I’m someone who believes in licensed soundtracks. Of course I’ll always have a preference for original creations, but licensed soundtracks do help me into getting into new types of music, as well as do a fantastic job of setting a particular mood of a film or game or whatever.
Which is why it absolutely pains me to see so many games fail at this.
It’s something that hit me upon booting up Criterion’s Need for Speed: Most Wanted. Almost as soon as I loaded up the game, I spent a good thirty seconds going through the soundtrack before finding a song I wanted to listen to. It was a painful process, mostly because quite a lot of the soundtrack is utterly awful. There’s my personal tastes but I also think it completely fails to evoke the mood that the game is trying to establish. Because when I want to be a badarse underground street racer trying to become the Most Wanted driver in Fairhaven, Rudimental’s R&B hit Feel The Love is just the right track to get me in the mood for racing; that’s totally how I roll.
Even right from the game’s get go, you get the slow and almost completely unrelated Muse song Butterflies & Hurricanes as your starting song. After all, that’s totally what you wanted in a game like that: a slow, moody song that’s purportedly about hope and chaos theory. Two things which aren’t exactly related to high speed car chases and evading the police.
It’s something that’s plagued Criterion’s work ever since they switched over from original soundtracks, especially in Burnout Paradise and Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit. Don’t get me wrong, both games had some truly fantastic and evocative song choices (particularly Paradise), but there was a staggering amount of music that just felt out of place. Don’t believe me? Walk up to anyone who’s played an absolute metric tonne of Burnout Paradise and whisper in their ears, “Hey hey / You you / I don’t like your girlfriend…”
The games I just mentioned have their soundtracks play out as generic playlists, but I find there’s a greater success in evoking a mood and tone in games that attempt to do radio stations. Of course, there’s the chance you’ll have to put up with dickhead DJ’s, but hey, it IS radio after all.
Which is why the Grand Theft Auto series may be the absolute master of evoking mood via licensed music. While I can’t speak to the GTA3 soundtrack (because I legitimately can’t recall it), the first moments of Grand Theft Auto: Vice City still remain some of the most memorable to me. The first song you hear in Vice City when you first get in any vehicle? Billie Jean by Michael Jackson, a song that perfectly screams “welcome to the 80s”, as does much of the soundtrack. Even San Andreas and GTA IV had brilliant soundtracks that symbolised early 90s LA gang culture and the modern day, respectively. Hell, if anything else, the quality of the San Andreas soundtrack got me into rap.
To bring it back to open-world racing games, you can also look at Rockstar’s Midnight Club: Los Angeles, and Most Wanted’s more direct counterpart, Forza Horizon. In the case of Midnight Club, there aren’t any radio stations per se, but you are able to change your soundtrack to one of nine genres of music, and there’s a lot of it. All of it works spectacularly to create the mood that you are this underground street racer living in a world of fast cars and no control.
In the case of Forza Horizon, you’ve got three radio stations: Horizon Rocks, Horizon Bass Arena and Horizon Pulse. And while the selection on Horizon Rocks doesn’t do it for me, Horzion Bass Arena has become my de facto music of choice for that game. It fits the festival vibe the game is trying to go for — it feels alive and eternally feels like a party, so why not celebrate that?
It’s a small thing, but it pains me to see so many great games ruined by something as simple as an ill-fitting soundtrack. It goes such a long way and does an amazing job of setting mood and excitement for what you’re about to experience. There’s nothing more deflating than an ill-fitting soundtrack. So just before you start up that game of yours, no matter what it is, check the soundtrack if you can. It can really go a long way.
Come back on Thursdays for more thoughts and views from the NG+ cast and crew.
[Image credits: EA TRAX (Facebook); EA; Forza Planet]