Europa Universalis Rome Soundtrack :: Review by Simon
Europa Universalis Rome continued developer Paradox Interactive's franchise of 'grand strategy games'. Between Rome and predecessor Europa Universalis III, not much had changed. You still have dozens of nations to choose from, and once you've started the game, you'll either be delighted or intimated by how many options Rome offers you to manipulate every possible political, economical and social aspect of your kingdom. The main difference was that Paradox Interactive's flagship franchise moved into ancient times for the first time, with all the tweaks and adjustments that this brought to the gameplay. Once more, critics reacted well to the depth of Paradox Interactive's latest offering, although it didn't receive as much acclaim as Europa Universalis III. As on that game, the music for Rome was composed by Andreas Waldetoft, who only saw his work receive a dedicated release about four years after the game had hit store shelves. Finally, in April 2012, Paradox Interactive released Waldetoft's score for Rome as a digital download, together with two other scores of his (Europa Universalis III and Victoria II).
Europa Universalis Rome wastes no time in letting you know that it's a heavy-hitter. At least according to the opening tracks of this soundtrack, this is a game about empires clashing in all their ferocious might, and Waldetoft easily surpasses his battle tracks on Europa Universalis III in volume and intensity to depict this struggle. After the album's first cue's pastoral mood has subsided, Rome launches into battle with "Auxiliaries". The ingredients that Waldetoft uses here and throughoutthe game aren't surprising and follow the conventions that any large-scale, Antiquity-themed soundtrack post-Gladiator apparently needs to follow. Heavy brass rhythms, reinforced by choir and string staccatos, mix with an array of percussion instruments of various national origins. Powerful, soaring horn and choir melodies lead this mighty conglomerate of rhythmic force, while a number of ethnic solo instruments duduk, djembe, yan ching (a Chinese zither) add colour and period sheen to the proceedings.
This is not to suggest that Rome's first action tracks are wholly derivative or lacking in quality. Waldetoft avoids the electronic manipulations of Gladiator and the catchy in-your-face nature of its rhythms. The propulsions that drive "Auxiliaries", "Barbarians Approaching" and "Battle of Zama" find a happy middle-ground between hammering force and intricate layering that makes the bombast not just bearable, but actively stirring. Waldetoft lets rip on these cues the sheer impact of the combined choral and percussion sounds is impressive but as on Europa Universalis III, Waldetoft also manages to cleverly shape the orchestra's fortissimo passages, so that the music doesn't feel bloated and monotonous. Here as on that earlier soundtrack, solo instruments are spliced into the orchestral onslaught, and on Rome, it falls to the non-Western instruments to provide melodic direction and some relief from the orchestra's monolithic tones. Waldetoft had applied a similar mix of orchestra and solo instruments on Europa Universalis III, but not to an entirely satisfying degree on the album's comparatively bland march-driven composition. Rome's mighty action tracks feature a more successfully implemented mix of instrumental colours, and they also benefit from the simple fact that they sound a lot punchier than their predecessors. The instrument samples that Waldetorf uses pack a wallop and while the synth choir still doesn't sound as forcefully as it ideally would, it's more commanding than on Europa Universalis III. It also has to, as the choir will be one of Rome's dominant musical forces.
Other aspects of Europa Universalis III's signature sound seep into Rome as well. Waldetoft still knows how to weave a dense web of instrumental layers and bring them together in a satisfactorily developed, heavyweight orchestral composition, mixing quieter, melody-driven passages into his raucous compositions. These characteristics shine most brightly on "Battle of Zama", which runs at more than seven minutes, but never feels tiring or less than substantial. Waldetoft gives the music space to build via intensifying hand percussion rhythms over a yan ching ostinato figure and duduk melodies. This dramatic opening segues into one of those gorgeous mid-sections that had already marked many pieces on the precessor the composer certainly hasn't lost his gift for long, flowing melodies that win over listeners in an instant. Following Europa Universalis III's loud-quiet-loud pattern, the battle sounds return and lead "Battle of Zama" to its imposing climax, before the tracks ends with another engrossing, introspective woodwind melody.
The rest of Rome follows in the footsteps of these early tracks, in the sense that like Europa Universalis III, Rome is a lavish, symphonically-styled score that can count on a multitude of strong melodies to carry the music both in its extrovert and reclusive moments. Waldetoft appropriately tweaks his orchestral sound for Rome though, as this score creates a more monumental soundworld. Waldetoft does weave various ethnic instruments that have become synonymous with a generic sense of antiquity into his compositions. However, his main method of underscoring the game's time and locale remains a generally thick, massive, at times raw sound to underline the might of the Roman empire. At the same time, the score is more percussion-driven and determined then Waldetoft's later attempt at scoring a world power in Victoria II and lacks that work's 'end of an empire' feel it's all about regal, muscular displays of power.
As on Europa Universalis III, Waldetoft gets his economies of scale right after Rome's riotous start to the album, things calm down a bit. It's true, the militaristic bombast of the album's opening still returns in its mid-section on the triumphant, brass-fanfare driven "Imperator", which is just as impressive as those earlier cues; and on "Rock and Rome", a rather serviceable piece that suffers from relatively dull orchestral rhythms and melodies. Outside of these few compositions though, Waldetoft mostly leaves away the martial rhythms and lets the music sing of Rome's grandiosity in less bellicose, yet still broad and ennobling tones. The results are entirely successful, as the composer once more peppers orchestral expressions of magnificence with finely-detailed instrument lines. "Eagle Fly North" is a great example of tendency, as it segues from its solemn, voluminous bass choir chants over resounding hand percussion into another one of those deliciously melodic mid-sections led by solo woodwind. And when the composition then moves towards its climax, the processional choral lines are surrounded by impeccably composed, beautifully intertwining orchestral lines in a majestic swell of sounds.
"Legends of Rome Main Theme" brings together the soundtrack's reflective and ostentatious aspects just as well, while representing the latter through dignified, gushing melodies rather than through the album opening's military mood. Rome's imperious streak reaches its apex on "Rome Is the Light", whose stirring horn melodies and sense of understated grandeur are a beauty to behold, and successfully realise the cue title's claim. As with so many pieces here, it all ends with an exciting orchestral flourish, carried by the choir's exalted melody.
Waldetoft's approach to Rome gives the music few chances to turn truly light. Even a more subdued (by this title's standards) composition like "Elysian Fields" still backs its yearning woodwind melodies with full-bodied string orchestrations and solemn male choir. Only on "The Senate" and "Grief" is the ensemble significantly reduced to a number of solo instruments, and it is here that the ethnic instruments and their earthy timbres get to take the spotlight to winning effect, be it through the intriguing mix of light, spirited rhythms and pensive melodies on "The Senate", or through the simple, but touching woodwind harmonies of "Grief". Fortunately, while the score's almost constantly opulent strains could turn tiresome in the hands of a lesser composer, Waldetoft manages to pull off this kind of grandiloquence due to his melodic skills and his lovingly crafted, varied orchestrations.
As on Europa Universalis III, the overall positive impression is diminished somewhat by the album's last handful of tracks, although more so than on that earlier album, this slide in quality is relative and hardly a game breaker. For the big finale, Waldetoft ramps up the bombast and solemnity again, but scores "To Victory", "Vae Victis" and "Victorious Rome Finale" with slightly less imagination than earlier tracks, as the pomp of album's close feels somewhat one-dimensional one can't help but miss the support of the ethnic solo instruments, which go AWOL most of the time here. The Vangelis-style synths on "Vae Victis" are a curious surprise and don't feel congruent with the otherwise purely orchestral sound of the album, but they are effective in and of themselves and help to distract from the incessant snare drum rhythm underneath. "Victorious Rome Finale" doesn't quite match "Rome Is the Light" for sheer gravity, but is still a fitting conclusion to the album. And Waldetoft's decision to finish such a boisterous soundtrack with a reserved, peaceful coda is a welcome surprise and has a much bigger impact than yet another grand climax would have.
If you've enjoyed Europa Universalis III's lavish orchestral sound, chances are you'll like Europa Universalis Rome as well. Its compositions are equally well-written, densely scored, carried by long-winded, enthralling melodies, and with a flair for dramatic development that sees these compositions travel lots of territory between start and finish. Instead of Europa Universalis III's wide range of world music influences, Rome focuses on a familiar hybridisation of Western orchestral forces and ethnic solo instruments that yields great results, as the solo voices balance the considerable bombast running through this soundtrack. Above all, this a score that is unashamedly big and monumental, and it's to Waldetoft's immense credit that he manages to write a soundtrack that never drowns in its own pompousness. Particularly impressive is the march-driven aggression of the title's opening tracks, which easily surpasses its predecessor's similarly-styled pieces and sends the album off to a thrilling start. The album's solid finish isn't quite up to the rest of the soundtrack, but this only serves to underline the high standards that the rest of the score sets. Among game scores inspired by the grandeur of the Roman empire, this one ranks very near the top.
Overall Score: 8/10