Whenever I think of First Person Shooters, I imagine a chaotic battlefield with soldiers screaming commands at each other, death in several violent forms, and over-the-top Michael Bay action that’s accompanied by deafening explosions and bombastic music. Call of Duty, Battlefield, and Killzone come to my mind, which generally fit this description of a FPS. They’re also what the majority of gamers have desired to see on the market, so it’s what publishers and developers are attempting to chuck out at people to make a boatload of cash. On the other hand, it’s disappointing for many other gamers that this simple approach to a medium such as video games is tarnishing some of the creativity and originality in the industry to appease a consumer demand. However, despite the fact that this is partially true, FPS games have had and still bring forth a surprising amount of quality production you might not even realize. Specifically, I am talking about the soundtracks behind these games: the seemingly bland scores made by musical composers you’ve probably never heard of before. Who’s Joris de Man? Borislav Slavov? Why, I’d say that they’re some of the most talented composers (out of many more) I’ve seen in the video game industry. They’ve created outstandingly spine-chilling songs you might’ve never noticed or shrugged off. I’m here to show you that behind the deceiving façade that FPS games are overtly explosive and rambunctious (in the good kind of way), there lays a treasure cove of beautiful music to be discovered behind the lines.
—Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare ~ Main Menu Theme
Take a step back and remember the FPS that changed everything: Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. Every aspect of the game was a near perfection of the ultimate FPS, from the adrenaline-inducing campaign to the revolutionary multiplayer. You’d think that actually playing the game is the only reaction inducing part of the game, but try to recall the main menu. Do you remember the music in the background with its ominous and mysterious vibe? How about the beautiful strings and strange echoes you heard as you adjusted your classes? The Main Menu Theme by Harry Gregson-Williams is a track that is overlooked far too often, but I remember it fondly due to its eerie, yet epic tones. None of the other CoD main menu themes are as memorable as this one is for some reason.
—Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 ~ Coup de grâce
Acclaimed composer Hans Zimmer (which I’m sure you have heard of) was tasked with the honor of creating the soundtrack for one of the most anticipated games of all time. Not surprisingly, he managed to produce a plethora of complex and heart pumping musical arrangements that reflect the explosive and epic scope of Modern Warfare 2. However, one song stands out from the rest due to its sober and saddening nature. That song is Coup de grace, which means, “to deliver a final blow or shot to kill a wounded person.” It’s definitely a worthy name considering the purpose for and emotions attached to the song.
—Call of Duty: Black Ops ~ The Wall
Overall, Black Ops has a good soundtrack. Nothing really sticks out, but The Wall by Sean Murray is a simple, yet chilling song to listen to. The primary instrument used throughout the song is the cello, which is expertly played to induce themes such as hopelessness, loneliness, and imprisonment (like how a wall can do this to prisoners). Then, near the end of the song, the tempo picks up as if there is a spark of hope left that is suddenly lit; it seems like this wall might tumble down after all.
—Battlefield 2 ~ Main Theme
This song isn’t nearly as soft sounding as the ones represented so far, but nevertheless, the Battlefield 2 Main Theme by Rupert Gregson-Williams (brother of Harry, who made the CoD4 theme…coincidental?) is a fantastic song with brass and stringed instruments that complement each other in perfect harmony. It encapsulates the idea of an army readying for battle, the conflict that ensues, and the sweet victory that is eventually achieved. The song could easily get anyone pumped and confident before getting into a match in BF2. It’s both exhilarating and spine chilling; it’s the best of both worlds.
—Medal of Honor: Frontline ~ Market Garden
Just as the Battefield 2 Theme manages to conjure up images of war, The Market Garden by Michael Giacchino manages to do this and more. It’s not only like the BF2 Main Theme, but it also has a variety of so many volumes and instruments that it’s pleasantly overwhelming. It starts with some vocals and strings, and then evolves into some brass instruments and drums that give a sense of danger. After this, there is a moment of calm to take it all in with only the sound of stringed instruments and a harp, but then the excitement builds up and eventually slows down into a beautiful finish. If one game series has managed to shock me with its music, Medal of Honor is definitely on the list.
—Medal of Honor: European Assault ~ Main Theme
Similar to the previous song, the Main Theme for MoH: European Assault is an outstanding work of music by Christopher Lennertz. However, this particular song is different in that it mainly focuses on stringed instruments that result in an epic piece that embodies the sacrifices and combat of war.
—Medal of Honor (2010) ~ Heroes Abroad
Of all the music I’ve listened to in video games, Ramin Djawadi’s masterful composition of the Medal of Honor soundtrack is something I’ve been drawn back to many times. Although the game itself was fairly executed for a reboot, the soundtrack is of a higher caliber that I never expected. The song makes heavy use of stringed instruments and a distorted noise (can’t place what it is) throughout the entire piece, and it is a spine chiller indeed. It’s tailored perfectly to induce thoughts of heroes abroad that have suffered, died, and fought for honor and country (which is what the game aimed for as well). The song is haunting in a way, but will stop you in your tracks with its beauty.
—Medal of Honor: Warfighter ~ With Honors & Lena’s Theme
The soundtrack for Warfighter actually released very recently. I was excited to hear it because I love the soundtrack for the first one and Ramin Djawadi is at the helm once again as the composer. I’ve listened to all the songs at this point and have got to admit that there are at least six songs I’ve listened to on an average of 20 times each so far. Two examples are With Honors and Lena’s Theme. The former is another spine-chilling song that is reminiscent to Heroes Abroad…except it’s even better. On the other hand, Lena’s Theme is almost entirely an acoustic and electric guitar focused song (a shocker to hear on the soundtrack). It’s simply relaxing, soothing, and fascinating…like a dream.
—Crysis 2 ~ New York Aftermath
Crysis 2 is about a soldier named Alcatraz that has been given a Nanosuit by the soldier known as Prophet. He was on the run for his seemingly treasonous activities…but Alcatraz knows that there’s something more. Prophet had entrusted him to the point of death with the single most powerful weapon in the world and he doesn’t even know him. Alcatraz can’t help but carry out his wishes so that he can seek to uncover the truth of New York. What does this have to do with the song? It embodies the story with its harrowing beginning that sets the mood of graveness from Prophet’s death. But suddenly, it turns into a confident and proud sounding orchestra that represents Alcatraz’s determination. Borislav Slavov sets the tone for the aftermath of New York perfectly and the conflict that ensues.
—Killzone 3 ~ And Ever We Fight On
I remember playing Killzone 2 and having a blast with the intense graphics, big, dumb action, bombastic music, and intriguing world. However, I certainly wasn’t expecting Joris de Man to pull of a song like And Ever We Fight On in Killzone 3. The violin that smoothly introduces the other instruments immediately captivated me. Then, the choir eventually comes in with the stringed and brass instruments. In my opinion, it sounds patriotic, specifically for the Helghast nation because of the sad tones that indicate the suffering of that nation.
—Halo 2 ~ Epilogue
Martin O’Donnell is quite the famous composer among gamers. His scores on the Halo franchise (up until Reach) have all been memorable and have shown the potential of what music in video games can achieve. Epilogue in Halo 2 is an excellent illustration of his work. The song starts out with stringed instruments and a little bit of electric guitar. Then, the brass instruments come in to deliver a simple melody that signifies completion or a, well, epilogue. It’s just one of the many incredible songs from the Halo games.
—Halo 3 ~ Never Forget
Simplicity never connotes less creativity. Some of the greatest songs I’ve listened to are a matter of a handful of instruments playing an easy (in terms of complexity) song. Never Forget by Martin O’Donnell is a perfect example of this. It’s a wonderful piano melody with stringed instruments and vocals. As the title suggests, the song sounds like a testament to soldiers that have died for a cause. It also gives off a spiritual feel with its vocals in the idea of how precious life is. Never forget…it’s two words with a powerful force behind them.
—Halo 3: ODST ~ Deference for Darkness
I believe that Deference for Darkness actually fits the entire theme of Halo 3: ODST. You’re a solider that’s been separated from his team. Alone in a towering city sporadically dotted with Covenant, you walk through the quiet streets in search of your squad. This song, like Never Forget, combines the piano and stringed instruments perfectly to create a melody that defines loneliness and the adventure to rejoin with someone you know. Personally, I imagine a man in a trench coat walking down the cracked sidewalks of Manhattan in the midst of the night. While doing so, freezing rain pours around him and there is no one to be found outside with him. He’s not worried about these things or finding a place for shelter. All he knows is that he has to find someone…and he won’t stop until he does.
—Halo: Reach ~ Epilogue
Another epilogue from Halo…what can I say? I guess Martin O’Donnell makes some awesome music for endings. However, I think there’s something more to this song. It’s the last one concluding Bungie’s work on Halo. The song itself seems to encompass all of what Halo is in one song: sad, mysterious, epic, and grand. By using the piano, vocals, and stringed instruments, Martin O’Donnell made that possible. It’s a fitting song for the departure of Bungie from Halo and for the end of Reach.
Behind all video games, I believe there’s always something noteworthy we might be missing out on. Although a lot of gamers seem like the kind of bunch that goes beyond a game to listen to its music, development process, and concept art, I think there’s still a lot more room for more of us to do this. For example, I wouldn’t have guessed the soundtracks for the new Medal of Honor games were so excellent if I had not checked out the stand-alone soundtrack for myself. It gave me a chance to hear all of the songs individually and with no other sound effects, which turned out to make all the difference in my impression of the music. I hope you consider doing the same thing and check out some of the soundtracks for the games I listed (and hopefully more beyond FPS games). Thanks for reading!
Do you think video game soundtracks and composers get the recognition they deserve? Do you listen to them in your spare time or just prefer to do so when playing the games they belong to? Is there a particular song or soundtrack you love from the FPS genre I didn’t include?
This article was originally published as a user blog post on Game Informer.