Halo 3 Soundtrack Adds Epic Sound To Epic Scenes: Part Three

Now that I've recovered from my Super Bowl hangover, here's the promised conclusion to my three-part review of Halo 3's soundtrack.

Edge Closer starts out airy and atmospheric but soon turns into something like a technofied, up-tempo version of Covenant Dance as you fight your way back out from the map room for extraction, finishing with another drum-pounding Pelican pickup that is very similar to the one that ended the very first level.

Finish the Fight gets turned into a combat anthem for Three Gates, a rollicking piano heavy piece that starts during the introductory cutscene for The Covenant and continues to play as you fight your way from the beach to the first of three towers you must disable in order to follow Truth to the Ark's control room. In the interior sections we get an interesting mix of electronic and acoustic percussion.

Soon, however, we're taking to the skies again. With the first tower disabled it's back to the beach to pick up a hornet to fly to the next encounter and wreak as much havoc on the way as possible. Halo 3 never intentionally offers you Banshees to fly, instead offering you the simpler to fly and more powerful UNSC hornet, which flies a lot like a jet copter. On liftoff you're accompanied by another returning track from Halo 2, this one part of the Delta Halo Suite called Leonidas, which is played during the second gondola ride near the end of the level Regret, as Banshees attack-- so it's a piece that's tailor-made for aerial combat.

As the melody builds higher and higher towards an irresistable climax the big sound of the orchestra really pulls this piece off in a way that MIDI couldn't quite manage in the comparable part of Halo 2, where you finally arrive at the temple where Regret is holed up. Here, it heralds your arrival at the third and final tower to disable that powers the energy barrier cutting off your pursuit of Truth.

Of course the Flood are in play again-- they attack you as you attempt to leave the third tower-- and Black Tower brings the moody ambience and backwards voices as the Flood attack. As in Floodgate, you get the maximum creepiness for the minimum amount of frustrating Flood-fighting; the earlier encounter was short, and this one is even shorter.

The real sadness in this piece, though, comes not from the Flood but from the action away from the Chief and the Arbiter. Truth has captured Johnson and Keyes and means to use one or the other to activate the Array. A melancholy melody that recalls elements of both Heavy Price Paid and Finale from Halo 2 touchingly mark Keyes' final sacrifice and Truth's dogged determination to stop short of nothing in his quest for immortality and godhood, even if it means shooting a woman in the back. Sometimes it's a little hard to work up sympathy for Commander Exposition, but the soundtrack does the heavy lifting here and just about carries it off.

The piano riffs of Finish the Fight and Three Gates get a redux moment in One Final Effort as your contingent of ground vehicles advance on the Ark's control room, leaving devastation in their wake, to stop Truth once and for all, avenge Keyes, and rescue Johnson-- for the second time in the game. You may recognize this piece as well-- it was used in the final action-packed trailer for Halo 3 shown at E3 in 2007, and is the closest thing Halo 3 has to a complete rendering of the original Halo theme from the very first trailer in 1999.

If you thought now was about the right time for the rumbling hearbeat and stabbing strings of a Flood encounter to intrude on the story again, you're right. Gravemind gives us just that, although the twist is that this time the tension isn't a harbinger of our doom, at least not yet. Gravemind wants Truth dead just as much as Arby and the Chief do, and he's more than willing to help out, at least in the short term. Of course, once that's done all bets are off, and the pounding percussion bursts in like a Gravemind tentacle as he blocks our heroes' escape from the control room. Thankfully the pounding is kept to a minimum. It's as if the soundtrack, and the game, acknowledge that the player can only be beat up on for so long before it begins to lose its effect. All you have to do is make it back to the entrance to the control room where you're given another revelation and another variation on the old Halo voice theme when a fleeting image of Cortana leads the Chief and Arbiter to a jaw-dropping view of Installation 04a rising from the Foundry that forms the Ark's inner core.

Strings and woodwinds of No More Dead Heroes echo themes long associated with Cortana to out her eponymous level, and the tone is one of loss and longing rather than of tension and action. It's just as well because this level will give you plenty of both in spades without the music adding to it. It's the game's only real full-on Flood level, and the music stays low key, ambient and creepy, letting the tension come from the encounters themselves. Some are punctuated by the drum-pounding that has by now become one of Halo 3's trademarks, but these are kept appropriately short.

When you finally make your way to the center of High Charity, the piano and strings of Keep What You Steal delivers on the tearful reunion of the Chief with Cortana-- a reaffirmation of the trust each placed in the other. The heroic strings from way back at the beginning come back to let us know that the hero still has work left to do, and a zippy one-liner from the Chief lets us know he's up to doing it.

Halo Reborn creates a subtle and reverent tone for an icy landing on Installation 04a, but soon gives way to the same techno melody from Infiltrate that accompanied one of the early Brute encounters. This time, though, the enemies are Flood forms trying to prevent you from entering the new ring's control center in order to activate it and destroy Gravemind.

That same reverent tone gets a sad, dirge-like string solo added to it for Greatest Journey. It becomes Johnson's funerary piece as Guilty Spark blasts him for trying to set off the ring early. However you barely have time to dry your tears before you've avenged your comrade and made your way out to a waiting Warthog for a recreation of Halo 1's final Maw run, this time outdoors on an unfinished and unraveling ring, with the full Halo theme playing in all its orchestral glory. Some thought this mere going back to the well, others thought it was merely an homage. To me this is the Maw run done right-- more dangerous, more dramatic, and less frustrating than its Halo 1 implementation.

Tribute and Wake Me When You Need Me are where Bungie gets to eat its emotional cake and have it, too. Tribute brings the UNSC martial themes and the Arbiter's themes together as Lord Hood honors the fallen-- including the Master Chief-- and the Elites return home.

Wake Me clues us in that the Chief and Cortana aren't dead, merely lost in space; but the solitude offers him a chance to lay down his weapons and take a much deserved rest.

In between those two tracks we get Roll Call, which accompanies the closing credits and reprises Farthest Outpost.

The next five tracks are played over the main menu, and most are reprises of other main themes. Legend starts out as a rerun of Luck but then adds in some of the tense, cacophonous strings that are associated with the Flood. Choose Wisely is a calmer piece, with low strings accompanied by high choral voices. Movement is a quick repeat of the rising notes of the main theme, and is the shortest of the menu pieces. Never Forget is Halo 2's Unforgotten, although it sounds like it's in a different key. The last of the menu selections is Finish The Fight, the version of the announcement trailer soundtrack that in the game appears in the closing cutscene of The Storm.

The last and "hidden" track is Love Your Friends by Princeton, a rock anthem for playing Halo reminiscent of some of the pop/rock tunes controversially added to the Halo 2 soundtrack, that is explicitly about playing Halo multiplayer with your friends and as such isn't really part of the Halo story but is more of a tribute to the game.

Halo scores have always struck me like orchestral movie soundtracks with wordless progressive rock operas trapped inside and struggling to get out. From Rock Anthem For Saving The World to Halo 2's Mjolnir Mix featuring Steve Vai, the strings of the violin and the cello have always been heard alongside fuzz guitar strings. The guitar largely gives way to the piano for carrying the rock anthems in Halo 2, a process started in the latter stages of Halo 2 in tracks like Reclaimer. Of all of Halo 3's tracks, the one that best exemplifies Halo's rock strain is probably Farthest Outpost. While it doesn't prominently feature guitars or keyboards, it's the rock-oriented drum kit that gives this track that feel.

In conclusion, Halo 3 brings the trilogy to about the most emotionally satisfying conclusion the story could possibly have, and the soundtrack does a lot of the heavy lifting to get it there. The idea of new Halo games possibly being made without O'Donnell/Salvatori soundtracks is about as disheartening as the idea of brand-new Bungie properties with brand-new O'Donnell/Salvatori music is intriguing.

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Comments

I feel like you rushed through the ending pieces pretty quick. 'Wake me when you need me' is a great piece, filled with lots of emotion, really tugging at your heartstrings.

Roll Call is my favorite track of the whole soundtrack, I absolutely love the haunting choir at the beginning.

I can't help comparing Legend to the ending of another great masterpiece - the final bit of Day in the Life from Sgt. Pepper by the Beatles. Just a cacaphony of instruments all being played over eachother, the tension is so high it's enough to drive you mad!

Choose Wisely - c'mon, this has to be the best titled track ever! What else could you call the piece that plays during the title screen where you must... choose wisely.

Enjoyed reading your breakdown of the soundtrack though, thanks!

Herr Zrbo

If this last part does seem rushed I think it's because I was feeling guilty for rambling as long as I did in the previous two. After all, with all three parts the review ended up being over 6,000 words and that's a bit much, which is why I split it up in the first place.

The one-two punch of Tribute and Wake Me When You Need Me does deserve more examination then it gets here, but in truth I did already do one writeup specifically on Halo 3's ending(s), and there will be more to come on that subject in the podcasts when I get up to that portion of the game, and in the level-by-level Impressions articles.

It's not that those pieces in the soundtrack don't deserve more attention than they get here, it's just that they are a part (an important part, to be sure) of the way the story concludes itself that I know I will be writing at again, at length-- so those moments will get their due.

As for Choose Wisely-- if I hadn't felt that they lifted it from Indiana Jones and the Holy Grail, I might have mentioned it. :)


Rampant for over se7en years.

O'Donnell and Salvatori made two intertwined decisions that I think really paid off in this game. One was the choice to not employ leitmotifs throughout the trilogy, and two, that they didn't introduce any significant new themes in H3. Of course they did add a couple new motifs, such as "Rescue Cortana", but they are either short (the Cortana motif is essentially three notes) or used sparingly (the Ark motif). By curbing the introduction of new melodies and using an idée fixe approach rather than strict leitmotifs, they avoided bogging down the music with excessive and competing numbers of melodies that I think often weigh down the final installment of trilogies (Return of the Jedi and Return of the King suffered from this, I think).

The high point of the H3 album for me is the second half of Black Tower, which feels like it rips out my intestines (in a good way) every time I listen to it. The low point is Never Forget, a corruption of the beautiful simplicity of the original, that seems forced and saccharine, aimlessly meandering through keys. Rock Anthem... is pretty awful too.

I also hope that they reevaluate the use of the Suite form because it forces pieces together into one track that don't compliment each other or flow from one to the next well. Several times they use ambient "noise" or a brief dissonant or somber cue to cover the transition between two pieces, and I find this very annoying - if you can't fit two pieces together, then separate them into two tracks. I would much prefer separate tracks for each song to their Suites.

[quote]The low point is Never Forget, a corruption of the beautiful simplicity of the original[/quote]

Aaww, Never Forget is my high point! I really hated the original, it was a weird pitch and I don't think it had the piano, which is really what makes me like it so much. It's such a beautiful song that would really fit in with a lot of the moments in Halo 3, if it were actually in the game.

[quote=Anonymous][quote]Aaww, Never Forget is my high point! I really hated the original, it was a weird pitch and I don't think it had the piano, which is really what makes me like it so much. It's such a beautiful song that would really fit in with a lot of the moments in Halo 3, if it were actually in the game.[/quote]

Well, there's no accounting for taste I guess... ;)

Never mind

Oops, I just realised that Unforgotten DOES have the piano. There goes my point.