Halo

Ownership Of The Video Game

Games, historically, have been for the player or players.

The word game comes from Old English gamen, which carried meanings of “joy, fun, amusement.”  Gamen is a common Germanic compound; cognates include Old Frisian game “joy, glee,” Old High German gaman “sport, merriment,” Swedish gamman “merriment” and several others.  All these are combinations of the Proto-Germanic elements ga- (collective prefix) and mann “person,” the latter being the ancestor of the English word man.  This compound thus conveys the sense of “people together.”

The primary goals of games are to pass time and to foster companionship.  Games have always been for our entertainment in some way, whether they be displays of athleticism in sports, wit-battles in chess or brief amusements that children make up for themselves.

Video games, a subset of electronic games, involve interaction with a user interface to generate visual feedback on a video device (as opposed to audio games, whose feedback is solely audible).

Some of the earliest video games were simply pongdigital recreations of games and sports that had been around a long time.  Pong (1972) was nothing more than an electronically-rendered game of table tennis.  Pong and the like had the same player-centric goals as their “real-life” counterparts; the only difference was that they now could be played on a screen.

Those who created, or developed, these primitive softwares vied merely to provide the most functional and accessible product in the infantile market.  Any other gimmick was secondary.

With the advances in hardware of the next couple decades, however, came more complex and sophisticated video games.  Games were no longer just a couple moving pixels.  Better technology meant superior graphics and more detailed game environments – and thus greater room for creativity.

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1994’s platformer Donkey Kong Country, a pioneer of 3-D graphics in console gaming.

While early computer role-playing games (RPGs) had involved personal player narratives for quite some time, games of other genres were beginning to incorporate set, unchanging plots for the player to experience through gameplay.  Some game development studios were building video games with story in mind and started employing cinematics, or “cutscenes,” for the player to watch between levels.

By the early years of the new millennium, many games being created were fully voice-acted and required significant amounts of animation.  Music had evolved from the beeping melodies of Super Mario Bros. to full orchestral scores with dynamic and layered sounds to complement the player on his journey.

After a few more years, it became commonplace for major game development studios to utilise motion-capture (mo-cap) technology in their animation.  Video games now have an unprecedented level of detail in their characters and can present more nuanced stories.  Games that do this particularly well, such as Heavy Rain and The Last of Us, have been known to evoke sincere emotional reactions from players.

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A scene from 2009’s Uncharted 2: Among Thieves.  On left, actors performing in mo-cap garb; on right, the same scene rendered in the game.

Today, the development of major video games (referred to as “triple-A” titles) is not unlike that of a film.  A video game no longer is exclusively about gameplay.  The typical group behind a AAA video game project now has hundreds of employees.  In addition to the requisite programmers, studios now hire writers, directors, actors, sound designers, music composers and sketch and concept artists, among others, to bring a game to life.  And they have ludicrously large budgets to accomplish this.

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Big-budget franchises like Call of Duty can afford to put Kevin Spacey in their games.

The amount of work involved in the development of the well-made video game is staggering, to put it lightly.  The process is a far cry from the early days of a group of computer geeks, numbering no more than fifteen or twenty.  Video game development had established itself as a multi-disciplinary artistic medium on par with other artistic media like literature and cinema.

However, video games as such are unique in that they require player input via a controller or a keyboard and mouse.  What happens on-screen is directly influenced by the player, whereas a novel or a film or a painting is the same every time it is viewed.

This means that the player is still the key component or ingredient that makes a video game a video game (after all, a video game without the game part is really just images on a screen).  And this, in turn, means that the game needs to be engaging and fun.  If it is boring, then it’s more of a chore or work than it is entertainment, and people won’t play it.

The expectations of gamers have always leant toward immersion.  They want an escape from the harshness of real life, to be immersed in a fictional world where they can do things they could not or would not do in the real one.  Immersion is achieved chiefly through stimulating gameplay and realistic visuals, although there are other methods.  Some of the most popular video game franchises in the industry that employ these pillars of immersion fall into the genres of action, open-world and first-person shooter (FPS).  Grand Theft AutoThe Elder Scrolls and Call of Duty all are wildly successful commercially because they adhere to what the average gamer expects of an immersive experience and do it well.

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Hijacking a car in Grand Theft Auto V

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Engaging a frost troll in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

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Campaign mission from Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2

Developers understand all this, but, at the same time, they have an artistic vision that they want to realise.  A vision that may be thwarted by being tied down by the tried-and-true gameplay mechanics and tropes of yesteryear.

So, is the video game primarily a toy for the consumer’s enjoyment – or is it primarily a creative vehicle for the developers?

It may be true that the developers do not owe the consumer anything, and it also may be true that nobody is forcing anybody to buy the developers’ product, but, at the end of the day, it’s the consumer’s dollar that keeps the developers afloat.

An independent game development studio must take this risk into account when crafting its games, but developers owned by a publisher (a relationship akin to a musician signed on with a record label) have no choice but to bend to the will of their financial overlords, who make broad creative decisions in accordance with what they know gamers like and will purchase (or will beg their parents to purchase for them).  These decisions often hamper the creative potential of the developers and, in some cases, can undermine the essence of a beloved franchise.

There is a great deal of evidence that the story of Halo 5: Guardians was substantially weakened (if not microsoft_studiosruined altogether) through interference from the publisher, Microsoft Studios.  While developer 343 Industries’ debut Halo game, Halo 4, featured a strong, powerful and critically-acclaimed story, many fans were displeased with it – mainly because its tone was starkly different from that of the original trilogy and because one of the series’ most treasured characters halo_guardianswas killed off.  It is believed that, following such poor reception from the fans, the script of Halo 5 underwent a number of significant rewrites relatively late in its development upon the urging of Microsoft, most notably the senseless revival of the dead character and her asinine relegation to villain status.  The story was supposed to be the best and most riveting to date, but it fell flat because the developers were forced to abandon their original vision.

Conversely, the multiplayer side of Halo 5 flourished because of fan input.  The general consensus is that it is superior in almost every aspect to that of Halo 4, and it’s largely because of the whining—er, I mean constructive feedback—of the community that ensued following 4’s release.

But I digress.  The point I am trying to establish is that, with a video game franchise like Halo, the ownership may be ambiguous.  It could be argued that the members of a fanbase with that much creative influence are the true “owners” of the game.

More conservative gamers might say that this is the way it should be, for the developers to listen to the buyers and to tailor their games accordingly.  Those more liberal in the matter might say that the developers should not be total pushovers by allowing the consumers to dictate what goes into the studio’s product.

Me?  Well, I suppose I have an obligation to take a stance here, as it is often considered bad creative etiquette to raise philosophical questions without even attempting to answer them.  Interestingly, my doing so is, itself, an instance of yielding to consumer pressure to alter my content.

I’ll cop out and say that I’m middle ground.  I feel that the player absolutely does have a say in the video games he buys.  But it cannot be denied that there has been a shift from the player-centric goals of the video game to goals more artist-centric.

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Best Music From HALO

Since 2001, the video game franchise Halo has transported gamers from their living rooms and bedrooms (and basements) to massive, breathtaking worlds to kick alien butt as a high-tech supersoldier.  At its core, Halo is a sci-fi first-person shooter, but one of the many things that makes the cherished series stand out amongst other games of its type is its music.

From Gregorian-styled chants to full orchestras to somber piano to heavy guitar and even electronica, Halo incorporates tunes from a wide range of musical genres.  And you hear them not only at the main menus, but during missions from the campaign (story mode) and even a little bit in certain multiplayer game modes.  To say that music is vital to Halo‘s essence is an understatement.

With numerous individual entertainment releases, each with its own commercial soundtrack, the franchise has well over two hundred tracks, totalling literal hours’ worth of music.  In this post, I round up the twenty-five pieces that I like the most.

There are some things that I’d like for you to bear in mind as you scroll through the list.  First, I am considering ONLY those tracks that appear in Halos 1-5 (including remakes), ODST and Reach.  I am not familiar with the music from Halo Wars, any handhelds or other media entries such as Halo Legends or Halo: Nightfall.  Second, I am excluding any tracks recorded solely by outside artists (sorry, Breaking Benjamin fans).  Finally, I’m writing everything as if I were explaining Halo to someone who knows nothing about its games, story and lore.  Don’t be offended if you’re a Halo veteran who has played every game and read every book.

Also, I might as well rip the band-aid off right now – One Final Effort and the Halo Theme Mjolnir Mix aren’t anywhere on the list.  Cry about it.


 

25. This Is Our Land (Halo 3) – This is an orchestra-focused track that is divided into three distinct sections.  The first is a driving string ostinato (actually just the low strings part of another track that appears later in the list) which plays as soon as you begin the mission, “The Storm,” as you and your warthog (weaponised jeep, basically) convoy get ready to go on the offensive to push the Covenant (alien bad guys) out of Earth, once and for all.  The second part begins when a scarab (super big, quadrupedal Covenant vehicle of death) enters the battlefield.  This is easily the best part of the track, with a pounding string pulse topped with dazzling female vocals playing as you strive to bring down the mammoth machine.  The third part of the track features fast, tribal-sounding percussion as you and your marine comrades approach the final anti-air weapon.


 

24. Halo Theme Scorpion Mix (Halo 2 Anniversary) – In the first third of Halo 2’s campaign, you lead a heavy scorpion tank charge into the heart of the Earth metropolis, New Mombasa, which has just been invaded by the Covenant.  In the 2014 remake of the game (which features remastered visuals and re-recorded audio), the music during this part of the mission (conveniently titled “Metropolis”) actually replaced the original entirely – and for the better.  It’s still the Halo theme that fans know and love, but with louder drums and added winds to reflect the explosive vehicular combat of this sequence, seemingly taken directly from a Michael Bay action film.  It gets the blood pumping to hear brass horns blaring over an intense rock version of the Halo theme as you traverse the bridge into the city, blowing up any inhuman son-of-a-bitch dumb enough to get between you and the Prophet of Regret (one of the Covenant’s leaders).


 

23. Rain (Deference for Darkness) (ODST) – Halo 3: ODST set itself apart from other Halos in more than its soundtrack, with which composer Martin O’Donnell did a masterful job capturing the game’s different mood and tone.  ODST, properly an expansion for Halo 3, puts you, the player, in the shoes of an ODST (orbital drop shock trooper).  ODSTs are not as strong as Spartan supersoldiers and lack the fancy shielded armour Spartans wear.  Your mission in ODST is to find your lost platoon members in a dark, Covenant-controlled New Mombasa (yes, the same metropolis from the previous track on this list).  You are The Rookie for most of the game, searching for clues to the whereabouts of your squad over the course of a very long, rainy, lonely, perilous night.

The first part of the track Deference for Darkness, titled Rain, is basically ODST in a nutshell, beginning with gentle piano with soft strings playing over it.  After a couple minutes of string lead, the strings stop while the piano part repeats, but this time with a relaxed, jazzy saxophone solo over it.  Bungie (the original company that developed Halo titles) was going for a film noir atmosphere for the game; mission accomplished.


 

22. Both Ways (Remix) (Reach) – Never heard at any point in Halo: Reach’s campaign, this two-minute quickie is what every Halo fan in 2010 would come to associate with the game’s multiplayer beta.  “Beta” is just an industry term that refers to a certain stage of a game’s development, namely an unpolished, but playable stage (before “beta,” there’s “alpha”).  Many companies like to release free betas to the public for game-testing purposes so that they can find and fix any outstanding bugs or tweak any small items of gameplay for the full, finished release.  Anyway, with Reach, a lot of cool things from the beta did not make it into the shipped game, but the music used in the beta’s promotional trailer made it onto the game’s soundtrack.  Technically a remix of another track from ODST, this one cranks the bass up to eleven and layers piano and synthesised sounds over it for a unique addition to the Halo music catalogue.


 

21. Neon Night (ODST) – Another fine piece from ODST as you play as The Rookie.  I place this one later in the list than Rain simply because I like it more.  I think it more accurately captures in music what I imagine being trapped in a deserted, mostly unlit city overnight in the rain as I covertly try to avoid conflict with the armed Covenant intruders roaming around sounds like.  The first minute or so features a rising piano motif mixed with synthesised sounds, which bring to mind the ever-apparent sirens of abandoned police cars that can be found flashing in every sector of the fallen New Mombasa – almost eerie reminders of the unseen mass death and panic that must have ensued immediately following the Covenant’s invasion mere hours prior.


 

20. Blue Team (Halo 5: Guardians) – This multifaceted track from Halo’s latest major release begins with a beautiful orchestral tune heard in the previous game, Halo 4, but sinfully not included on its soundtrack.  The throwback continues with a somber cello rendition of one of Halo 4’s major melodies, laced with piano.  After a moving string-choral interlude, the familiar melody plays again, this time more upbeat and with winds added.  The track ends with five quiet, important chords from a piano.


 

19. Impend/Impart (Halo 2/Halo 2 Anniversary) – Impend is just one of those tracks that every classic Halo fan identifies with Halo 2, as its distinctive melodies can be heard at numerous points in the campaign.  It begins with a transposed version of a string melody heard in the first Halo game (one semitone higher than the track Brothers In Arms).  It then leads into a percussive rhythm that sounds like the pounding of one’s heart.  Over this, we then hear a series of choral chord progressions.  The vocals are what really sell this track.  There are two main sets, each containing two subsets – what I like to call “question and answer” phrases.  Each question phrase starts in minor and sounds uneasy, hesitant.  The first answer phrase sounds equally unassuring, but the second answer phrase, while likewise starting in minor, ascends to a rousing C-sharp major resolution.  It leaves you satisfied, yet wanting more.  Fortunately, the vocals are on loop when you’re playing through the campaign, so you can take your sweet time, clearing out enemies while listening to this enchanting tune.  Impart is just the richer, remastered version of Impend with no significant changes.


 

18. Unreconciled (Tip of the Spear) (Reach) – Long-time series fans were in for a special treat if they resisted the urge to skip the credits after the final mission, for the 1:55 mark of this piece features a musical bit not included in the Reach campaign: a brief homage to the original trilogy’s theme.  In fact, this entire section of Tip of the Spear is an homage to the the original trilogy because it is essentially nothing more than a reworking, albeit a massive reworking, of the original Halo theme (technically, it’s modelled after One Final Effort from Halo 3, which is, itself, a variation of the original theme).  At first blush, the music sounds new and fresh, but if you pay close attention to the rhythms of the drums and strings beneath the new melody, you can tell it’s the Halo theme.  Well, part of it, anyway.  Structurally, Unreconciled was about as Halo-like as the soundtrack ever got, which was mostly new material unrelated to the music from Halos 1-3.


 

17. Flawed Legacy (Halo 2) – A remake of the first Halo’s Perchance to Dream, this track hands the melody over to monkish vocals, adds percussion (including tympani and maracas) and some pretty rad bass guitar.  Fans might know the melody as the “sleeping grunt theme” because of the tracks’ usage in areas containing enemy grunts (small Covenant infantry units) who are napping and whom you can stealthily kill without alerting others.  Together, the stoic male choir, bass and percussion make a surprisingly catchy track.  It’s a shame it’s so short, though.


 

16. Heretic, Hero (Halo 2) – There’s nothing like blowing up Covenant with a big tank whilst listening to a motivational choir cheering you on in the background.  Heretic, Hero, much like its title may imply, carries a mood of redemption (which is a key plot point later in the story) and plays during two missions in the Halo 2 campaign, both of which involve making things explode with a tank.  It is definitely choir-focused, with voices providing all melodies over a steady percussive beat, not unlike the afore-listed Impend, also from Halo 2.  The latter half, beginning at 1:26, is a remake of A Walk In the Woods, another classic from the first Halo – complete with that sweet, sweet bass.


 

15. Arrival (Halo 4) – 2012’s Halo 4 was the first mainline Halo title developed by 343 Industries and whose soundtrack was composed by someone other than Martin O’Donnell.  The H4 OST was composed mostly by Neil Davidge, with a few contributions from Kazuma Jinnouchi, and, while it is, by and large, a relatively weak soundtrack by Halo standards, there are a few exceptional pieces.  Arrival is one of them, and I consider it to be Davidge’s strongest effort.

This track plays during the final fight of the final mission, as you, the Master Chief, aided by your A.I. companion, Cortana (the namesake of Microsoft’s answer to Apple’s Siri), fight your way toward the Didact, an ancient being (not affiliated with the Covenant) bent on the destruction, humiliation and enslavement of humanity.  On his personal starship, the Didact prepares a great weapon directed at Earth, to be fired momentarily.  Over your dead body.  With an energetic string section bouncing triumphantly up and down in pitch, you slay your way through hordes of Promethean Knights (the Didact’s most capable servant-warriors), eventually reaching the vindictive antagonist.


 

14. Heavy Price Paid (Halo 2) – While much of Halo 2’s soundtrack is rock/electric guitar-oriented and full of badassery, Heavy Price Paid shows Halo’s serious and more sensitive side.  The first thing you hear in this piece is a cascading and melancholy choral sound.  The choir repeats this descent of the F minor scale and is joined by a poignant piano melody.  This music plays in the beginning of the mission, “Uprising,” in which you play as the Arbiter, a former Supreme Commander in the Covenant military who has fallen from grace and has been stripped of most of his privileges within the Covenant hierarchy.  At this point in the campaign, he and his brethren, the Elites (a prominent and esteemed race in Covenant society), have been betrayed by Covenant leadership, and the Brutes (another Covenant race) have taken great pleasure in relieving them of their duties and in eliminating members of their race.  Basically, the Covenant is now enjoying a widespread civil war (called the “Great Schism” – lots of religious undertones in Halo – can’t you tell?).  This is certain: The Brutes shall pay for the blood they have spilled.


 

13. We Remember (Reach) – A relatively brief tune and the final track on Reach’s OST, We Remember is a rock tribute to the planet Reach and the brave soldiers who fell defending it in a hopeless fight against a Covenant fleet larger than any of those humanity had previously encountered.  The entire piece is identical to a string and choral melody heard in the campaign’s epilogue; the only difference is that electric guitar, bass and drums come in at about twenty seconds in and last for the remainder of it.  The string-choir-guitar culmination from 1:05 to about 1:27 is one of the most audially agreeable moments in all of Halo music.  Furthermore, of all the guitar solo tracks in the Halo series, this one has to be my favourite.  It’s a fantastic ending to the soundtrack of Bungie’s final Halo game.


 

12. Three Gates (Halo 3) – Oh, those five opening piano chords.  This recurring piano motif in Halo 3 is surely burnt into the heads of every Halo fan who’s been playing since 2007, as it plays, in some form, almost one too many times throughout the campaign (and returns in Halo 4’s Atonement and Halo 5’s Blue Team, which made an appearance earlier in the countdown).  The piano playing soon becomes much more vigorous and complemented by percussion as your Pelican (human gunship/dropship) gets hit by Covenant turret fire and is forced to change its attack strategy from aerial insertion to crash landing and beach storming.

The second section of this piece is a groovy synthesised bit, which lasts till around the 2:00 mark, at which point the final section and main attraction, a remake of Halo 2’s Leonidas (cleverly titled Leonidas Returns), begins.  One of H2’s most beloved and epic tracks is more grandiose and even more rich-sounding here because Martin O’Donnell was finally able to acquire a full orchestra to record Halo’s music (most of the orchestral music from the first two games was produced on a synthsiser).  Amazing what real strings and real drums and added winds can do to bolster a piece of music, especially one that plays during a hectic dogfight above the sea.


 

11. Peril (Halo 2) – Another Halo 2 piece that can be described only as “Halo 2.”  It’s so “Halo 2” that it draws no inspiration from any tracks from the first Halo, and we never hear any obvious connection to its sound or melodies in any of the subsequent entries to the franchise.  It is one of the very few truly isolated Halo pieces.  The irony is that, for just how “Halo 2” this track is, it’s actually quite different from anything else on the H2 OST.  Its tone is lighthearted, almost carefree, with its highest strings being merrily plucked.  There is a fun, smooth bass line to counter the violins’ and violas’ and cellos’ chirpy, staccato chords.  All the while, we hear the steady pulse of a tambourine, keeping everything in line.  It is worth noting, however, that a sharp ear can make out subtle insertions of The Last Spartan, the High Charity theme and the Delta Halo theme, all of which play at various moments in the game’s campaign.

On the whole, Peril is a quaint little diversion in an ocean of a heavily thematic soundtracks; its sound seems to belie the tone of Halo 2’s story just as much as it contradicts its track title.  It seems out of place, but, on the contrary, no track could be more appropriate for a game story so unlike the others in the series.


 

10. The Trials (Halo 5: Guardians) – Many fans (including me) were disappointed with the lack of musical nods in the Halo 4 soundtrack.  We get that the point of a new soundtrack is to have new music, but it’s important to honour those that came before as well.  Kazuma Jinnouchi was promoted to sole composer for Halo 5’s OST after being a minor contributor in H4’s, and this was one of Halo developer 343 Industries’ smartest decisions.  Jinnouchi understood this music composition tenet with Halo 4 and continued by it with 5.  The Trials plays at numerous parts in the campaign in which you play as the Master Chief (John) and his friends, Fred, Linda and Kelly (these four comprise Spartan Blue Team, the only remaining Spartan-II fireteam) and is a clear remake of the classic Halo theme.  Of course, Jinnouchi adds his spin by combining it with his own composed theme from Halo 4, and the result is truly remarkable.  He proves with The Trials that the two major Halo themes – the one from Bungie’s original trilogy and the one from 343’s so-called “Reclaimer” trilogy – not only can coexist, but are seamlessly marriageable.


 

9. Farthest Outpost (Halo 3) – This piece opens with a distant, enigmatic-sounding choral section.  After a fade-out, a steady rock beat commences alongside some low winds.  There’s a drum fill, and the choir part repeats with the winds section, now joined by the rest of the orchestra, playing a melody underneath.  This plays during a cinematic in which humans and Covenant separatists (who have allied with each other to stop the Covenant from activating the Halo array, which is a series of enormous ringworlds scattered throughout the Milky Way built by an ancient spacefaring civilisation to destroy all sentient life in the galaxy) deploy dropships from orbit onto the Ark (basically the control centre for the Halo array).

The Ark is a world of its own, and the music as you descend onto it beautifully captures the wonder it imposes on you.  There is a brief bass guitar interlude, which plays during a fight with two hunters (giant, heavily-armoured Covenant ground troops) – colloquially referred to as the “hunter theme” because the same bass part was used during a hunter fight in Halo 2.  The third and final section is a remake of the bright and adventurous Perilous Journey from the first Halo (I don’t know why it is that all the Halo tracks with “peril” in the title don’t sound very perilous).


 

8. Follow Our Brothers (Halo 3) – Chronologically and on the soundtrack, this one comes just before Farthest Outpost.  This is roughly halfway through the campaign, and a LOT of stuff is going on in this long cinematic.  The Covenant has just bailed from Earth and entered a slipspace portal toward the Ark.  The Flood, an ancient, deadly parasitic organism (which you fight throughout the trilogy), landed on Earth and infected a great portion of Africa within an hour.  Humans and the Elites have teamed up and sterilised the local infestation and now need to decide how to deal with the Covenant at the Ark.  After much bickering between the leaders of the two factions aboard a ship in a scene whose dialogue I consider to be some of the best in the series, they resolve to divide up forces – you (the Master Chief), the Arbiter and numerous other key characters take a few ships through the portal while the rest stays back to hold out on Earth as long as possible.

The music, which begins with a revisit of a string melody from the first Halo, comes in once all the decisions have been made.  Around two minutes in, the music transitions to that theme I alluded to in the very first track on the list: the driving ostinato from the basses and cellos.  This time, however, it is not alone; soon added are all the missing string, wind and percussion parts from Brothers In Arms, also from the first game.  This patriotic anthem about loyalty and courage and banding together is finally whole, just in time for us to see humans and Elites, bitter enemies merely weeks ago, mingling with each other and preparing for combat together as allies.  The string coda plays as Lord Hood, commander of the Earth forces, takes one last look at the Master Chief before the door on his transport ship closes.


 

7. Walk Softly (Halo 5: Guardians) – So, there’s a track from Halo 4 called Mantis.  It’s named after the large, bipedal mech vehicle that is part of the human arsenal.  It has a machine gun in the left “arm” and missiles in the right.  It’s pretty boss, and its theme music is just as boss.  But, just when we all thought the track couldn’t get more boss, Kazuma Jinnouchi comes along and says, “Hold onto your dicks, boys, because I just remade it for Halo 5, and it’s gonna blow your fucking minds.”

Sure enough, Walk Softly outdoes Mantis on every front.  It’s as if Mantis had steroid injections in every part of its body and started hitting the gym.  It’s bigger and badder.  The most obvious difference is that, in Walk Softly, the recurring funky synth riff from the original (that sounds like something ripped from a Stevie Wonder record) has been amplified and is now used as filler between the heavier sections.  Then, the iconic fast string melody at around 1:00 in has been extended – and it has been reinforced with electric guitar to punctuate the “double punches” at the end of each phrase.  The guitar is used in a similar capacity for the rest of the track – never the lead (and just elementary power chords), but this minimalist use of the instrument is surprisingly effective in that it gives each chord that extra oomph as you beast-mode your way through waves and waves of Covenant in your unstoppable mantis.

Also, Kazuma Jinnouchi didn’t actually say that.


 

6. Winter Contingency (Reach) – If the first side of Halo: Reach’s soundtrack is a symphony, then each track (which is named after its corresponding campaign mission) is its own movement.  After the Overture, the first mission is “Winter Contingency,” and the track of the same name is number six on my list because I feel it is the most diverse of all of Reach’s “movements,” containing eight distinct sections.  It is also the longest Halo track to date, clocking in at just over twelve minutes.

The first couple minutes are devoted to the game’s signature majestic, foreboding string-choral theme, which evokes awe and sympathy for the doomed planet, just as the Gregorian chants of the earlier Halos solicited wonder about the mysterious Halo ringworlds.  The next section is one of Reach’s orchestral action themes, titled “Lone Wolf.”  These first two sections both make frequent appearances throughout the rest of the campaign.  A later bit in this track is an isolated, booming electric guitar riff (at 9:40) that plays as you and another Spartan enter a dark corridor to flush out any remaining Covies – like something taken out of the video game DOOM.  A quiet, intimate piano outro is the last thing you hear on this track, and – you guessed it – it comes back later.


 

5. The Menagerie/Skyline (ODST) – Atop a skyscraper in the warzone of New Mombasa, you (Romeo, the ODST squad’s sniper) and Buck (the former leader of the squad – Nathan Fillion provided his voice and likeness, by the way) fight through Covenant as you make your way toward the rendezvous point – a crashed police pelican atop an adjacent skyscraper, where your heavy weapons specialist and demolitions expert, Dutch and Mickey, respectively, await your arrival.

The low-key, tense, ambient music that underscores your covert sniping soon yields to fast, complex percussive beats with rhythmic winds playing over them as you engage in more up-close-and-personal firefights.  Finally, you cross a makeshift bridge to meet up with the other two ODSTs, thinking the mission is over, but then you hear a rock drum beat with brass horns start playing.  Covenant dropships, loaded with infantry, are inbound.  Nobody’s going anywhere till the airspace is clear.  The string-drums melody from an earlier mission (that track is The Menagerie) is now playing again, but now topped with a killer electric guitar solo that seems to duel with the strings and brass for the lead as you and your three ODST comrades, armed to the teeth with anti-air and other heavy weaponry, proceed to hold off wave after wave of Covenant air vehicles.  Get to work.

The genius of Skyline is the way it is divided into sections, with each part louder and more instrumentally diverse than the previous, making the piece one big crescendo toward the guitar solo climax.  The mounting tension and volume of the music mirror the action of the mission.  This piece-long crescendo technique that I like is also what makes Led Zeppelin’s masterpiece Stairway to Heaven so appealing to me.

The Menagerie is really just the base track for Skyline, but I actually prefer the stripped-down Menagerie ending section (which starts at the 4:00 mark) – without the embellishment of Skyline’s horns or guitar solo.  It still has guitar and bass and drums, but they take a back seat to the dirty cello section.  It altogether sounds rawer and grittier.  I have joked with friends that, if I were a professional wrestler with WWE, this part of The Menagerie would be my entrance music.  The same music even made a return in Halo: Reach during the mission, “New Alexandria,” when you provide air support for Buck, the aforementioned ODST.


 

4. In Amber Clad/Trapped In Amber (Halo 2/Halo 2 Anniversary) – I have a love/hate relationship with this pair of tracks.  How can a piece of music I love so dearly bring me such great amounts of frustration?  In Amber Clad is the quintessential Halo 2 track.  It has one of the most pleasing overall sounds of any Halo track on record, incorporating thick, moody orchestral blankets of sound, dreamy choral parts, exotic percussive beats and a distant-sounding electric guitar melody with electric bass playing parallel beneath it.  But it’s so damn short.  Clocking in at a mere 1:39, In Amber Clad is one of the shortest tracks in Halo music.  When I found out that 343 was re-recording all of Halo 2’s music for the 2014 anniversary release, I was giddier than a schoolgirl.  Did Trapped In Amber live up to expectations?

Well…yes and no.  It was so close, too.  I like that the new version put more emphasis on the percussion and vocals and less on the guitar.  It fits the atmosphere of the particular area of the campaign better than the original – sniping jackals (Covenant tactical ranged units) and Elites in a vast gorge with lush, green vegetation and with waterfalls and streams running through it within the tropical paradise region of Delta Halo.  Moreover, the arrangers were kind enough to extend the track, so the female vocal solo is absent the first time through but comes in for the repeat – and, man, is her voice enrapturing here.  And the chorus’ descant is radiant and glorious, seemingly sung by angels themselves.  Where did the remake fall short?

The strings and the ending.  The strings in the beginning are the first instruments you hear, and, despite having a full orchestra with which to record this time around instead of having to record them with a synthesiser, they actually sound worse.  Where, in the original, the chords seemed to flow into each other, in the remake, the chords sound disjointed and deliberate – it’s almost as if I can see the violinists and cellists sitting down, hesitating before moving to the next chord because they need to refer to the sheet music in front of them.

Even more unforgivable, though, is the ending.  The original ended with a cessation of all instruments, save for guitar, bass and percussion.  It was a mini-outro that concluded with one final guitar lick.  In the remake, it just kinda…fizzed out.  It still ended with only guitar, bass and drums, but it was so abrupt and disappointing, especially considering how much of a net improvement the majority was.  Imagine shaking a bottle of soda for two and a half minutes, and then you start to twist the cap off, expecting a huge explosion, but all you get is a pathetic puff of air.  That was the remastered ending to one of my favourite Halo tracks.

Fortunately, a creative YouTuber has combined both versions into a new one, which takes the best elements from the original and the remake and creates the ultimate edition (which, because it is fan-made and, therefore, not on any official soundtrack, cannot fairly be included in my list).  Really, though, I wouldn’t have ranked In Amber Clad/Trapped In Amber number four in my countdown if I didn’t think they were worthy.  I suppose I complain about them so much because they’re so damn near perfection, but a few nit-picky things hold them back.  Needless to say, they have enough good things going for them that their faults can, at the end of the day, be overlooked.


 

3. 117 (Halo 4) – I think I speak for most, if not all, long-time Halo fans when I say that, in general, the music that Martin O’Donnell (and his partner, Michael Salvatori) created for Halo is vastly superior to the music of newer Halo games.  Before I get to talking about 117, though, let me take a minute to explain my hypothesis as to why so many people prefer Marty’s music over the music from and 5.

I believe that this phenomenon can be attributed in part to the nostalgia blindfold.  But I knew that there had to be something else.  Something out of our control that made the newer stuff pale in comparison to Marty’s work.  Then, one day, as I was humming a classic Halo tune in the shower, it dawned on me.  I could sing it.

I then realised that the most important things lacking in the H4 and H5 soundtracks are singable melodies.  With Halos 1-3ODST and Reach, I would wager that one could sing along to at least 90% of their tracks, whether the melody was from voice, strings, piano or guitar.  Being able to sing/hum along to a piece fosters a deeper connection between listener and music.  It’s what makes so many tracks in those games timeless and memorable.  In Halo 4, these kinds of tracks are few, and even more so in Halo 5.  My main problem with Halo 5’s OST is that too often I feel like I’m being attacked by the music instead of being allowed to participate in it.  It’s basically an action movie soundtrack; it’s all so fast-paced and intense and gives you very little time to breathe (to be fair, though, it’s actually quite appropriate for the campaign).

Neil Davidge gave us a few good ones to hum with (like Arrival from earlier), but they still didn’t quite sound like Halo.  Kazuma Jinnouchi, on the other hand, managed to nail both criteria with his 117.

This track, named for our hero, the Master Chief (his Spartan designation is John-117), plays during the final mission of the game (funny how Halo 4’s best music came at the end).  Piloting a Broadsword (agile spacecraft fighter), MC is racing through tunnels within the Didact’s personal spaceship (this spaceship is bloody huge) to deliver a nuclear device and blow everything up and save the day.  The whole set piece is strikingly reminiscent of the Death Star assault sequence from the original Star Wars.

The track begins with horns playing what is now referred to simply as the “117 theme,” a melody that we hear reprised in Halo 5’s Blue Team.  The original is in C-sharp minor.  It is a melody of passion and conviction.  There is also a sense of urgency when the strings come in with the rapid secondary melody (the same one used to counter the classic Halo theme in The Trials); Jinnouchi sure loves his polyphony.  This mixture of moods could not be more fitting for this part of the campaign – in a race against time, the machine soldier in Chief is set about completing the mission (to stop the Didact and save humanity), while the human side of Chief is desperate to save his deteriorating A.I. companion, Cortana, who is easily his closest friend.  This human-machine dichotomy is a major theme in Halo 4.  Finally, a choir adds substantial depth and power to the sound to this section of the piece.

At the 6:10 mark, we hear the only vestige of the original Halo theme in the game with the horns and male voices doing the famous rising “dun dun dun DUNNN” progression (just listen to it to know what I mean).  At 6:27, the high strings begin to frantically play a prolonged series of rapid-fire pitches while the low strings and voices and percussion punctuate beneath them.  It’s the grand finale of this wonderful piece, and it never fails to give me goosebumps.

The last thing we hear, once all the instruments have given one final jab, is the sound of a wolf howling – a clear reference to the nature of John-117: a lone wolf.


 

2. Under Cover of Night/Cloaked In Blackness (Halo: Combat Evolved/Halo: CE Anniversary) – For number two in my countdown, we’re going all the way back to the very beginning.  One of the most iconic tracks in all of Halo happens to come from one of the most iconic missions in the series, “The Truth and Reconciliation,” the third from Halo: CE‘s campaign.  The objective: Rescue Captain Keyes, who has been captured and imprisoned aboard the Covenant’s stationary battlecruiser, Truth and Reconciliation.  You (Master Chief) and a squad of marines are deployed into a grassy, mountainous region on Alpha Halo in the middle of the night.  Armed with the advantage of surprise, night vision and a sniper rifle with enough ammunition to last you through two apocalypses, you quietly eliminate any Covies patrolling between you and the ship.

The gaseous melody has been recycled numerous times throughout Halos 1-3 (it was that string melody I hinted at in my description of Follow Our Brothers), but none compares with the original track (and the remastered Anniversary version).  Under Cover of Night is a prime example of when the music suits the action.  Its instantly recognisable melody, the female vocalist’s mystifying wails and the mean bass guitar line over a smooth, simple drum beat is true ear candy.


 

1. Never Forget (Halo 3) – Every classic Halo fan knows this one as “the relaxing menu music.”  Halo 2’s Unforgotten was so well-crafted, Marty O’Donnell decided to bring it back for Halo 3.  Never Forget is astonishing.  It’s beautiful.  It’s soothing.  It’s evocative.  The tender strings slowly ebb and flow like the tide on a beach.  It’s utterly peaceful.

Never Forget differs from the original in that there is a piano-choral interlude between the string-only first verse and the string-piano second verse.  The voices are divine, and the piano is touching.  Additionally, the first verse has been lowered a half step in pitch and sounds more hopeful; the original, more solemn and thoughtful key of F minor is restored for the second verse.  And, of course, having a full orchestra certainly improves the sound quality.

If any of you reading this post have a choral background and/or are familiar with the piece, The Seal Lullaby by Eric Whitacre, its piano accompaniment and overall tone sounds remarkably similar to Never Forget.  If you’re not familiar with it and are curious, I won’t embed the music here, but a quick search of “the seal lullaby eric whitacre” on YouTube will yield the results you need.

Never Forget is my number one because you don’t have to be a Halo fan or even play video games to appreciate it.  It never plays during any Halo campaign, and its title doesn’t necessarily refer to any character or event in the Halo universe.  There’s no context.  It’s meant to be subjective.  We all have memories that we don’t ever want to lose, whether they’re of a passed loved one or of the innocent days of our youth.  Never Forget puts you on that figurative beach and allows you to take a moment and look back.

Me, I remember playing Halo 3 with my buddies from high school and staying up well past midnight.  You know, back when the people I played with on Xbox Live were actually people I knew.  And we’d talk about it the next day during school before going home and playing some more.  No college or careers to think about – just the typical school stuff like classes, music and concerts, plays and athletics before goofing around on Xbox.

Who suddenly put these chopped onions here?


 

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

Ashes (Reach) – This one probably would have made the list were it not for the whiny child vocals.  Otherwise, nothing short of beautiful.


 

Behold a Pale Horse (Halo 3) – A remake of On a Pale Horse from the first Halo, plus part of the Truth and Reconciliation Suite, also from Halo: CE.


 

Broken Gates (Mombasa Suite) (Halo 2) – My favourite section from the Mombasa SuiteBroken Gates is the “hunter theme” I mentioned earlier.  It was remade as Out of Shadow for Halo 3 and once again for the anniversary re-release.


 

Cast Aside (No Stone Unturned) (ODST)The first part of another wonderful, ambient track from The Rookie’s harrowing night of investigation through the streets of New Mombasa.


 

Delta Halo Suite (Halo 2) – A bunch of cool pieces in this lengthy collection of music from Chief’s wacky adventures on Delta Halo, including a heartwrenching, string-only version of Heavy Price Paid.  Lots of sentimental value in this one for me, as Halo 2 was the first Halo campaign I ever played.


 

Earth City (Halo 2) – One of my favourite piano tracks in the series.  Just an all-around great sound combination in this one.


 

Ghosts and Glass (Reach) – The partner song to Ashes.  Quite the orchestral arrangement in this one.


 

Opening Suite (Halo: CE) – The first thing you ever heard when you fired up Halo: CE on the original Xbox.  The string repeat at 2:39 is the only bit of music in the entire series that can be heard in every campaign, from Halos 1-5.  It’s the only musical link between the five main games, and this gives it value beyond measure.


 

Roll Call (Halo 3) – This excellent track begins with a brighter take on the classic Halo Gregorian chant theme and transitions to the opening to Farthest Outpost, which, in turn, transitions to another Under Cover of Night revisit, but now with the bass line to In Amber Clad.  The last couple minutes are a gentle piano-string tune.

This track played during the end credits for Halo 3, and part of it was used in the menu music for the multiplayer-only Halo 3 Mythic disc, which shipped with ODST in 2009.


 

Unyielding (Halo 2) – Sorry, Reclaimer fanboys.  As much as I love Steve Vai’s face-melting guitar solo in that particular track, I much prefer the vanilla version, Unyielding.  This piano-guitar rocker plays in the mission, “Uprising,” once you (Arbiter) get in a ghost (Covenant light hovering land speeder with twin front plasma cannons) and rush through a gorge, slaying any Brutes who stand in your way.

This track has elements of the Halo theme in it, and the main piano riff was repurposed for Halo 3’s Three Gates and One Final Effort.


Warrior World (Halo 5) – Finally, some love for the acoustic guitar.  This track is about as close as Halo 5 gets to rock.  Good theme for the Elites’ homeworld.


 

So much for trying to keep things brief here.  If you made it through the whole post and read every single word I wrote, consider me in your debt.  I love Halo and its music, and it’s easy for me to ramble on about them.  If you’re a fan of the series, then I hope that this list made you look back fondly on the times you’ve had with its games.  If you’ve never touched a Halo game in your life and just felt like indulging me and my writing, then I hope that I was able to expose you to some quality music!  If you like what you heard, you can find PLENTY more awesome Halo music on YouTube (there’s so much I didn’t include), and every soundtrack is available for purchase on iTunes.

Speaking of which, I need to take this time to acknowledge YouTube and all its users who have uploaded all the music I unabashedly embedded in this blog post.  I didn’t ask for their permission, but I don’t believe I’m committing any copyright infringement, as the music isn’t their work, either.  I have bought most of the soundtracks myself, but I couldn’t upload any of the music to this post because I do not have a WordPress Pro or WordPress Business plan (mine is the free basic plan).  Otherwise, I would have.  That being said, you’re more than welcome to visit any of the users’ YouTube pages by clicking on the titles of each embedded video, which double as links.

ANYWAY, no matter your experience with Halo, feel free to let me know what you thought!  Thanks again for your continued support, and I’ll try to make my next post more accessible!