Two years after the release of the critically praised Among Thieves considered by many sites to be the Game of the Year in 2009 Naughty Dog returned with the third installment in the Uncharted series, Drake's Deception. After winning a pair of BAFTA awards (and a host of other accolades) for his scoring of Among Thieves, Greg Edmonson was brought back to score Drake's Deception in a new studio across the Atlantic with a new team of musicians. Switching from the mountains of the Himalayas to the deserts of Yemen as the backdrop for the action, Edmonson does an impressive job of adding new ethnic elements into the score which somehow remains faithful to its two predecessors. The soundtrack was released in three forms: a short promotional release through Piggyback, a full-length digital release through Sony, and an extended two disc album through La-La Land Records. This review refers to the two disc album.
I imagine that most game composers shudder when they're asked to compose music for a desert level or, worse, a game set in a desert. Unless they are given free creative reign over the score, and a sizable budget, the result will almost always sound like the nasal droning of Mega Man 6's Flame Man stage. Thankfully, Greg Edmonson is not a typical game composer and rose to the challenge of Uncharted 3 with the finished product being an exciting action piece that frames and is not hindered by ethnic instrumentation and vocals to help establish setting.
"Nate's Theme" returns to begin the soundtrack and although it is more or less unaltered from its earlier incarnations with its swelling, triumphant horn melody and tribal percussion backbeat, it is more polished and developed this time around. As an opening piece, this sets the tone of the album perfectly: the music you'll hear is undeniably Uncharted, but it will be interpreted through a different lens this time. Sweeping, broad pieces like "Badlands" which feature cinematic orchestral music supporting featured ethnic elements firmly establish the Arabian quality of the album. Yet if there were any lingering doubts, the beautiful and beautifully integrated vocals of Azam Ali first featured on "As above, so Below" and highlighted in "Science and Magic" will help transport the listener to Edmonson's vision of the desert.
Being an action game, it stands that Uncharted 3 would, like its predecessors, feature a good number of action tracks. In this department, Edmonson delivers more quality and variety than one would think possible. The pulse pounding brass and percussion of "Pursuit" plays wonderfully against staccato strings and nasal double-reed melodies. "Shootout" is a far more western offering, being quintessentially Uncharted from start to finish with tension built by a relentless string section and brass hits that recall some of the greater moments of 1950s orchestral big band scoring. "Oh no Chateau" stands out as my favorite action track for its title alone, and the dramatic and tense string work that follows the vibrant and multi-layered orchestral build in the opening 45 seconds never failed to make my hairs stand on end before the climax of the piece took over.
Like so much of the action in the Uncharted games, Edmonson's score relies heavily on dramatic tension and the very real possibility of falling flat on its face in order to be appreciated. Several tracks on Drake's Deception could be prematurely dismissed for being generic orchestral action tracks that one would hear at any given summer blockbuster. Yet the genius of Edmonson shines through in these tracks as you realize that he took these risks in order to set up some key musical moments on the album. For example, "Museum Bust" builds an air of tension with ominous strings over swelling low brass for the first two minutes before, of all things, a Flamenco guitar melody materializes over action-driven percussion rhythms.
My personal favorite near miss on the album was "The Settlement". This is a rich and vibrant ambient track (again featuring Azam Ali's vocal work) that segues into a near-forgettable action track which while technically challenging provides little in the way innovation... until it ends with a highly distorted sample of Led Zeppelin's "Dazed and Confused" that offers a wonderful elbow-in-the-side joke to elements of the game's main plot. The confidence with which Edmonson executes these tracks is almost as inspiring as the finished product.
It should be noted that the physical release of the soundtrack features a whole disc of additional music to that featured on the digital version. Some of the exclusives are more cinematic in nature, but they develop in an appealing manner. For example, the loud brass splats of "Stowaway" risk losing a listener's interest early on, but halfway through the track after a quick beat of silence, a Middle Eastern melody is presented and transforms the sound entirely. "Secret Order" and "The Streets of Yemen" also develops the Arabian feel of the album and have an important role in the game experience. Among other exclusives are special powerplay remixes of "Reckless", "Science and Magic", and "Iram of the Pillars". Overall, it is a fine supplement to the more focused first disc of the release.
As an increasing number of Triple A games rely on derivative action soundtracks full of quasi-Latin vocals and metal pipe noises, the scores of the Uncharted series stand apart for their challenging orchestral arrangements and implementation of ethnic musical intricacies. Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception is an absolutely solid soundtrack that delivers cinematic tension, evocative ethnic elements, and a sound that innovates upon the previous two offerings in the Uncharted series and is one soundtrack that will not disappoint the most discriminating of game music enthusiasts. The excellently presented double disc version offers a much deeper exploration of the game experience and musical diversity of the soundtrack, and is well worth its twenty dollar pricetag.