Dragon Age II (Inon Zur)

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Dragon Age: Origins was Canadian role-playing game developer BioWare’s massively successful attempt to begin an original series of fantasy role playing games, free from the licensing constraints of their previous fantasy works like Baldur’s Gate or Neverwinter Nights. Less than sixteen months later, in early 2011, the developers followed it with Dragon Age II. While financially successful, the sequel had a disastrous reception among fans, who balked at the game’s stripped-down mechanics, frequent re-use of environments, far narrower scope, and wanderingly unfocused storyline. With many of the game’s issues laid at the feet of its short development time and seeming anxiousness to ape Bioware’s hit Mass Effect 2 from the year before, the developer was forced to let the series lie fallow until 2014 in order to take a more leisurely approach to developing a follow-up that wouldn’t alienate so many of the fans they had made with the first Dragon Age.

Israeli composer Inon Zur had written a stately but dull score for the first game, albeit one with occasional flashes of color and beauty, and he was asked to return for the sequel as well. As one of the only consistent elements between the two games–which otherwise featured completely different characters, settings, plots, and themes–Zur returned to work using many of the same tools. He retained singer Olivia Orr (replacing Aubrey Ashburn) for vocal portions of the score (though there was no mention of the Northwest Sinfonia Orchestra in any of the available materials) and tackled the task of tying together the vastly disparate games and glossing over the sequel’s weaknesses.

Zur’s main theme from Origins returns, appearing in the “Main Theme” at the beginning of the album, though it is secondary to an expression of the next major theme that is introduced, the “Hawke Family Theme” that appears there and in the next track. The titular Hawkes are given music that seems like a mutation of the stunning “I Am the One” from the original game, played mostly on strings, and it’s attractive music. The vocals are somewhat lacking in “Main Theme” compared to the resounding ones in the prequel, but they suffice; at their best in “Rogue Heart,” the music approaches the heights of the best pieces of the original.

If his original themes are not as extensively employed as they might be, Zur at least keeps the building blocks of his music rather similar: a full orchestra and choir and sparing use of wordless vocals. Solo violin and guitar have a more prominent role, while, the vocals have been dialed back considerably, with the result that “Love Scene” seems like a paler version of the original with a slight Latin lit to it. Blaring but aimless brass continues to be a mainstay as in “Arishok,” with the instrumental depth and choral aspects failing to compensate for the music’s drab lack of engagement, especially during battle.

The lively “Tavern Music” provides a bright spot, as does the innovative use of string technique and vocals in “Fenris Theme.” But the feeling of drab greyness from the original is oppressively present throughout many of the tracks from “Viscount” to “Kirkwall Nights.” Once again, Zur seems content to provide music that seeks to remain firmly in the background despite its thematic strengths. The complex album history of Dragon Age II doesn’t help: while customers who bought the special edition of the game were treated to an album rivaling the length of the original E.A.R.S. release of Dragon Age: Origins, everyone else had to make do with a mere 30 minutes of music on the official album. Two supplemental 30-minute releases came later, but other than triple-dipping Dragon Age fans, there seems to be no rhyme or reason for the decision, as the subsequent albums feature the same problems (or worse) that the main release does.

Inon Zur succeeded in bridging the gap between the vastly different settings and gameplay elements of the first two Dragon Age games, but at the expense of continuing to write music that, despite some high points, is still frightfully anonymous as a listening experience on its own. Like Origins, it is a missed opportunity with all the pieces in place but the composer unable or unwilling to combine them into an engaging whole. EA and BioWare evidently felt the same way, and they parted ways with Zur for Dragon Age: Inquisition, choosing instead to employ Trevor Morris from Hans Zimmer’s Remote Control studio to bring his sound from The Tudors and The Vikings to the table. There are probably enough highlights in Zur’s work for the first two games to make a decent 30-minute compilation, but neither album is able to stand well enough on its own to go toe-to-toe with many other fantasy scores for video games, and that fact has to be regarded as a disappointment.

Rating: starstar

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Dragon Age: Origins (Inon Zur)

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After leaving the licensed Dungeons and Dragons and Star Wars settings of Neverwinter Nights and Knights of the Old Republicbehind, Canadian role-playing game developer BioWare spent much of the 2000s establishing their own original universes. While they had significant success with the science fiction Mass Effect and wuxia-inspired Jade Empire, fans waited almost six years for BioWare to unveil its own straight-up fantasy IP. 2009’s Dragon Age: Origins was a smash success, a canny melding of a deep and expansive story with a memorable and diverse cast which often felt like the best parts of the old Baldur’s Gate served up for the HD generation.

The previous fantasy offerings from BioWare has been scored by Michael Hoenig and Jeremy Soule, but as both composers had parted ways with the company by 2009, Israeli musician Inon Zur was retained to pen the new score. Zur, a veteran of scoring for TV and video games witha resume stretching to the 1990s, had worked with BioWare once before, on the Throne of Bhaal expansion for Baldur’s Gate II, and he had also scored the tangentially related Icewind Dale II and a number of entries in the long-running Lineage II and Everquest II series of online role-playing expansions. In short, Zur brought a distinguished pedigree in interactive fantasy scoring to the table, and with vocalist Aubrey Ashburn and the Northwest Sinfonia Orchestra at his disposal, the composer had an opportunity to create an epic and cohesive fantasy adventure score.

The album starts in the most resounding way possible, with Zur unleashing Ashburn singing a mournful dirge (apparently in a language created for the game) before piling on layers of the symphony orchestra in a muscular rendition of his main theme for the titular track, “Dragon Age: Origins.” The same is true of the following song, “I Am the One,” which expands Ashburn’s mournful vocal theme to full length, adding uilleann pipes, dulcimer, and guitar in a truly moving piece of music. The album presents an earlier “High Fantasy Version” and a later “Dark Fantasy Version” of the song; they lyrics and delivery are essentially the same, but Zur’s orchestra has a far bolder presence in the latter at the expense of portions of the guitar and pipes. Especially compared to the embarrassing songs in BioWare’s earlier Mass Effect, the marriage of Zur’s melodies and Ashburn’s voice and lyrics are extremely impressive.

Sadly, the opening tracks establish a level of quality and engagement that Zur is unable to sustain. He maintains his theme as heard in the opening track across all of the subsequent music, preferring to sound it on deep and growly horns, but even with constant support from the Sinfonia and a choir, his later music is often drab and grey, preferring to churn in the background without the boldness that characterized the introductory songs. The music is functional enough, and there is often a resounding depth in the recordings (a clear influence from Howard Shore’s original Lord of the Rings work), but despite the continued presence of his main theme, Zur’s work is very much like Shore’s Lord of the Rings stripped of its passion and melodic complexity.

The music Zur writes for the origin stories of each type of main character–six in all–is perhaps the best example of the score’s malaise. Tracks like “The Common Dwarf,” “Mages in their Chantry,” or “The Dalish,” squander the power of the Sinfonia and its choral accompaniment with sonic wallpaper and the barest hints of the powerful themes Zur and Ashburn debuted earlier. Reviewers at the time commented on how powerful the individual origin stories were, but the music accompanying them is simply an anonymous morass of brass, percussion, and wordless vocals. It’s not clear if the extremely backgrounded nature of the music was an intentional decision on Zur’s part or that of the producers, but it makes for a tedious listen in the lengthy album.

There are exceptions, mostly in the album’s more militaristic moments. “The Ruins of Ostagar” gives the title theme a militaristic workout with full orchestral and choral backing; “The Deep Roads” is able to effectively incorporate Zur’s theme into an effective action piece, while “The Betrayal” is able to add a layer of desperate emotion atop Zur’s often cold thematic constructs. Other action music is unable to make as much of an impression: “Attack on Denerim” manages to sap tension though its extremely deliberate pace, while the atonal percussive cacophony of “The Battle of Lothering Village” undermines its more traditional and promising choral parts. And despite raising a considerable ruckus, “Challenge an Archdemon,” the final battle theme, is unable to integrate Zur’s themes and instrumentation into a rousing finale.

Zur’s music is at its most effective in moments of peace that give Ashburn’s theme pride of place. “The Party Camp” reprises the music from the opening tracks with a bittersweet choral sweep, while the warm and triumphant “Coronation” gives the narrative melodic closure. The real highlight of the album’s tedious middle sections, though, is “Leliana’s Song” which adapts the style of “I Am the One” into a stunning vocal performance with a light guitar and choral backing. One can’t help but get the feeling that Zur erred greatly by not producing more music in this vein and incorporating it more fully into his underscore, as it’s exactly the dash of strong color missing from much of his drab material.

EA Games’ E.A.R.S. division put out a 60-minute album of Zur’s score in 2009, distributed solely in a digital format. Despite the lack of time restrictions, the album nevertheless has its share of problems: none of the tracks loop, often cutting out seemingly abruptly at loop points, and many of the stronger tracks were left off entirely. Most of Zur’s engaging music for the city of Denerim failed to make the cut, the sprightly vocal tavern music was left on the cutting room floor, and much of the field and combat music from large areas of the game was omitted as well. Worst of all, a full vocal theme with Ashburn’s voice for the game’s romance segments isn’t on the album either.

The success of Dragon Age: Origins led to a franchise–as BioWare had clearly hoped, given its title–with Zur returning as composer for the disappointing Dragon Age II, though he would be replaced by Trevor Morris for the third game in the series, Dragon Age: Inquisition. Inon Zur certainly wrote material that worked well in the game, and his collaborations with Ashburn are generally outstanding, but his music ultimately doesn’t translate well to a solo listening experience on par with the best fantasy scores for video games. It has to be regarded as a missed opportunity.

Rating: starstar

Jade Empire (Jack Wall)

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Following the massive success of their licensed RPGs, Bioware chose to create their first original game in that genre with 2005’s Jade Empire. After flirting with Michael Hoenig and Jeremy Soule for most of their previous games, Bioware settled on Jack Wall to spearhead the music for their next generation of titles. Wall — no stranger to game music with titles like Myst and Splinter Cell under his belt — set out to create a soundscape that matched the new game’s mythical Far East setting.

Wall certainly nailed the overall sound of the game: high quality performances samples of Eastern instruments, an overall Asian classical sound, and nods to more recent scores like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon abound throughout the work. There is a classical Western orchestral ensemble mixed in as well, but the focus is firmly on creating an Asian feeling throughout. The game’s main theme is perhaps the best example of this, with a collection of Far Eastern instruments sweeping over a background of more traditional horns, strings, and a wordless singer.

The album does feature some very pretty moments, typically when the mood is light and summery. Suites like “Hills and Fields” and themes like “Dawn Star” combine the overarching mood of the score with melodies and textures that create a pleasing whole. There are many such moments over the course of the album, though the themes tend to be rather subtle to nonexistent elsewhere.

Battle music and the score’s darker music tends toward length percussion romps, largely devoid of melody or anything save clanking metal and wood. While this music creates an appropriately rambunctious mood at first, it can be wearying in the extended doses that the music throws at listeners. “Fury Hammer and Tongs” is perhaps the most outstanding example of this style, varying the endless percussion hits with Halo-esque runs. The sinister themes tend to be rather underplayed as well, mired in rather dull Chinese-style ambiance.

The major drawback of the music is also its major strength. A laserlike focus on an oriental sound means that the cues can easily become tiring for someone accustomed to a more Western sound or for whom densely Asian music is something best appreciated in small doses. Wall’s music does exactly what it sets out to do, yet this may turn many listeners off.

Released by Sumthing Else in 2005, the official album includes 75 minutes of Wall’s music and is easily obtainable in stores or online. The music is heartily recommended to fans of Asian classical stylings, with a more lukewarm recommendation to people for whom the style is less tolerable. If nothing else, the music is absolutely perfect in-game and complements the setting and action peerlessly.

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Mass Effect (Jack Wall, Sam Hulick, Richard Jacques, and David Kates)

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Released in 2007 to widespread acclaim, BioWare’s Mass Effect was the latest in a new era of original IP’s for the company, long famous for its games based on long-established fictional worlds. Along for the ride was composer Jack Wall, who had written the score for Jade Empire, BioWare’s previous game. As the head of a team that included Sam Hulick, Richard Jacques, and David Kates, Wall was called on to provide hours’ worth of music on the canvas of a vast space opera.

Interestingly, the stated influence wasn’t the standard space opera sound established by Star Wars, but rather the far more electronic (and eclectic) scores for Blade Runner and Dune. While the music is far less meandering than Vangelis and far less rock-oriented than Toto, it nevertheless has a strongly synthetic sound, with electric pulses serving as a unifying sound throughout the music.

Mass Effect isn’t a strongly thematic work, though a very subtle motif is introduced in the titular “Mass Effect Theme” and alluded to elsewhere. Instead, the electronics provide a consistent soundscape for the music which is developed in a variety of interesting ways. Upbeat dance-influenced tracks like “Criminal Element” and “Virmire Ride” accompany some of the more notable action sequences in the game and are highlights with strong melody and drive. Ambient songs are also a strong presence, with the “Uncharted Worlds” map theme and gentle “Vigil” (which serves as the game’s main title).

The majority of tracks, however, are suites which feature driving action or suspense music. Propelled along by synth pulses, pieces like “Battle at Eden Prime” and the latter half of “A Very Dangerous Place” explode with aggressive rhythms and electronic melodies. Much of this music accompanies cutscenes in-game, and as such is highly structured and often features a choral element as the music builds to its climax. No real instruments were used, though, giving the non-electronic parts of the score a distinctly tinny feel.

An official soundtrack disc was put out by Sumthing Else, onetime champions of Western game music on CD, around the game’s release. It’s a good representation of the in-game music overall, though not without some annoyances. A few dull tracks like “Saren’s Base” made the cut, and some of the more atmospheric music wound up melded to action-packed tracks in the form of suites. None of the music is looped, constrained as it was to a single disc, and some of the finest action sequences were left off the disc (in particular the Matriarch Benezia battle and Virmire base infiltration), with a dull rock song at the end taking up nearly ten minutes on disc. Several fan-made music rips are available which alleviate the problem, however.

All in all, Mass Effect is quite impressive, taking a nontraditional approach to its genre that feels both original and appropriate. While the music suffers a bit on disc from being short, awkwardly edited, or missing, it’s still a good purchase, especially for people who find Western game music too symphonic for their tastes. That tracks from this album continued to crop up in Mass Effect‘s acclaimed and controversial sequels is perhaps the best testament to its ongoing strengths.

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