Review Summary: A spectacular standout release, long before the lands of Cyrodiil.
One of the industry’s most recognisable composers, those who know the works of Jeremy Soule are very likely familiar with him from one particular place: The Elder Scrolls
both boast incredible soundtracks, each being wealthy compilations of fantastical music, and spanning nearly five hours combined to perfectly set the tone of Tamriel. Praised for his versatility and excellent use of orchestral elements throughout his career, Soule’s track record has been rather consistent, so it is unfortunate that recent months haven’t been kind to the composer’s private life. With denied allegations making the rounds in August 2019, it’s likely these have been considerably damaging to future endeavours, especially in the wake of the highly controversial #MeToo movement. Despite this, the Elder Scrolls
soundtracks are still beloved amongst many, and with this in mind I’d like to return to one of Soule’s best works, and my favourite RTS game of all time: Total Annihilation
For those perhaps not aware, Total Annihilation
was the 1997 real-time strategy brainchild of American game designer Chris Taylor, who is probably more commonly known for his work on the Dungeon Siege
and Supreme Commander
series’. RTS titles were exploding with popularity in the 90s, with Command & Conquer
titles all dominating the PC gaming charts to huge success, so Taylor and Cavedog Entertainment’s eagerness to jump into the frenzy was easily understandable. And how to stand out from the huge crowd? A ”conflict over the transfer of consciousness from flesh to machines (that) escalated into a war which has decimated a million worlds.”
Or to put simply, it’s about robots blowing the ever-loving f*ck out of each other.
Enter a young Jeremy Soule, barely over the age of 21 and mostly known for scoring Square’s Secret of Evermore
soundtrack (alongside a handful of children’s titles). Real-time strategy games were commonly known for featuring techno/electronic music (such as Frank Klepacki’s excellent work on the Command & Conquer
franchise), so how best to score this exciting new RTS IP about techno/electronic killer robots? The 95-piece Northwest Sinfonia orchestra, with Soule at the helm.
As a result, Total Annihilation
’s soundtrack immediately caught reviewers attention for being hugely theatrical in its composition, consisting of massive string and brass battle anthems such as ‘Fire and Ice’, ‘Warpath’ and ‘Brutal Battle’, whilst also allowing for tension and downtime through the likes of the moodier ‘Death and Decay’, ‘Futile Attempt’ and ‘Stealth’. 1996’s Red Alert
may have delighted in the kind of stomping ‘Hell March’ riffs you’d perhaps find in a Starship Troopers
entry, but Soule’s approach was instead to aim for far more cinematic territory. Honestly, you’d probably be far more likely to find the mournful undertones of ‘Licking Wounds’ in the aftermath of an old WWII movie war scene, focused on weary soldiers searching the ravaged land for unlikely survivors, whereas ‘Futile Attempt’ sounds every bit as desperate as the title would imply.
Elsewhere, the soundtrack does well in highlighting the more mysterious, alien elements to the game’s futuristic mythology: ‘On Throughout The Night’ and ‘Desolation’ both sound constantly on edge, as if awaiting a sudden horror to emerge from out of sight, and reminding of Ennio Morricone’s brilliant work on The Thing
or perhaps Jerry Goldsmith’s Alien
score. Further emphasising the mysterious side to a future completely ”crippled beyond repair”
, ‘Where Am I’s solemn soundscape aches with a gut-wrenching sense of loneliness. Truth be told, were it not for the likes of the galloping, Zorro
-esque ‘Attack!!!’ to rally the player’s attention, the Total Annihilation
soundtrack would be an incredibly depressing affair.
Coming to a close, the only true criticism that feels worth directing towards the soundtrack would perhaps be a comment on runtime. At just over 30 minutes combined, most of the tracks will start to become very familiar, very quickly as the player progresses through the campaign and beyond. To be fair, this isn’t necessarily a problem, as most are memorable enough to be appreciated when they appear, but compared to soundtracks well over an hour of the same era (Command & Conquer
releases often being the main contender) the shorter length can feel a little lacking in variety at times. That being said, when looking back at the dozens of hours spent sending Peewees and Panthers into enemy territory to smash Core forces into oblivion, delightfully scored by Soule’s ‘The March Unto Death’, every last second spent is one with a huge smile on my face.