was some real potential here. The next track "Belly of the Beast" is more of this style of music. I like the percussion work here, it's great at driving the music forward when it needs to be, but again I wasn't particularly compelled.
I believe the music of the Halo series has always been at it's best when it's slowed down and focused on building up interesting textures, something that Martin O'Donnell was very good at. The same holds true here with this new direction of music, as shown in "Requiem", just with a different kind of sound. Instead of the plainchant style melodies and thick choral textures the series has been famous for, this track uses interesting and unpredictable electronic sounds and thick romantic orchestration to great effect. In this game we get to see a more personal side to Master Chief, and tracks like this really add a more personal touch to a story and characters that could quite easily become an afterthought. "Legacy" is also slow but goes for a more tension building atmosphere, utilizing poetic singers, something that O'Donnell touched on in Halo: Reach.
The rest of the album consists of lengthier, more focused tracks. "Faithless" introduces some electric guitar to give the action sound palette a larger rock feel. It's relatively subtle compared to other tracks of this kind, allowing the heavy electro-orchestral sound to do most of the work. "Haven" is back to the slow romantic music, using electronic sounds and patterns that remind me of Craig Armstrong's music and sweeping, lush romantic string melodies and harmonies. There's a particularly dramatic build-up towards the end of this track that effectively leads into the next track, "Nemesis". A very eerie opening leads into a romantic string section which is then driven forward by some electronic bass, the melody is then accentuated by the choir. The choir here has a very different sound to what we're used to from the Halo series it's more edgy and articulate compared to the big sound of Martin O'Donnell's scores.
"Solace" is in my opinion the best track on the album. The electronics here assist the overall sound as oppose to interfere and take over as they do in later tracks on the album. A quiet opening leads to probably the most dramatic build up on the album, with really great supporting harp and piano lines and a melody that sounds almost Asian in it's progression, which is helped by a subtle gong like sound in the background. Familiar note patterns from past scores return in the opening passage of "To Galaxy", the next sections feature a walking synth bass and an orchestral build up, which reaches a pretty effective climax point just after the half way point, with more interesting electronics making their entrance.
Unfortunately, some of the longer tracks that proceed it don't offer very much that really grabs your attention. "Immaterial" attempts to go for more creepy sounding slow scoring, but ends up being a mess of uncomfortable sounds which often don't gel as intended, and the textures are far too heavy and jam packed with electronic sounds. There's an interesting piano riff somewhere in there, but it's not enough to save it for me. "117", contributed by 343 Industries' music supervisor Kazuma Jinnouchi, has a great melody, orchestral, and choir lines but again it's far too heavy on the electronics and very over-produced. It would've been much better if it was more natural; see half way through the track where the electronics give way to a cool piano riff reminiscent of O'Donnell's music.
"Arrival" is an improvement in this regard, allowing a convincing melody to shine through instead of overloading the listener with unnecessary electronic sounds. This track reminds me of Steve Jablonsky's "Arrival to Earth" from the Transformers film soundtrack in terms of the effect they're going for, albeit with more movement, and I think it works very well. The quiet finish is very effective too. "Revival" brings a choir into the mix, which is stylistically reminiscent of the recent Alone in the Dark game. Focusing on precise and clear diction as oppose to a thick sound, it serves to create tension very well. Again, I really don't like the dominant electronic sounds that punctuate towards the end of the track. I understand the effect that Davidge was going for but it could have been a lot more subtle, like "Green and Blue", which is a return to the fantastic slower scoring we've heard before. Solos from the cello and oboe really set the mood for this track, which dramatically tells tales of looking to the future, mourning of lost companions and moving on. It's a fantastic album finale and I hope we hear more of this romantic orchestral writing in future scores in the series.
Overall, I think that the Halo 4 soundtrack is one of two halves. I found the more fast paced action music to be fairly average and uncompelling, sounding too much like music I've already heard before in plenty of (admittedly other often inferior) Hollywood style AAA titles. Some of the electronics in play here also felt really out-of-place and off-putting for the Halo franchise. However, much of the slower music remains as engaging as the series' music has ever been. In fact, many people feel that some of the music of Halo 4 surpasses past scores in the series. The romantic string writing is skillfully moulded to fit into the Halo series heritage and adds a real emotional backbone to a series that could have become stale without a change in direction.
Taken as an overall soundtrack, I think this is worth giving a chance, but I would sample it and try it out before buying. After all, some people love it, others hate it. I think there may be a few Halo purists out there that might feel the new direction for the series music loses that Halo identity, and to an extent that's true, but it's also setting up a new identity. With the establishment of this new sound, I feel that there's a lot of potential to expand upon in future scores for this juggernaut of a franchise. If Neil Davidge can create a more unique action sound and tone down the piercing electronics, then I think it'll be a highly successful one.