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

As This Is Our Land starts, the strings pick up what sounds like an entirely new melody, one that rolls back and forth like waves on a heavy sea. It's hard to tell whether the music creates this effect all by itself or whether it's bolstered by the visuals-- in this area of the game, the large open space where the first Scarab appears, one of the most prominent objects is a huge grounded ship-- presumably it was on a large lake that has since drained during the uncovering of the Forerunner artifact beneath the sand.

Those who enjoyed the piece that accompanied the Halo 3 Announcement Trailer-- Finish The Fight, offered as a separate download prior to the game's release-- will recognize This Is The Hour as essentially the same piece, with a shorter introduction. After all, we're no longer watching the Chief emerge slowly from the desert.

While this re-imagining of some of Halo's major themes is just as huge and as stirring as it was in that trailer, I can't help thinking if this is another time where Bungie painted itself into a cutscene corner, space-pickle style, that it had a hard time getting out of. Originally the object on Earth was supposed to be the Ark. It's uncovering was sure to be a key event in the game, as its interior would be opened up for you to explore. In the game, though, it's a cross between a McGuffin and a red herring-- it's just a door that leads somewhere else.

The Chief's action in support of Keyes' plan to launch an attack on Truth's Forerunner dreadnought ends up coming to naught, as the ship escapes through the portal that appears. This, of course, is where the story really kicks in, but it does make you wonder what you've been doing the last four levels. Still, the music is fantastic-- it's just that if given a choice, I'd rather watch the announcement trailer visuals with it rather than the cutscene we see here. The same goes for the Earth City piece from Halo 2; the E3 2000 demo visuals are as strong or stronger than the best play experience you could get from that portion of the Metropolis level. Still, it's not the music's fault.

Where Finish The Fight ends on a triumphant note, though, This Is The Hour has another task, to set up the dark moments to come. Truth has escaped, the Flood have arrived, and things look worse than ever.

Marty O'Donnell has said he's always eschewed the idea of theming in the Halo music-- picking a melody to assign to major characters or factions-- instead choosing to shoot for particular emotions and place them where appropriate. Still, it's natural to build up associations over time, and the Flood have always gotten musical cues that were quite different from other encounters. Spooky and ambient, like 343 Guilty Spark from Halo 1, or heavy with pounding percussion like Drum Run on The Maw. Halo 2 introduced some new sound effects for the Flood, such as the blood-curdling screeches.

Dread Intrusion sets the musical stage for the Flood in Halo 3, with a dark and brooding, almost oppressive and unchanging undercurrent of low sounds, with high, almost scratchy strings. In between, a jumble of string sounds that sound almost random, like the cacophony of a pair of drunk demonic kittens on the keys of some hellish harpsichord. The apprehension becomes palpable when the backwards voices and the hearbeat sounds kick in.

However, just as the music on previous levels had to stop and take a breather from the constant marching, in order to give the player a chance to rest and turn melancholy every now and then, here now the horrific pressure has to be let up momentarily. After fighting your way back from the AA gun emplacement at the edge of the cliff near the portal entrance and through the Traxus factory back to the open area where the scarab attacked, you're given an unexpected reprieve, and the music signals it with the return of a choral melody on top of all the horrific discord. It signals the return of Spec Ops Commander, Half-Jaw, played by Robert Davi.

Perhaps it is merely a personal preference of mine, but for me this was a magic moment when playing Halo 3 for the first time, for a number of reasons. First, like many Halo players I have a love-hate relationship with the Flood. They're a terrible enemy, you're supposed to hate them. But over the course of the Halo games, they were consistently less fun to fight than Covenant foes. They were often too easy or too difficult with very little in between. Their lack of a drive for self-preservation freed them to constantly suicide attack you, leading to a lack of variety in their tactics as well as a limited set of possible responses by the player.

So it's not surprising to imagine that many players, like myself, viewed the end of the last level and said to themselves, "great, a Flood level." A Flood level means being alone in the dark with the monsters. For the purposes of driving the story, that's great-- put the player face to face with the scariest things imaginable. Cut off his escape. Take away his weapons. Take away his options. Take away his allies. The problem is that Halo isn't merely a story, it's also a game, and all those things that lead to dramatic tension in the story also detract somewhat from fun.

The design of the level Floodgate, I think, specifically addresses all of those issues. The level is relatively short. You're not completely alone-- the Arbiter is with you from the start and here, when you emerge from the Traxus building, you get more help in the form of Half-Jaw's Elites who streak down from the sky in drop pods from the cruiser Shadow of Intent. For me it created a perfect moment-- when the choral piece started and Half-Jaw's voice came through, I stood up off the couch and gave a couple of fist-pumps. Now, I thought, this will be fun. Elites with swords against the Flood. Those vocals, and the Elite drop pods, were like a ray of sunshine coming through the clouds.

Then we get another musical friend to accompany us in cutting through the Flood-- the African drums of Ghosts of Reach, which first appeared in the Metropolis level of Halo 2. It was among my favorite tracks from Halo 2, and while it often in that game signalled being left alone to face a Covenant onslaught as your marine allies were cut down, here it scored the triumphant arrival of new allies.

Of course, things are never that easy, and you have to finish the level alone. The music turns creepy, backwards and scary again as you have to enter the Flood cruiser by yourself. Of course it's just a feint-- there's no real danger at all. That's part of the genius of the design of the level. It only seems dangerous.

Follow Our Brothers achieves musically what the cutscene that straddles Floodgate and The Ark does visually. It's the first real and concrete evidence of the existence of a real alliance between Humans and the Elites. What was up until now an agreement of mutual convenience is hammered into a redress of grievances and a forging of common cause. The traditional Halo melodies mix with the martial themes often associated with the UNSC, rising to a crescendo that introduces what are probably the first flutes and harps in the history of Halo music.

What Follow Our Brothers promises, Farthest Outpost delivers on. While the Arbiter and the Chief have been uneasily allied since the start of the game, now Humans and Elites are fighting alongisde each other in force, determined to track down Truth, defeat the Brutes, and eliminate the Flood threat. That "sneak peek" we got at the retooled In Amber Clad track gets the full treatment here as the Chief readies himself to kick Covenant ass in the back of one of Forward Unto Dawn's pelicans. The drum kit and strings here make this melody work in a way the fuzz guitar version from Halo 2 never quite did for me. It doesn't hurt at all that it gets to accompany some of the most stunning visuals in all the Halo games-- the approach over the desert surface of The Ark, Installation 00. Bungie may not have intended to ever make the Ark the massive and distant structure it was, instead opting for some underground lair beneath the Earth. But if these levels are the result of that change, it's hard to say it isn't overwhelmingly positive.

Next in the track, the first couple of Brute encounters are accompanied by a similar reworking of themes from Mombasa Suite in Halo 2 that we got during the driving sequences of Tsavo Highway. Then another old favorite hits the scene.

Passing through a small bunker that houses Halo 3's first terminal, you emerge into a crash site where eventually two prowlers attack. When you finish them off and head out-- hopefully with a vehicle-- you get treated to the orchestral arrangement of Halo 1's stirring Perilous Journey. That track also made it into Halo 2, renamed simply Peril and arranged in a very different way. Here, we get the original arrangement but played by a real orchestra instead of MIDI instruments. The result is truly inspiring: a perfect accompaniment for a death-dealing squad of marines crewing a pair of captured Prowlers. It's hard not to feel like Lawrence of Arabia atop an armored car as you glide over the desert with a sniper on one flank and a rocket marine on the other. A true fan of Halo 1's soundtrack and non-linear vehicular gameplay could be forgiven for thinking it doesn't get better than this.

Except it does.

As a level, the Ark is deceptive in its appearance of non-linearity in a way that is perhaps most similar to Silent Cartographer, even if its actual appearance and vehicular sequences more closely match Assault on the Control Room. In reality, your choices during SC were pretty limited-- they just never felt that way. You could go around clockwise or counter-clockwise, either attacking the main door first, then hitting the substation, and then returning, or you could reverse direction after the landing, hit the substation first, then advance to the main door.

The Ark gives some similar choices after you first get a vehicle. You can attack the closed doors that lead to the next area and then proceed to the Dawn's landing site, or you can go straight to the landing site. It's not much of a choice, but it's quite a bit more than you get in just about any Halo 2 level.

When you do finally make your way to the landing site the level does start to look more like Assault on the Control room, and the orchestral version of Behold A Pale Horse kicks in around the same time that the Wraiths start to open fire on you. I was distracted momentarily by a compulsive desire to scan the sky, because over the years of playing Halo 1 this piece has subliminally trained me to look up for Banshees. There are some here but you don't have to worry about them-- they're too far away.

This is another of the pieces from Halo 1 that gets the full glory of a real orchestra and vocals this time instead of MIDI synthesizers, and it's well worth it. Instead of just some bland electronic sounding notes, it's possible to make out the strings and the horns blending together into this track's unique sound.

If that wasn't enough for you, when this encounter ends the player is treated to what is probably the single most cinematic moment in all the Halo games-- and one that doesn't even take camera control away from the player. The melody of Enough Dead Heroes from Halo 1, a sad and pensive piece from the first game, played as you are introduced to the bridge of the Pillar Of Autumn, outnumbered and fleeing the destruction of Reach, is transformed into a triumphal fanfare as the Forward Unto Dawn swoops down from the clouds and makes landfall directly over the player, completely dwarfing the now narrow-seeming canyon, with wake turbulence tossing around Wraith wreckage like so many discarded soda cans. It's a stunning moment, not the least of which is because it's probably the largest single moving piece of geometry in any of the games-- Joe Staten was quick to point out in his commentary on the Halo 1 cutscenes that the Pillar of Autumn never actually moved; the camera was just moved around it in a computer trick that mirrored the way George Lucas made his ground-breaking Star Wars special effects back in 1977; instead of fixing the camera and moving the models, he fixed the models and moved the camera around them, controlled by a computer. The effect here is stunning, and gives the game a sense of scale and scope that Halo has always aspired to but sometimes missed due to technical constraints.

Plus, it's hard not to love a piece of music accompanied by three Scorpion tanks.

Still the work-- and the piece-- are not done yet. Now armed to the teeth it's back to bashing Brutes, and the tribal drums are back to let us know that's what we're supposed to do. Above them, though, is a combination of high, airy chords and occasional harp riffs that come to typify the grand mystery that is the Ark. At the very end, having reached the Ark's map room, the percussion takes over again as we face a large group of high-ranking Brutes and the Arbiter (rather rudely if you ask me) takes off to leave you to deal with them alone. What gives?

Next time I'll pick it up with Edge Closer as Halo 3's soundtrack comes down the home stretch.

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Comments

[quote]"what are probably the first flutes and harps in the history of Halo music."
[/quote]
For completely unrealted reasons, I've just been through the Halo 2 Limited Edition DVD for the first time in years, and in the main 'Behind the Scenes' documentary there are repeated close-up shots of a flautist playing during recording of an orchestral passage. I suspect you're probably right about the harp, though.

[quote]"Marty O'Donnell has said he's always eschewed the idea of theming in the Halo music-- picking a melody to assign to major characters or factions-- instead choosing to shoot for particular emotions and place them where appropriate. Still, it's natural to build up associations over time..."[/quote]

That's more like Wagner's use of 'leading motives', which often have stronger associations with an emotion or a concept than a person or thing. But at least Wagner's themes have acquired labels over the years, so you can identify which one you're talking about without resorting to musical notation or clips. I'm frustrated by the lack of this for the Halo music because my own favourite musical moments from Halo 3 involve a theme which doesn't seem to have even a track name - please correct me if I'm wrong, I don't own any of the soundtrack CDs.

The one moment in my first Halo 3 playthrough where the music grabbed my attention rather than working subliminally in the background was during 'The Storm', when leaving the factory complex and heading out to the AA gun. All of a sudden there was a restrained statement (on oboe, I think) of a theme I hadn't consciously heard since Halo CE, where it was introduced to accompany the cutscene at the end of 'Pillar of Autumn' depicting the lifeboat escape. This was always one of my favourites, but I don't think it was re-used in Halo 2. It later gets its full development as the (positively orgasmic) musical climax of the post-'Floodgate' cutscene. I think this is the passage you describe as "martial themes often associated with the UNSC", but I'd be happy to discover that I'm wrong, and it does have an established identity.

OldNick mentioned the flute incidence in Halo 2, but there [i]also[/i] was a harp moment; the glissandos (?term) during "Earth City" that correspond with the Pelican flying past the giant arcology towers in the gameplay trailer. I thought the harp was perfect for that bit, but I seem to recall Marty saying he took flak for them at some point or other.

Off-the-cuff observation on the soundtracks overall; there seems to be a different "key" instrument, the one that sets the mood, for each. Halo 1 was very much about the cello. (It'd be interesting to see how many school bands had students picking cellos between 2002-2004 compared to earlier years.) In Halo 2, the electric guitar as played by Vai and others took centre stage. Halo 3, the emotional star of the soundtrack was the piano. Purely off-the-cuff observation, not certain I could defend it with more than "it just is", quite prepared to see proof I'm wrong.

-- Steve wonders how much of his self-imposed slavery to the Halos is due to the soundtrack.

i am very cuirous were i can find fathest outpost and edge closer sheet music anywere.