Halo was originally conceived as a real-time strategy game before switching to a first-person shooter, so it’s fitting that the first in an inevitable flurry of Halo spinoffs would venture into RTS territory. Halo Wars would be the final game from Ensemble Studios, which had produced the lauded “Age of” series for Microsoft. Rather than hiring Bungie’s Martin O’Donnell and Michael Salvatori for the project, Ensemble turned to their leading employee Stephen Rippy, who handled scoring duties for Age of Empires and Age of Mythology.
While Rippy’s eclectic “Age of…” series has endeared him to game music fans, many were curious how the composer planned to create music to follow O’Donnell and Salvatori’s hugely popular and influential “Halo sound.” Rippy began with the same basic building blocks: quality synths, the FILMharmonic orchestra in Prague, and a choir. He was given permission to use the series’ distinctive theme, which is arranged into the opening “Spirit of Fire,” and even consulted directly with O’Donnell and Salvatori. The title theme’s influence can be felt throughout, with fragments of its choral work interspersed throughout the music.
In all, Rippy is true to the soundscape established in previous games. His work is generally more ambient and electronic in nature, with the orchestra (pianos and strings especially) and choir used primarily as accents. This lends the music a more New Age feeling than O’Donnell and Salvatori’s work. It generally works, with some strong highlights such as “Money or Meteors” — which adds an electric guitar to the mix, something often done in the original Halos as well. Strangely, Rippy is far more loyal to the series’ original sound and themes than were the composers of Halo 4: that title’s score by Neil Davidge and Kazuma Jinnouchi completely ignored the O’Donnell/Salvatori themes save for a single reference in the end credits.
Interestingly, the most enjoyable high-octane tracks are all rather short and accompany cutscenes. “De Facto De Matter,” “Part of the Pan,” and especially “Just Ad Nauseum” bristle with energy and excitement, which makes for a slightly disappointing listening experience. While Rippy’s more subdued compositions are generally good, a little more of the fire from the cutscene tracks could have been mixed in for some truly spectacular results (a la StarCraft, which featured slower and more ambient passages alongside more energetic ones).
Rippy’s fans will be delighted to see he’s maintained his affinity for odd track names, with most of the songs Sumthing Else’s hour-long album featuring odd and esoteric puns. The composer has generally succeeded in creating a work that is firmly within the Halo music universe yet carries many of his own distinctive touches; in fact, many of his musical ideas seem more at home in the sci-fi Halo Wars than the medieval “Age of…” games. Halo Wars therefore earns a hearty recommendation to fans of the previous installments and those of the composer. Sadly, Rippy’s efforts have so far not lead to additional major assignments in the wake of Ensemble’s closing.