A History of Unreal Music was a CD sold as part of the Unreal Anthology. This collection also featured the original Unreal and its expansion Return to Na Pali, Unreal Tournament, Unreal II: The Awakening, and Unreal Tournament 2004. These days, certainly among game developers and the modding community, the Unreal name has become more well known as a game engine upon which loads of games have been built, thanks to Unrealscript and the flexibility of the engine. However, the Unreal games were where it all started, and they're still great games to this day. Unreal and Unreal II told great stories, while the Unreal Tournament series redefined online multiplayer for first person shooters for it's time, directly competing with Quake III Arena.
A lot of different composers have worked on this series in its past, and as a result this CD contains a wide variety of styles. Alexander Brandon and Michiel van den Bos both contribute some electronic based music, some of it atmospheric, and some of it adrenaline pumping action music, while Kevin Riepl's contributions have an epic orchestral sound with some electronic undertones. There are also odd tracks here and there from a few other composers all with a distinctive sound. This ensures that this anthology is always interesting to listen to. I think it would have been nice to include some tracks from Unreal II, and possibly some tracks from the Unreal Championship games, but what we get on this CD is still a nice collection of music.
Alexander Brandon's music from the original Unreal is very cool synthetic science fiction music. "Flightcastle", while short, provides an epic, spacey sounding sci-fi intro, which works well. "Shared Dig" wouldn't be out of place in a stealth section of a game, with its slow beat and thin textures, the same can be said for "Black Wind", though "Black Wind" has more intersynching synth lines going on, which are very clever and well written. "Unreal Temple (Crypt)" is a change of mood, opting for more of an atmospheric horror feel, which sounds very convincing with the synthesisers used, and the synthetic sound gives the appropriate feel of the unreal.
Among Brandon's contributions to Unreal Tournament, the game's menu theme is dark with not much going on, and is appropriate for getting in the mood for a deathmatch, while "Go Down" is a cool fast paced action track. One of the distinctive techniques he used to create the music for this game and its predecessors was the use of tracker audio, as opposed to Quake III Arena's use of CD audio. This allowed for a higher sound quality without having to sacrifice too much file space. Overall Brandon's tracks are well written and memorable, with some cool polyphonic synthesiser lines.
Michiel van den Bos is the other main composer for the early games in the series. Among his selections from Unreal Tournament featured here, "The Course" is probably his strongest. This dance-based track is progressive throughout the track and keeps things interesting with a cool middle section before the beat comes back in. Those who like a bit of dance music may get some enjoyment out of this one. "Botpack Nine" features some interesting sounds and progresses quite well during its first minute too.
That said, I found den Bos's tracks to be a bit boring overall. His music features more edgy sounds, but the sounds are a bit generic, and his tracks are also a bit too long and repetitive for my liking, especially in the drum beats. My main criticism of these tracks is that the progression in some of them stops dead at a certain point, making the rest of the track tiresome. "Foregone Destruction" is a pretty bland track featuring some nice quieter synth sounds, but with a pretty generic drum pattern that doesn't fit with the rest of the soundscape. Similarly, "Bluff Eversmoking" has a cool bass synth underneath some synth pad chords, which is cool at first but it doesn't develop beyond that.
Among other contributors from Brandon's team, Andrew Sega contributes two edgy electronic tracks, both of which progress well and feature some interesting sounds. I particularly like the quiet percussion section in "Mechanism Eight". These tracks are long, but the progression ensures that they don't bore. Peter Hajba contributes an electronic and rock fusion track, where both styles compliment each other well. The distorted guitar and drum backing drives the piece forward, while the varied synthesiser sounds keep things interesting in the treble area.
Meanwhile Kevin Riepl was brought in for Unreal Tournament 2004, and he brings an orchestral sound into the mix, which works well. This is demonstrated in "Unreal Tournament Menu Redux" in which he skilfully takes what Alex Brandon has already established and turns it into an epic piece of music. The interweaving string lines create a great sense of movement over the top of the loud brass stabs and electronic bass and percussion. I particularly like the way the percussion progresses here — it starts out with an electronic drum beat which then becomes a rock drum kit.
Among Riepl's other contributions, "Ghost of Anubis" and "Infernal Realm" both evoke a horror score feel. They're similar to the artist's work work on Gears of War, though with some interesting instrumental sounds, such as castanets. "Assault" is a typical orchestral action track, with its loud brass, pulsating percussion and thick textures in the strings. It sounds epic, though there are some moments where the weakness in some of the samples shows up. "Arena" is a short track that sounds like a build up to an epic battle, while "From Below" wouldn't be out of place as a final boss theme, particularly when the drums enter. "Sniper Time" is Riepl's most electronic based track, complete with a pulsating, bass heavy, electronic drum beat.
Finally, "Onslaught One", created by Will Nevins, seems to combine all of the above styles. This track contains the sounds of the orchestra, a distorted guitar, ethnic instruments, spacey synthesiser sounds and a bass drum driving the piece forward. All of these elements combine together to create a very satisfying piece to end the compilation.
A History of Unreal Music is a solid collection of music from the early series history, with a decent variety and some interesting stylings, even if some of it is a bit too repetitive. I wouldn't say it's a definitive collection of music from the series history, but it is a great introduction to the music of the Unreal series and the best official release available. I wouldn't recommend purchasing or trying to find this CD on its own, but it is a worthwhile addition to the Unreal Anthology. This is a real bargain, as it contains four fantastic games in addition to this CD, which is especially good if you're someone who is unfamiliar with this series and want to give it a shot.