The Tom Clancy franchise saw explosive growth over the last few years of the author’s life, from books to films to video games. While the games usually strive for a semblance of realism in their war and terrorism scenarios, 2009’s H.A.W.X. was primarily aimed at creating a series of arcade-style dogfights more akin to Japan’s Ace Combat than Rainbow Six. Ubisoft drafted Tom Salta, veteran of several other Clancyverse games, to provide music.
Salta takes his inspiration from beefy synths scores from airplane movies past, integrating real-sounding instruments along with drum loops, synth sounds, and occasional bursts of chorus. The music owes an equal debt to Hans Zimmer and Top Gun‘s Harold Faltermayer, with many orchestrations (like the unison string runs) those composers used in 80’s and 90’s war scores. The resulting sound is a good fit for the game’s setting, though it does mean that parts will feel rather familiar.
The game’s main theme, introduced in “Artemis Ascendence,” is simple and malleable, a series of optimistic ascending notes. Salta works it into nearly all of the cues, often in subtle ways or as counter point, which helps give a nice feeling of cohesion to the music. It’s the only real thematic material on the album, which is something of a shame — there’s no real softer or more contemplative material.
One area where H.A.W.X. takes a page from Ace Combat is its use of a choir. While the chorus is never as hyperbolic as in some of the more frenzied moments of Ace Combat, Salta does use it to lend weight to some of his heavy-hitting action pieces — sometimes with lyrics, as in “Washington Under Siege,” and sometimes guttural and wordless backing for strings as in “Top Guns.” The voices are used sparingly, though, and don’t appear in every track.
Most of the music consists of action packed strings and electronics, which serve as empty calories — exciting, but not particularly filling. And while H.A.W.X. gets airborne, it never quite soars with the best of the aviation game scores. Salta has created a fine work in H.A.W.X., generally speaking, and if it can’t go toe to toe with the best of its ilk it can at least hold its own. The album, with an hour of music, was released as a digital download at the same time as the game. It’s recommended to lovers of modernistic action music, and delivers a solid packaging of those ideas.