In a word, amazing.
In a lot more words, well, let’s get on with it.
Jesper Kyd’s soundtrack for this game, in particular, captures the mood and essence of its setting. That’s unlike many games – excepting the Final Fantasy series, of course. Usually, you get a meaty hunk of generic swelling orchestral/choral mess that’s literally indistinguishable from every other game. I realize that Western developers WANT to make their games feel like movies, but sometimes they can feel TOO much like movies. An entirely passive soundtrack that sinks into the background without sinking into the player’s subsconscious doesn’t work. I should know; my collection of game soundtracks is rather extensive, and I know the difference between a memorable and forgettable experience.
I’m happy to say, after playing through the entire Ezio trilogy, that Assassin’s Creed II music both defines, and straight-jackets the series. Although I glowingly reviewed Brotherhood’s soundtrack, it’s too dark and dreary most of the time. Sure, it retains the same feel of ACII, but the lighthearted, adventuresome tones comes back in fits and spurts rather than throughout. Revelations, to its credit, continues the same exact thematic elements as ACII, yet Constantinople doesn’t have the thematic consistency or grip that the various Italian city states has in ACII. Simply put, if you’re going to buy one of these soundtracks, make it this one.
Why? Well, it’s difficult to put into words, but there’s two distinct reasons: one, it perfectly captures the mood and era of the Renaissance without being Faire-style. You know what I mean – everybody laughs at the people who attend Renaissance Faires (or the more common version in modern times, anime conventions with cosplayers). But, here, we have a modernized version of this era, which sought to revive classical Rome and Greece in both culture and architecture. Take a listen of the “main theme”, as I would call it:
We have the distinct gestures of glossolalia played over the plucking of a Spanish guitar, with just the slightest hint of a synthesized backbeat. This drops into rhythmic percussion with a orchestra and a band which, really, complete the theme. You hear this exact same thing throughout the entire game, and yet someone Jesper Kyd makes this thematic element sound exciting and new for the entire length of the game.
“Venice Rooftops”, for example, is merely the intensified (and fast) version of the same song that plays during the Florence racing segments. “Ezio’s Family” turns to a more relaxed feeling, while “Home in Florence” creates a downbeat easylistening electronica with it:
Yes, I know it’s using piano and strings to recreate the same feeling, but I’ll be darned that (apart from the occassional acourstic instrument swells) it isn’t just all synthesized. Is Jesper Kyd really slapping reverb on various musical implements and calling it a day? I think not. Imagine these tracks within the context of the game, and you’ll see that they fit – and also make free-running engaging by providing an effective musical backdrop. Maybe I’m just a sucker for these kinds of vocals, but pieces like “Dreams of Venice” capture some essence of adventure and excitement.
That’s not to say that Assassin’s Creed II doesn’t have dark and brooding material like Brotherhood – rather, these are set in their appropriate place. When you’re out assassinating dudes, you’re not going to want Spanish guitars, but electric guitars! Of course, they never truly remove the main theme from their sight; instead, they integrate it in more subtle ways through strings and electronic manipulation. “Venice Combat Low”, for example, does this exactly:
The escape segments, especially, use these soundscapes well to integrate the tension of the battle sequences with the relaxing notes of the general town music. That’s what works so well about everything: it all sounds as if it comes from the same artist and the same soundtrack. Nothing feels out of place or strange. Each city-state has its own unique sound while still retaining the main theme. I imagine after seventeen hours or so, the music ruminated in my mind continually. This IS Assassin’s Creed II, and I don’t think it could sound any other way. That’s not something you can say about most video game music.
It’s interesting that, while we live in a postmodern world (not that I subscribe to such things…), we as people continue to reinforce identity, personality, and uniqueness. Even video games gain designation as “unique” for some individual component or strucuture. Taking that train of thought to its logical conclusion, we can say that every person, actually, resembles an assemblage of parts from an assembly line – you are unique for reason X. Your ability to do thing X makes you a person. Still, it’s only because these aspects come in different arrays that we treat said person as “unique”? ACII’s soundtrack is unique in this sense, sure, but all of its instrumentation and its musical workings have been done before, somewhere; there’s no statistical way it couldn’t.
So, what’s true identity? It’s certainly not found in some magical piecemeal totality, that’s for sure. Why do I like Assassin’s Creed II music? Because the game has personality. It’s a game that knows what it’s doing and every works in accordance with it. Just imagining the boring and vaguely “Middle Eastern” tracks of the first Assassin’s Creed would tell you a sequel definitely needed to step up its game. They did, and now we have a host of sequels that don’t quite capture that one moment, that one game that had personality. I’m going to guess that’s why we saw Ezio in two more games: not because of him alone, but because everything was intimately crafted and made sense.
That goes for us, too. Interesting people aren’t just an assemblage of various characteristically – what movie do you like? What music? – but they’re just people. People in themselves, people created by God for a specific time and a purpose. When you read the description of Genesis 1, that much becomes clear:
26 Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” 27 God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. 28 God blessed them; and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”29 Then God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the surface of all the earth, and every tree which has fruit yielding seed; it shall be food for you; 30 and to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the sky and to every thing that moves on the earth which has life, I have given every green plant for food”; and it was so. 31 God saw all that He had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.
“It was very good” – now that’s pretty cool. It’s in light of being created by God, and for no other reason, that they are considered “very good”. You can see an imperfect reflection of that in whatever medium you look – movies, music, and yes, video games.