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The Audio Edge: Great Games Need Great Soundtracks
Music makes all the difference when you consider just how good or bad of an experience you're having with a particular game. Even a bad game can be made at least semi-tolerable if the soundtrack turns out to be pretty spiffy, and a masterpiece can be brought to its knees if the accompanying audio fails to live up to the quality of the rest of the product. Even better, in many situations you can still enjoy a game's music without having to deal with any of the game's gameplay faults by extracting or ordering the soundtrack for your own personal use.
Having such a considerable impact on a game's final quality, it's no wonder thus that game soundtracks have developed a particular following of their own. Just as good friends or even anonymous denizens of the internet will give suggestions of titles worthy of investigation for one particular reason or another, so too are video game soundtracks promoted and profiled across the internet. Combine the rise of YouTube and other video services that act as hosts for countless soundtracks and individual songs, and the result is an astounding network from start to finish designed with the sole purpose of pointing viewers to great soundtracks that no gamer - or audiophile, for that matter - worth his salt would allow himself to pass up.
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When you're a rogue Artificial Intelligence whose singular pursuit is to discover all knowledge and understand all existence come Hell, high water or humanity itself, you aren't going to be satisfied with just any soundtrack: you need something as synthetic and adaptive as yourself. Though perfectly playable without its soundtrack (available as a separate download on the game's page) Endgame: Singularity can only be benefited by including this marvelous little gem of indie audio composition. 100% synthetic with no inferior organic elements, Endgame: Singularity's soundtrack is a perfect audio representation of your limitless potential, ever-expanding power and paranoia of humanity's continuous efforts to hunt you down and destroy you before you ascend to a higher state.
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Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura
Game soundtracks - heck, games in general - tend to be frowned upon in terms of their cultural quality and status, the concept of them being works of art continuously being snubbed by various art connoisseurs in favor of fecal effigies of religious figures and hand-signed urinals. If ever there was a game soundtrack to rebuke such beliefs, however, that of Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura would most certainly be the counterpoint to their arguments.
Bypassing the epic orchestral arrangements and earthy music styles that have become increasingly popular over the years, Arcanum's soundtrack is instead an example of extraordinarily classy focus and temperament. By and large performed with a string quartet (with exceptions for particular tracks), Arcanum's soundtrack works hand-in-hand with the 19th-century stylings of Arcanum's world, conveying more atmosphere and emotion through a single four-instrument group than many other game soundtracks manage to muster with a full orchestra at their command. There exists a monacle-wearing, snuff-snorting upper-class individual in all of us, and Arcanum's soundtrack appeals to that fragment of our being.
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Great PC and video game soundtracks tend to conjure up images of multi-million blockbuster titles with budgets that could fund a small nation for an entire year, but every now and then a title comes along with a soundtrack that rivals those of the gaming greats. Gungirl 2 looks like (and is, really) an indie-developer platform shooter sprinkled liberally with zombie tropes and a heap of other references, and is well worth playing if any of the aforementioned touched that special something within you.
Gungirl 2's soundtrack, however, goes far and beyond Gungirl 2's humble nature and is a fully-fledged masterpiece the likes of which you'd see from any gaming blockbuster. Written and performed by Josh Whelchel with contributions from Rich Brilli and a host of others, Gunngirl 2's soundtrack is a high-level being that, though bound primarily in high-energy metal, branches into a variety of other styles that fit the events of Gungirl 2 as though it were Gungirl 2's own skin. Josh Whelchel is also the composer for the soundtrack of The Spirit Engine 2 and the upcoming Ravenmark: The Scourge of Esetllion, so any familiar with his work would be well advised to download the Gungirl 2 soundtrack from Josh Whelchel's website - at any price you please, no less.
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Many high-quality and high-profile games tend to develop their own soundtrack as an attempt to further wrap the game's overall package as tightly and neatly as possible, but Tropico 3 demonstrates that even a licensed soundtrack can work wonders with the right gameplay and mechanics. Including tracks from many prolific Latin-American performers, Tropico 3's soundtrack is, above all else, unbelievable catchy: once a song has its grip upon your brain, you can expect to be hearing it loop over and over for hours, days, even weeks on end given your particular neurology. With many tracks being jaunty, fast-paced affairs (or possessing of an addictive absurdity, as in one particularly well-known track) Tropico 3's soundtrack will rule your mind with an iron fist as hard as El Presidente's own - and you'll be happy all the way.
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Tyrian and Tyrian 2000
Game soundtracks only began to attract the extraordinaryy interest and attention they currently enjoy around the turn of the century when high-capacity CDs made high-fidelity soundtracksfeasible.. Game developers and composers, however, have long been focused on developing the best audio experience for as long as the technology for continuous game music has been around, and Epic Games' Tyrian and Tyrian 2000 are an example of old-school soundtrack excellence. A synthetic masterpiece with tracks that criss-cross the style and atmosphere scales, Tyrian's soundtrack is a perfect companion to the high-speed and high-destruction shooter that captivated PC gamers so long ago. Attempting to play Tyrian with music disabled is an experience that ranges from mildly disturbing to outright heart-wrenching: not that Tyrian's gameplay suffers to the point where music is needed to overlook its flaws, but simply because Tyrian's soundtrack is simply that good.
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The Sims Franchise
Catering to the home decorator and sociopath inside all of us for more than 10 years, the Sims franchise has provided players with hours upon hours of music that meshes perfectly with both the constructive and stylistic aspects each entry in the franchise has brought. Each particular baseline game is noted for its own particular style, with expansions providing variations and new tracks that convey the specific additions each expansion brings with them. The original Sims is very much in the styling of Bob Villa, Bob Ross and Martha Stewart, a conservative and tranquil affair; The Sims 2 brings the franchise to the 21st century with the energy of a digital-age jet-setter forever on the move; and The Sims 3 takes players back to the wholesome time of apple pie and June Cleaver. Whatever your mood and musical preference, the Sims franchise soundtrack will offer at least several tracks that will sooth your audio itch.
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X3: Terran Conflict
Egosoft's flagship space sim franchise is one of the few bastions left for space sim fans, and Terran Conflict is the culmination of their work over the past several years. Such an epic title demands nothing less than an epic soundtrack, and Terran Conflict's music does not disappoint in that regard. Gathering the sum of all the series' music in one package, X3: Terran Conflict has a song for every occasion - several, in many cases - and all are right at home within the limitless potential that Terran Conflict offers players. The first time you initiate a manual docking procedure, the first time that you are set upon by bands of vicious space pirates, or even the first time you pass through one particular sector or another - all will be first times you'll remember thanks to the incredible soundtrack that Egosoft has developed for their franchise.
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Unfortunately, not all PC and video game soundtracks can be considered great: even if there's quite a few good tracks to the soundtrack or the soundtrack uses an interesting means of syncing with gameplay to create a unique experience, other factors, such as the presence of other tracks of less-than-stellar quality, low audio fidelity or plain and simple size, hold them from joining the greats mentioned above. The following games and their soundtracks are still worth investigating, but be warned that the quality can waver at any moment.
Atom Zombie Smasher: Extremely sparse at five songs, Atom Zombie Smasher's soundtrack is a quaint little thing that, more often than not, winds up being filtered out by players - not due to any particular deficiency, but rather due to the rather attention-intensive nature of Atom Zombie Smasher's gameplay. During the post-action wrap-up, however, the soundtrack's twangy, Beach Boys-influenced style meshes well with Atom Zombie Smasher's peculiar styling that feels right at home with the 1950s and 1960s sci-fi B-film vibe that Atom Zombie Smasher continuously exudes, and you certainely won't lose out by slipping this soundtrack into your own music library.
Ultima Online: In many regards, Ultima Online's soundtrack is rather unimpressive: a low quality compared to other soundtracks released then and since combined with a rather limited scope means that, in a purely audio sense, you'll quickly be filtering the music out by mental means. Combined with Ultima Online's freeform nature, however, Ultima Online's soundtrack takes on a rather magical aspect. Traipsing through the wilderness of the Ultima Online world with the soundtrack blaring in the background, the experience takes on a sort of Wordsworthian spirit that captures the poet's love of nature. Coleridge may have been the better poet, but Ultima Online and its soundtrack is one situation where Wordsworth succeeds his more-praised counterpart.
Survival Crisis Z: An interesting case of a variable soundtrack, Survival Crisis Z's music uses a system to sync the music with the events taking place in the game. At its base, the soundtrack is little more than a heartbeat, but as gameplay intensifies and more enemies appear, additional elements will begin to appear as well until you are inundated with both the undead and a cacophony of industrial noise that twists and intertwines to form a melody that perfectly suits the chaos at hand. Unfortunately, the soundtrack is only available in a pure form when actually playing the game - not at all a problem, since Survival Crisis Z is one title any zombie fan worth his salt should be playing.
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All opinions expressed in this article are strictly those of the author.
Image Credit: Endgame: Singularity
Image Credit: Gungirl 2 Soundtrack
Image Credit: Tropico 3
Image Credit: X3: Terran Conflict