Far Cry 2 Original Game Soundtrack
Within the acclaimed franchise of Far Cry/Crysis games, Far Cry 2 is a bit of an odd bird. Promoted by publisher Ubisoft upon release in October 2008 as the 'true' sequel to Far Cry, Far Cry 2 was actually conceived without the involvement of original development team Crytek. This also accounted for the marked differences between Far Cry 2 and other games in the series. The title turned out to be a sandbox-style first-person shooter set in a Central African state torn apart by civil war. Featuring a completely new set of characters, Far Cry 2 indeed didn't have much in common with its predecessor. However, it was still greeted with strong reviews and sales figures of around three million across several platforms.
For the creation of Far Cry 2's score, British composer Mark Canham was brought on board to bring his distinct artistic sensibilities to this project. Canham set out to create a more cerebral soundtrack that ignored its predecessor, bolstered in this decision by Ubisoft who encouraged Canham to experiment. True to his reputation of being an expert at hybridising orchestral and non-orchestral elements, Canham would call upon an unusual ensemble for the recording of the score — a string sextet, an array of African plucked string and percussion instruments (among them 8 different Djembes, 2 Udus, 2 Kalimbas) and the soulful vocals of Senegalese singer Baaba Maal — all of these complemented by electronic sounds. Considerable effort went into the creation of Far Cry 2's soundtrack, with the music team researching local African rhythm patterns and instruments and doing field recordings. The resulting 128 minutes of score were later presented on a 47 minute digital album release that's available through all major online music stores.
The most defining characteristic of Far Cry 2 is its expectation-defying nature. The score doesn't follow the route of other Western film and game soundtrack that have scored African locales with sweeping orchestral sounds tinged with exotic tribal accents; neither does the title provide the pumping, muscular rhythms that have come to dominate first person-shooter and action film scores alike. Instead, Far Cry 2 takes an approach that's atmospheric rather than pulse-pounding and as an album is more concerned with establishing a pervasive, intimate mood through sometimes minimalist means.
This aim of establishing a strong ambience as opposed to providing thrills is most clearly present on those tracks that emphasise the score's impressionistic elements. Languid synth layers and drones provide the basis for tracks like "Into the Illness" and "Change Your Battles" and set the tone with their dejected meanderings. On top of these electronic elements, Canham layers more organic sounds, usually sprinkles of tribal percussion, while the melodies are usually provided by the string sextet ("Road from Africa") or solo string instruments, for example on "Into the Illness" (violin) or on "The Edge of the Village" (cello). No matter in what configuration, the string material on these tracks is surprisingly emotional and works perfectly when set against the dream-like flow of the music surrounding it. Here as on many other occasions, Canham displays a keen sense for creating intriguing moments of tension between different and rarely combined musical elements. Another such instance is the call-and-response pattern of "Road from Africa" between what sounds like an acoustic guitar and a swelling, sad string motif. The same hazy atmosphere is evoked on "You Carry What You Must", this time through a focus on acoustic elements — the relaxed rhythms of African percussion and plucked string instruments — while electronic effects are only sparsely interjected. Finally, the opening of "Spirits" conjures a ritualistic mood through entrancing percussion and Maal's evocative vocals.
One of the biggest strengths of Far Cry 2 is certainly Canham's ability to effortlessly combine the orchestral, tribal, vocal and electronic elements he chose to work with and to mould them into one coherent whole — a whole that sports one of the most individual sounds among game scores of recent years. The opening track "Far Cry (Theme)" highlights the score's unique nature and brings together all of the above elements, while taking the listener on a roller-coaster ride through the various moods later pieces will revisit. From its quiet opening for strings and Maal's almost hushed vocals to an agitated finish lead by roaring percussion, "Far Cry (Theme)" runs the gamut of emotions and is easily the score's standout track. Most striking among all the colourful elements that make up this cue are Maal's impassioned tenor vocals, which not only imbue this score with a sense of geographic authenticity few game soundtracks can match. They also provide the music with a riveting level of emotionality; listen to Maal's outburst at 1:10 on "Far Cry (Theme)" and tell me you're not moved by his soaring vocal line.
Maal's vocals turn up again on a number of pieces and manage to steal the show each and every time. And again, Far Cry 2's guiding principle of creating musical tension comes to the fore, this time through more technical means. While the recording of the percussion and strings gives them a closely-miked, lean sound, Maal's vocals are set in a more spacious acoustic, floating above the earthy tones of the instrumental ensembles, as if they were the utterings of a mournful observer. Another feat of creating recording technique is heard on "Eighteen Bullets". Light percussion accents and a sparse melody for a plucked string instrument are treated with a great amount of reverb, while giving each note a crystal clear sound. The result is a alluringly mysterious tapestry of interlocking, endlessly echoing notes.
The role Maal's emotional vocals play on this album and how they are recorded hint at why Far Cry 2 doesn't turn into a hodgepodge of wildly different elements. Certainly, there's Canham's decision to work with smaller ensembles that according to him are easier to blend than larger instrumental forces. And that decision certainly pays off here, but what's more important is the score's general mood that ties together the music produced by the different instrumental groups. An air of tragedy and resignation is almost constantly felt on the non-action tracks and mirrors the game's troubled locale. Indeed, according to Far Cry 2's sound designer Michael Marsan, the sound team's aim was "to express the darkness and madness of the struggle between the game's two fighting factions." Accordingly, there's hardly an upbeat moment on this colourful, yet sombre soundtrack.
Examples of this trend are many: "Speak to the Dead" features another spectacular, heart-wrenching performance by Maal, underpinned by brooding synths and an offbeat string motif whose rhythmic oddity makes the composition all the more captivating. The subdued opening of "First Morning" evokes the break of dawn, but with a musical backdrop that's reminiscent of a string-heavy funereal dirge, it won't be a happy day that's dawning here. "There Is Only War" heavy-hearted string and vocal lines are similarly grief-stricken. And even when the mood lightens on album closer "Sign of Relief", with its invigorating field recording of a Senegalese male vocal ensemble, the celebratory atmosphere is partially overshadowed by an ominous synth drone and acoustic guitar in the background. The obviously studio-bound nature of these instruments' sound may clash with the vivid vocals. But once more, this contrast is all the more effective, injecting a feeling of unease into this live-affirming composition. It's deeply satisfying to see a score for a first-person shooter not doesn't just provide the aural background for a shooting spree. Instead, Far Cry 2 reflects on the sorrow and predicament of the people that live in the game's (not too fictional) world.
Of course, Far Cry 2 is still an action game and requires a number of faster-paced compositions. Canham rises to the challenge again and provides intense battle tracks that do adhere to some rules of 21st-century action score writing, but still remain fresh and non-clichéd. Part of the praise for this must go to the album's recording, which displays its particular nature most strongly on these action tracks. Yes, Far Cry 2 features the chopping, energising string progressions that are customary for action scores these days. But different from let's say Crysis and its sequel, these ostinati are not performed by an electronically manipulated orchestra with its booming, slightly anonymous sound. Instead, the string sextet and its drier, vigorous sounds get to drive the pieces along. Don't make the mistake to believe that the string sextet's smaller size means there's less power behind its tones: the players don't hold back and deliver some fierce, invigorating performances.
It also helps that the string ostinati that partially drive the action tracks are composed expertly enough to hold interest. The last third of "The Eyes Move Out" features a string progression that's highly infectious, while the chromatic nature of a solo violin ostinato on "Unleashed" stimulates curiosity. Furthermore, Canham relies not only on one repetitive string figure, but most of the time layers at least two of them, for example on "Let It Burn" and "Unleashed", where two agitated solo violin motifs compete. This adds a welcome amount of counterpoint to the battle tracks, while never compromising their forward drive. And of course, the strings are backed by the full sounds of the percussion ensemble, deployed in constantly changing combinations of instruments within the ensemble. Canham's writing for the percussion group is as assured as for strings and the multi-layered powerhouse rhythms he creates keep the action tracks much fresher than what the Crysis titles' composers managed. As on the rest of the album, electronica play more of a supporting role and add pulsating beats to complement the percussion section. However, electronic sounds do make an impact on parts of "Let It Burn" and "Larium Dreams" and provide gritty, aggressive synth figures that increase the action pieces' vehement nature even more.
If there's one setback to Far Cry 2, it's the structure of some pieces and of the album as a whole. Most of the compositions on the album don't venture far past the two-minute mark or are even shorter. While that's not a problem in itself and the music never outstays its welcome, some tracks beg to be developed beyond of what their short running time allows. The moving, flowing tones of "There Is Only War" are effective, but are only given about 90 seconds to unfold their drama. "The Fuse" is one of the album's most frantic action tracks, yet still incorporates more melodic violin lines than most other action cues, but that tension isn't developed much due to the composition's brief running time. And it's just impossible not to hope for more expansive compositions like "Far Cry (Theme)" with its supreme stylistic and emotional breadth, but there are none forthcoming. And the album's undeniably a bit top-heavy, with its second half containing most of the score's short pieces.
Some listeners may also feel that several compositions don't develop much and are happy to just introduce their skilful blend of colourful sounds and leave it at that. This may be true and Canham consciously chose to restrict himself to a strictly limited tonal palette, leaving only so much room for development of the textures he creates. But his reservoir of musical colours, the ingredients he uses to concoct his pieces are interesting enough in themselves to keep the compositions afloat. For example, "Rage Implosion", at almost four minutes the album's longest track, doesn't impress through its particularly tight structure and pads its running time with a section for solo percussion ensemble. But the vivacious sounds of the percussion instruments, their dense rhythms and characteristic timbres never let the listener's attention flag.
Far Cry 2 is a mostly downbeat, sometimes haunting, but always fascinating listen that defies expectations of what the score for a first-person shooter has to sound like. Canham seamlessly merges orchestral, vocal, tribal and electronic elements into an intoxicating, authentic-sounding mixture that will surprise listener with its original musical colours and its emotionality. The score never lets the listener forget this game is set in a war-torn nation and vocalist Maal and the string sextet charge the music with a convincing sense of tragedy and melancholy. When the heart-racing action tracks make themselves heard, their attractiveness is enhanced by the ensembles' fresh sounds, their unusually complex (at least for this kind of genre) textures and a vivid recording that gives the whole album an immediate, organic feel. Ranging from heart-racing battle cues to highly atmospheric ambient compositions, the music for Far Cry 2 is captivating from start to finish. Arguably, some pieces would benefit from greater development and a longer running time. But in the end, this album remains an engrossing experience that anybody on the hunt for game scores with an original sound should seek out immediately.
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Far Cry (Theme)Marc Canham
The Eyes Move OutMarc Canham
You Carry What You MustMarc Canham
Into the IllnessMarc Canham
Let It BurnMarc Canham
Larium DreamsMarc Canham
Speak to the DeadMarc Canham
Dark RiverMarc Canham
Northern WarlordMarc Canham
First MorningMarc Canham
Eighteen BulletsMarc Canham
There Is Only WarMarc Canham
Change Your BattlesMarc Canham
The Edge of the VillageMarc Canham
Rage ImplosionMarc Canham
Ghost In the DrugMarc Canham
The FuseMarc Canham
Road from AfricaMarc Canham
To Those Who KillMarc Canham
Sign of ReliefMarc Canham