You know you’re doing something right when you can make an audio track called “Main Menu” a riveting, touching piece of music.
Deus Ex: Human Revolution was one of the most talked about gaming experiences of last year, an exercise in stealth whose fatal flaw was its willingness to abandon that mechanic for three excruciating boss fights. The majority of the game was brilliantly done, however—the stealth mechanics required patience and skill, and the quickness of death once the player was spotted actually meant that a baddie with a pistol could be intimidating. Set in a dystopian world in which an ongoing controversy over the ethics of human augmentation is the driving political and populist force, Human Revolution had a knack for instilling a quiet sense of dread and fear in the player, with the odd moment of pulse-pounding sprinting or gunplay. It inspired tension like few games before it, and the vast majority of it bore the prestigious Deus Ex name surprisingly well for a 2011 triple-A title.
Its sense of tension was so great that you’d be forgiven for not having noticed the music. Mostly, the music of Human Revolution slips by, increasing in intensity as the action gets heavier, content to lie still in the moments of quiet. This is a stealth game, after all, so the music can’t get in the way of the environment; still, it is certainly present, and if you press yourself to hear it, it’s pretty impressive.
Still, it’s nice to be able to listen to the soundtrack without the distraction of all that pesky, you know, gameplay.
Perhaps it’s too obvious to say that the soundtrack for Human Revolution sounds, um, soundtracky, but that’s the immediate impression. Loads and loads of string instruments playing slow, extended passages in appropriately minor key signatures make up the majority of what’s here, with the occasional splash of drums for the sake of modernization or vaguely world-music vocalisations for the sake of globalization. None of the extra elements seem out of place, but they’re not surprising, either; this isn’t like hearing Bastion‘s soundtrack for the first time and realizing your were playing a game that features raga alongside metal guitars and you didn’t even realize it. There’s certainly a sense of playing a game that’s trying to be a movie, and the soundtrack is appropriately movie-like even with the electronic elements that are introduced.
The soundtrack really shines, however, in those moments when it becomes clear that the movie has become a video game. For example: the music that accompanies the first of those accursed boss fights.
Appropriately titled “Barrett Boss Fight”, this piece occurs seven tracks into the album; immediately, you notice the increase in intensity. There were some breakbeats earlier in the album, but these were at the tail end of “Detroit Marketplace”, and always seemed like a temporary tangent more than a theme. “Barrett Boss Fight” puts the beats at the forefront.
Even more impressive is “After the Crash” which, like “Detroit Marketplace”, puts the adrenalized drum work at the end of the track. Amongst those drums, however, is a melodic motif that feels like a ghost out of nowhere—it evokes both the theme from the main menu and overture “Icarus”, without exactly copying either. It’s a lovely track and easily the highlight.
As the soundtrack gets on, the weaker tracks start to make themselves known; a series of essentially interchangable ambient tracks appear back-to-back-to-back-to-back in the late teens, and a piece called “The Hive” sticks a by-the-numbers hip-hop beat underneath—if the game’s environment is any clue—Chinese vocals. The intent here, I think, is to offer a seedy backdrop to the club scene, and in a sense, it works, but it also comes off as somewhat clichéd.
While it may be clichéd, though, it’s no more clichéd than your typical Hollywood action movie “club scene in China” backdrop, so it’s difficult to hold a cliché against it; Hollywood is what Deus Ex aspires to in its presentation, even if its gameplay is typically smarter than that.
Offering a game’s soundtrack for sale apart from the rest of the game is not generally a terribly profitable venture, nor does it often add much to one’s perception of the game. When Nintendo released a sampling of music from the Super Mario series of games as part of its limited edition Super Mario All-Stars package, listening to the music was nice, but it felt thin as far as standalone entertainment went. It was enjoyable for what it evoked, not so much for what it simply was. For the most part, the Deus Ex: Human Revolution soundtrack is a fantastic listen—even without the game attached.