Mass Effect 2 Original Videogame Soundtrack :: Review by Simon Elchlepp
Equally loved by critics and audiences when it was released in 2008, Bioware's Mass Effect underscored its developer's status as one of the foremost makers of quality Western RPGs. And of course, it also ensured that a sequel would follow sooner rather than later. When Mass Effect 2 then saw the light of day in January 2010, it met with even greater critical praise than its predecessor.
Needless to say, creating a worthy successor to what already seems to have become a modern classic was a tall order for everybody involved in the development of the game, including its sound staff. For Mass Effect, a team led by composer Jack Wall had written a score that harkened back to the soundworlds of Blade Runner and Dune, instead of taking the more obvious route of emulating the soundtrack to George Lucas' space opera Star Wars. For Mass Effect 2, Wall returned to fulfil scoring duties, spearheading a team that consisted of his previous Mass Effect collaborators, Sam Hulick and David Kates, and new members Jimmy Henson and Brian DiDomenico. Together, they created nearly three hours of material, two hours of which are represented on the Mass Effect 2 score release. Considering that Mass Effect's soundtrack held 75 minutes of music, does the Mass Effect 2 album sustain interest over its elongated running time?
According to Wall, the composing team went for a more orchestral approach this time, which results in a mix of orchestral elements and the synth components that dominated the first game's soundtrack. The combination of these two soundworlds works quite well, due in no small measure to the way they have been created and recorded: the orchestral elements are mostly of obviously sampled nature, with a sound that is quite distinct from that of a real orchestra. Additionally, both orchestral and electronic components are given the same reverberant sound in a very wet mix, which further blends the different instruments into one whole. This approach does create the occasional odd-sounding moment: the horns at 2:40 in "Miranda" are very foggy, and the solo cello in "The Normandy Reborn" sounds as full and forwardly placed as the whole ensemble which plays before the cello enters. But all in all, mixing the two musical styles by giving them a similar timbre works quite well, to the degree that it's sometimes difficult to tell if you're listening to synths emulating an orchestra or just plain synths.
The soundtrack is off to a promising start with "The Illusive Man", which adds an unexpected ingredient to its soundscape: an acoustic guitar, sounding almost exotic in this musical sci-fi environment. It's soon joined by a solo cello, playing a descending, mournful four note motif that will become the score's main new motif. It's a somewhat anonymous, if not particularly memorable theme, which however proves effective, mostly due to the cello's full-bodied timbral qualities. By setting both solo instruments against an atmospheric synthesiser background, the track successfully merges intimate and expansive sounds into a rich tapestry. The following cue, "Humans Are Disappearing", reprises the cello motif and couples it with an elegiac piano melody, echoing through the depths of space against an oppressive synth backdrop, as the human race is under attack by an mysterious alien force. According to Wall, the solo piano and cello motifs are supposed to reflect Shepard's (the game's main protagonist) "loneliness in his quest to save the galaxy", and the way the two instruments have been recorded communicates this well, similar to the violin soli in Garry Schyman's BioShock scores.
"The Attack" brings a first taste of the material used to underscore Mass Effect 2's antagonists, the alien race known as the Collectors. Wall decided to rely on tribal drum rhythms and powerful percussion "to reflect the hive or the pack feeling [the Collectors] give." A fitting choice for sure, but since the percussion is usually coupled with very familiar orchestral tropes, such as swelling brass notes over staccato, sometimes ostinato string figures, the Collectors' score material aligns itself right away with a particular style of rather bland Hollywood action music writing: strings and percussion create a propulsive rhythmic backdrop, while the brass provides suitable grand harmonies (instead of melodies). The fact that most of the rhythms and timbres produced by the drums are quite generic doesn't help much. Still, for the time being, this approach generates results that are hardly surprising, but suitably effective.
Leading further towards the true beginning of the listening (and gaming) experience, "The Lazarus Project" opens with a female voice singing Shepard's theme, imported from the first game, before a relentless, Phillip Glass-like string figure and layers of brass celebrate the victorious rebirth of the game's main character. The circular string figure is a prime example of how the orchestral sounds, made to sound not too realistic, merge well with the synthetic elements. Layered electronic beats and orchestral overdubs (more staccato string figures) carry the generic, but effective "A Rude Awakening", before "The Normandy Reborn" confronts the listener with the soundtrack's most bombastic track so far: ostinato strings lead to a section for majestic brass and a triumphant statement of Shepard's theme, and after calming down for a reprise of the cello motif, the composition ends with a satisfyingly epic conclusion, pushed forward by the inclusion of percussion and electronic beats.
And then we're off into the soundtrack's main portion, which balances lengthy character themes with pieces accompanying the game's progressing storyline. Unfortunately, this is also where the Mass Effect 2 soundtrack hits a major speed bump. The music playing during the characters' recruitment or loyalty mission changes dynamically to situations and events taking place in the game. This is nothing unusual for how music is used in video or computer games, but for this soundtrack release, instead of presenting through-composed compositions, Wall has edited the often quite different musical material making up a character's mission into extensive suites. In other words, the character themes go through a number of different orchestrations, atmospheres and rhythms which, of course, potentially poses problems regarding the structure of these suites. And indeed, on several occasions, the character themes suffer from a lack of direction that permits them to meander from one section to the next an impression that is reinforced by the sheer length of these compositions, ranging from five to over nine minutes. This problem is only made worse when often enough, the transition from one segment to the next is less than subtle and hurts the piece's flow further, giving the listener the impression that she follows a patchwork of short musical bits, rather than one complete whole.
Nowhere do the above problems and the potential squandered become more obvious than in "Thane", the longest composition on the soundtrack. After its opening ambient soundscape, dominated by a high-pitched, echoing piano figure, the piece leads into several short builds ups into more energetic material that ultimately lead nowhere. In its first two thirds, the track keeps on changing moods and tempi way too often to be effective, and the composition isn't helped by the fact that the material its deploys such as a slower passage led by horns isn't too interesting. However, the piece reaches a nice climax at 5:25, with swelling, majestic synth chords backed by thunderous drums and a riding electronic rhythm. It all gets even better when a frantic string figure is added at 7:00, creating an excellent, tense action track, before the cue peters out with mildly interesting ambient material. In short, there are some very good bits in this lengthy composition, but one needs to dig quite a bit to find them.
Other character themes are a similarly mixed bag. After a slow, ambient start, "Garrus" settles into a nice, rolling groove at 1:10, which conveys a feeling of determination and power very well. But at 2:05, the track shifts into non-descript orchestral music dominated by sustained string chords, before erupting into more action material at 3:45, which consists of the ubiquitous synth rhythms with added swelling brass harmonies and ostinato strings. It's particularly during this cue that the way the brass is used most of the time either to provide epic-sounding, swelling chords or rhythmic punctuations becomes tiresome. "Tali" provides more uneasy shifts in tempo and atmosphere and action material that follows the by now well-familiar formula of string ostinati and electronic beats under towering, harmonic brass or synth chords. The return of the cello motif is a nice touch that adds some much-needed sonicvariety, but it's only quoted for a few seconds, instead of actually elaborated upon. For the mostly formulaic action material in this and many other tracks, the verdict is usually the same: it's effective to a degree (certainly within the game), but it becomes tiring to listen to after a while, especially once the soundtrack enters its second hour of running time.
"Grunt" is somewhat of an improvement, with its occasionally layered string ostinati more interesting and less monotonous than those in other cues, coupled with elating rather than powerful brass chords. This approach makes for somewhat mellower action material, with a greater emphasis on grandeur, rather than raw power, and proves to be more entertaining than comparable tracks, although "Grunt" is plagued by not-too-smooth transitions between orchestra and busy electronic elements. "Mordin" starts out nicely with a sad, echoing synth call against a tinkling ambient backdrop, which readily evokes memories of Vangelis' soundtrack for Blade Runner. Once the piece picks up steam, it's rather coldly majestic than pulse pumping, with its lighter synth instruments balancing the soundscape's more epic components. Unfortunately, after a dull middle section, the track bombards the listener with more overtly grandiose material that follows the established blueprint and continues mostly unchanged for three minutes straight.
Fortunately, some of the character suites justify their running time and provide a constantly engaging listening experience. "Legion" puts greater emphasis on purely orchestral material than other tracks, with a choral outburst at 2:20 and a focus on very fast brass quintuplets, which are incorporated into the rousing composition at various points and inject it with a great amount of urgency and power. It helps that the percussion in this piece is given more space to breath than usually, and that the composition suffers a great deal less from pacing problems than other cues do. "Jack" provides some structure by switching back and forth between orchestral elements, which are initially organised as a generic march, and electronic material, the latter at first creating a downbeat, ambient mood through a heavy beat and foreboding string pads. In the course of the track, both elements, orchestral and electronic, intensify and push each other higher and higher, while becoming more varied and finally end up being played simultaneously. "Jacob" is equally stirring, again partly because it provides some structure, this time by simply building over several minutes. The piece starts with deep string tremoli and a heavy-going brass melody, propelled forwards by a repetitive, circling synth motif. Thunderous percussion enters, while the synth line becomes fuller and more aggressive. The melodies are more sweeping than usually, and the piece's vast climax is driven by an energetic trumpet figure, before the cue ends with a more emotional section carried by the strings and a variation on the cello motif.
But ultimately, none of these tracks are as impressive as "Samara", interestingly the second-longest cue on the album and a shining example of how to do this kind of sprawling character themes right. It incorporates some middle-eastern or Indian sounding tone colours into its texture and mixes them expertly with the orchestral and electronic material. These new sounds imbue the track with more character than almost anything else this soundtrack has to offer, both when accompanying the composition's opening, more sparse soundscape, and its impressive, bombastic finish, which combines solo voices, choir, synths and orchestra for one hell of a closing minute. Add to this the enormously propulsive electronic beats used to drive the track's earlier action material and the fact that it develops its moods more consistently than other tracks, and "Samara" is an unqualified winner.
These character themes are bundled into pairs of two, with one event cue sandwiched in between. In theory, this should work quite well, given that most of these cues are significantly shorter than the character suites, breaking up the the album's often plodding flow. In reality, the event cues often feature material that is only occasionally interesting. "An Unknown Enemy" and "The Normandy Attacked" feature more of the generic Collector material first presented in "The Attack" to underscore moments of danger and crisis. To their credit though, both tracks spice up things somewhat: "An Unknown Enemy" squeezes a frantic string accompaniment between the usual layers of brass and percussion, and finishes with effectively menacing ambient tones, while "The Normandy Attacked", after another abrupt rhythmic change, segues into more aggressive action material, punctuated by harsh, almost industrial-sounding string figures. "Horizon", after its initial horn call, mellows into threatening ambient underscore, before transforming into a mostly straightforward rendition of the cello and piano motif: atmospheric, but hardly original. Slightly improving upon this lack of thematic development, "Freedom's Progress" features the cello motif in some new disguises: first, it's presented by flute and vibraphone against dissonant, high-pitched strings and synth instruments, before the strings play successions of the theme in one of the soundtrack's most sorrowful passage. The cue's remainder, with more abrupt changes and a very forwardly placed, obnoxious electronic beat at the end, is less impressive.
The soundtrack closes with a number of event cues that underscore the game's climatic moments, sequenced successively, and they display the same qualities, both good and bad, that dominate the whole soundtrack: they are mostly pleasant listens and, for the most part, effectively communicate what's happening on screen, but they're also somewhat monotonous and inconsistent in regard to the atmosphere they're trying to create. "Jump Drive", "Crash Landing" and "The Collector Base" all feature more of the same Collector action material, which certainly doesn't get more interesting when repeated as frequently as it is here. All three pieces also casually switch between the high-powered Collector material and ambient sections for droning synths. Sometimes, like after 1:46 in "The Collector Base", the latter passages prove beautifully atmospheric, but mostly, they're dull and rob the pieces of a good deal of their effectiveness. "Crash Landing" at least quiets down at some point to a violin solo, accompanied by some harp flourishes.
"The End Run" is unmistakably the game's climatic cue, and this translates to pretty much exactly what the listener has now come to expect: busy string ostinati, driving percussion, and triumphant brass melodies, with the choir incorporated to provide both melodic and rhythmic support. All of these elements drive the piece to a predictably epic-sounding conclusion, which successfully heralds victory over the enemy threat, but by this point, many listeners will have become tired of hearing the same bombast over and over again. And just to make absolutely sure that listeners will think they've heard this stuff already, the following track, "Suicide Mission", regurgitates the action material from "End Run" almost verbatim, interrupting it only with an episode for light choir and chiming synths talk about poor album sequencing. The final two short pieces then rather feel like afterthoughts. "New Worlds" reworks material from "The Illusive Man" and incorporates it into a relaxing synth backdrop, while "Reflections" is more substantive, exuding a surprisingly romantic atmosphere through its beautiful solo cello, accompanied by tinkling piano and light choir pads; however, the cue's short running time prevents it from really going anywhere.
Mass Effect 2's soundtrack release is a classic case of "less is more". While Wall stated in an interview that care was taken to not include all the material composed for the game in the soundtrack release to avoid repetition and only present the music's essence, this undertaking was merely partially successful. The soundtrack starts out strong, and a number of the character themes make for entertaining listening, occasionally providing flashes of originality, most prominently in "Samara" and "Legion". However, most of the character suites are simply too long and would have greatly benefited from tighter editing, as well as smoother transitions between sections.
Another problem which surfaces in both the character and the later event cues is the fact that the composing team behind Mass Effect 2 way too often chooses the same means when trying to underscore moments of action and danger, producing the same, formula-driven sound over and over in an attempt to create gravitas. The soundtrack's finishing tracks highlight this problems most dramatically. At least, the score album features a coherent sound, with none of the composers creating sounds that are odds with the surrounding material. Ultimately, there's about an hour of good to great material in the soundtrack release of Mass Effect 2 unfortunately, it will take the listener some patience to unearth it. This is one of those albums where cherry-picking the best tracks via digital downloads, instead of getting the whole album, will be advisable for many collectors.
Overall Score: 6/10