Playing god has always been one of gamers' favourite pastimes and the original inFamous gave them a exciting opportunity to live out these fantasies. The adventures of bike courier-cum-son of Zeus Cole MacGrath saw the thunderbolt-throwing protagonist battle Reaper gangs and make Empire City his own, climbing up drainpipes, surfing power lines and sprinting across the city's rooftops with adrenaline-pumping abandon. Enforcing the liberating sense of roaming Empire City was an electronic score spearheaded by knob twiddler extraordinaire Amon Tobin.
For inFamous 2, the game's narrative moved to a new location, New Marais, based on the real-life New Orleans. This also prompted a natural change in the developers' approach to inFamous 2's score. Consciously moving towards more organic sounds, the game's soundtrack would take its cue from the rich musical tradition of New Orleans. As a result, only the game's music manager Jonathan Mayer and composer Jim Dooley would return from inFamous. They were joined by two newcomers: Bryan "Brain" Mantia, a prolific session drummer with an impressive list of credits (including Tom Waits, Guns N' Roses and Primus), and New Orleans band Galactic, coming from a background of blending funk, hip-hop, jazz and R&B on their own records. The involvement of such a colourful team of composers promised an eclectic score, and developer Suckerpunch's instruction to the artists to keep on improvising and experimenting only increased the intriguing nature of this project.
Ultimately, over the course of a year, four hours of music were created for inFamous 2. Promoted by an online making-of featurette of the soundtrack, the music for inFamous 2 hit stores first in May 2011 in the shape of inFamous 2 - The Blue Soundtrack, available as a regular digital download. A companion album, inFamous 2 - The Red Soundtrack, was released only days later as part of the game's "Hero Edition". This review refers to the Blue Soundtrack.
inFamous 2 makes true on its promise and delivers a fresh, innovative soundtrack that is possibly the most creative Western game score release of 2011 so far. And it's immensely encouraging to see such envelope-pushing music accompanying an AAA-title kudos to Sony Entertainment and Suckerpunch for giving free reign to the composers' creative impulses. The result is a score that seamlessly mixes a number of rarely combined genres there are ambient stylings, jazz, rock, some funk and drum & bass-influenced rhythm work, and orchestral sounds steeped deeply in the acidic harmonies of 20th century classical music. Most of the music is based around a vast array of percussion sounds that are complemented by various solo instruments, most importantly a string quintet that often performs material full of dissonances and counter-intuitive rhythms. That it all comes together so effortlessly is testament both to the composers' skills and those of the recording engineers, who've designed a visceral sound that is the foundation of the whole mixture. Despite the multitude of influences, the album is held together by a feeling of nervous energy that keeps listeners on the edge of their seat from the start and constantly maintains a feeling of agitated tension throughout the album.
A composition like "7th Ward" is a perfect example of the heady brew inFamous 2 concocts. The piece opens with fuzzy guitar layers before a jazzy drumbeat kicks in. Some drum & bass elements are added to the percussive undergrow, which is then combined with jittery, scattered string figures reminiscent of the more abrasive works of Bartok or Stravinsky. Soon enough, a throaty, volatile saxophone motif joins the fray, increasing the piece's paranoid, yet captivating nature. Despite the high-strung atmosphere, the cue remains accessible through its infectious, funky grooves and at the same time retains a disconcerting edge due to the string figures clawing at these rhythms. After an ambient interlude, the composition builds up nicely towards the end over atonal string ostinati that lead into whining glissandi by the solo instruments. All these elements merge perfectly and the classical elements go hand in hand with the more contemporary sounds through their rough, sometimes abrasive demeanour. It's certainly a sign of the excellent teamwork between the different composers. According to Dooley, their effort was indeed a collaborative one, with pieces being passed around for everybody to play with the music and make changes. That everybody involved was on the same wavelength is displayed by many other compositions that meld together seemingly disparate elements. "Origin Stories" backs its opening, plaintive cello solo and the underlying chopping string rhythms with a rock drum solo. The two rhythmic elements push each other harder and harder throughout the track, until they lead into a manic, rising cello tremoli that is followed by a powerful breakout of relentless rhythms from the percussion section and the string quintet. On "Unfinished Business", drum & bass sounds combine astonishingly well with thorny string material that is not too different from the biting sounds of Jason Graves' Dead Space 2.
An integral part of the music's constantly interesting sounds is the instrumental creativity on evidence throughout the whole album. According to Mayer, he pushed his co-composers to try out things that were technically wrong and instructed the team to take live instruments and "make them sound weird and twisted and dark". As a result, numerous unorthodox instruments and playing techiques are heard on inFamous 2. Mantia consciously worked with detuned drums and bass to give the instruments a set level of dissonance, while the percussion section included unusual instruments such as Nyhabinghi drums from Jamaica, frying pans and mixing bowls. For some passages, the string players use guitar picks to riff on their instruments and strike the strings with pencils. The created unusual sounds are captured in a closely-miked, never too dry recording that captures every instrument, but particularly the solo strings, in all their power. The creative miking of instruments is another factor that adds rarely heard instrumental colours to inFamous 2's palette, with mics attached to pieces of junk or the bottom of cymbals. In the final mix, the various instrument groups and rhythms are clearly delineated and spread across the soundstage, each having enough space to breath and interact with the others. This intelligently designed album recording gives the classical instruments an immediate sound similar to that of the rock and electronic elements, so that they all form one coherent sonic tapestry.
This particular robust string sound most strongly benefits Jim Dooley's compositions, who's represented on this album with the more traditionally orchestral tracks that he contributed to the project. While the other composers' cues seamlessly merge, Dooley's tracks stand out due to their focus on classical instruments and conventionally dramatic tones, but without disrupting the album's flow. A number of his pieces betray his background in the Remote Control school of score compositions. But this approach is pulled off with more intelligence here than on many other scores, with the requisite string ostinato figures suitably powerful and even brimming with vitality during the first seconds of the album on "Cole McGrath". Some of Dooley's pieces fall a bit behind those of his collaborators. Notably, the expansive brass overlays, particularly on "The Beast", are often rather functional than inspired. Furthermore, the Major-key finish of "The Decision" that closes the score section of the album is a nice change of pace after a pretty downcast listening experience, but you can't help wishing for a more spectacular finish to such an outstanding album. In actual fact, you'd hope for something that matches the finale of Dooley's earlier track "Bertrand", which after a solemn opening marked by characteristically rich string orchestrations segues into a spectacular climax powered by snare drum rhythms and brawny brass motifs. "Lucy Kuo" equally display a satisfying amount of counterpoint in its string orchestrations. And it's important to note that Dooley's tracks, in their adherence to more familiar tropes of game scoring, provide an easy entry point for listeners, who can then venture further into the territory of the other composers' more mood-driven compositions.
And what rich, manifold moods this album contains! The variety of instruments, playing and recording techniques is matched by the impressive number of emotional contexts in which the composers deploy these tools. Unified by the generally gritty album sound, inFamous 2 mixes moods just as well as different musical styles. Action tracks like "The Freaks Are Everywhere" and "Pushing and Shoving" bristle with energy, the first cue with its mix of stomping drum rhythms, manipulated string quintet noises and a full-bodied electronic riff that's set against an empowering electric guitar chord progression. The same feeling of effortless cool and power is evident on "La Roux", which sounds like a successful, aggressive update of Ennio Morricone's spaghetti western scores. Sparse underscore pieces like "Swamp Blockade" and "Shoot the Messenger" captivate through their still colourful orchestrations and tense mood. A forlorn harmonica opens "Karma" and adds an emotional element against the steady hand percussion rhythms and reedy violin chords that enter soon. The composition changes intensity and volume a number of times, but never fully releases the building feeling of twitchy unrest and remains all the more menacing for it. Some much-needed relaxing moments come with "Powered Down" and its shuffling drum beat and nocturnal, calm electric organ solo. On the other end of the spectrum, "Meet Nix" takes the unhinged atmosphere of "7th Ward" and amplifies it through its dissonant saxophone material, which is given a more dominant role here.
And while hummable melodies aren't inFamous 2's focus, there's sufficient melodic beauty to be found on this album, even though it sometimes comes in unexpected shapes. Dooley's tracks are most clearly anchored in traditional harmonies and feature pleasing, sometimes moving string melodies. But even more interesting are those occasions where the melodic qualities of the string instruments are manipulated or contrasted with other instruments' sounds. The tuneful soli for cello and even double bass on "Get Bertrand" are enjoyable, but what makes the piece truly stand out is how it combines these melodies with the track's urbane rock elements and strikes the perfect balance between the two. "Plight" features a similar mixture and manages the tricky feat of being the album's most emotional moment while retaining its edgyness through tastefully inserted electric guitar and barbed chord progressions. This tension is best and most fascinatingly exemplified by the yearning yet fiercely dissonant string glissandi after 1:28. It's all capped off in style by "Fade Away", a surprisingly grave closing song by The Black Heart Procession. It's blues-inspired, spiritual vocals not only obviously fit the game's location, but also breathe an appropriate air of finality and gloom into this album closer.
A truly remarkable outburst of creativity, inFamous 2 is one of the best Western game soundtracks of the first of half of 2011, and possibly the most original one. The team of composers manages to concoct an intoxicating mixture of timbres, colours and styles that is truly genre-defying and mesmerising. Never does the score simply emulate the musical clichés associated with New Orleans, but instead takes the city's artistic heritage only as a starting point and then starts to tweak and transform these existing elements. Mixing ambient, rock, funk and classical music, inFamous 2 manages to hold it all together through its edgy, gritty nature that is immensely helped by an outstanding recording and mixing effort. Despite its extended running time, inFamous 2 never runs out of steam and is consistently strong and this is where it excels over its predecessor, which was a bit hit-and-miss at times. If you've been waiting for a soundtrack that delivers something new and exciting, this is it.