Heroes of Might and Magic 4 Complete
Heroes of Might and Magic IV turned out to be an unexpected swansong of sorts. After 16 years of developing Might and Magic computer games, Might and Magic IX: Writ of Fate and Heroes of Might and Magic IV (and its expansion packs) were the last two titles New World Computing published before its parent company 3DO Company closed its doors. Ubisoft eventually acquired the rights for the Might and Magic franchise, but it would take another four years before Heroes of Might and Magic V rebooted the series in 2006. At least, Heroes of Might and Magic IV was a potent reminder of the legacy that New World Computing left behind certainly much more so than the half-finished Might and Magic IX. While critics' and gamers' opinions weren't quite as favourable as with the game's two predecessors, the title was still a strong entry into the franchise that brought several new features to its time-honored turn-based strategy formula.
Of course, series regulars Rob King and Paul Anthony Romero returned to compose the game's soundtrack, once more supported by Steve Baca, and new arrival Paul James. After the excellent music that had graced the previous two Heroes titles, expectations ran high that the composers would score a hattrick of outstanding scores. And New World Computing certainly didn't spare any expenses when it came to producing the game's soundtrack. The title sported the largest ensemble yet deployed for any Might and Magic score. After fan protests, the operatic soprano and bass soloists from Heroes of Might and Magic II returned after their absence on part three. More vocal forces were added through the inclusion of the NEVENKA Woman's Choir, a series first just like the Celtic ensemble which would bring new facets to the fantasy sound of the franchise's world. In the end, over 30 live musicians were involved in the making of the score, including woodwind and cello soloists and a percussion ensemble for the battle tracks.
But again, it would take a while until the majority of score collectors could get a hold of the soundtrack. Heroes of Might and Magic IV's music was first released on CD as a promotional item that accompanied the game's release. Predictably, that CD would soon become a collectors item and command outrageous prices on those rare occasions when it would turn up on Amazon or eBay. Several years later, online store GOG.com released the title and its expansion packs as a digital download, and as with previous titles in the franchise offered the soundtrack as a free bonus. However, that digital release's track titles and content differed from the the CD release. More importantly, it contained the music only in 128kb MP3 format. This review refers to the digital release.
After dropping the "128kb MP3" bomb, let's address this elephant and get it out of the room before moving on to the music itself. Self-proclaimed audiophiles probably stopped reading at the first mention of this darned number, but let's be realistic. Firstly, as with the physical release of Heroes of Might and Magic III: The Shadow of Death, the CD release of this soundtrack has been generated from a lossy source and only offers upconverted MP3s instead of true CD audio quality. The likeliest scenario is that the music was stored in a lossy format on the game's installation disc and that the CD and this digital release are simple dumps of these files. Thus, the sound quality of the digital and the CD release of Heroes of Might and Magic IV is in fact identical, with all frequencies higher than 16,000hz razed off in both releases. In other words: GOG.com didn't have much to work with here, and you won't find a soundtrack release of better quality than this digital download. Depressing as that may sound, things aren't as bad as they seem. While a 128kb MP3 release will always be hampered by sound issues, the digital release is absolutely listenable and sounds better than its lossy nature would suggest you won't find yourself cringing at unnatural appearing instruments or textures. Certainly, Heroes of Might and Magic IV could sound better. Still, while audiophiles will scoff at this notion, this soundtrack release is entirely serviceable if hardly ideal.
And fortunately, there are more than enough things on this album that will quickly make you forget about its technological limitations. The hallmarks of previous Heroes of Might and Magic scores are back, and they're in full force: lush pieces that hold a ravishing wealth of instrumental colours and moods; intelligently implemented counterpointal structures that underpin the lovingly crafted compositions; and of course melodies that are to die for. All of these characteristics are most obvious on the score's town themes, which are as gorgeous as anything on previous Heroes of Might and Magic soundtracks or on other fantasy scores for that matter. Within a franchise that has produced as many beautiful melodies as this one, Heroes of Might and Magic IV's "Town - Life" still manages to surpass its brethren. The composition's opening is absolutely heartrending, a brief cello introduction followed by elating harmonies from the women's choir and an alto sax solo that couldn't be more yearning and moving. And when you think things couldn't get more emotional, the operatic solo bass begins an aria that not only cleverly juxtaposes the compositions' lighter textures with the bass' lower frequencies, but also increases the music's grand sweep even more. It's an absolutely stunning piece that is among the most touching game music compositions ever written and an instant classic.
After catapulting Heroes of Might and Magic II into the stratosphere, the operatic soli return on this score, albeit in less prominent form than on that earlier soundtrack. Their vocal melodies are also less complex and winding, losing a bit of the "straight out of a Romantic opera"-flair that gave Heroes of Might and Magic II its unique identity. Increased simplicity, however, doesn't equal diminished compositional sophistication, as the operatic soli are written with an obvious feeling for maximal emotional immediacy. "Town - Nature" illustrates this point perfectly, climaxing in a glorious duet for soprano and bass that has all the swooning passion of an operatic love duet. The use of operatic soli yields equally spellbinding results when deployed on those rare occasions when the music turns darker, as on "Town - Chaos". After the woman's choir performs a melody that is both ethereal and eerie, the piece escalates over racing string figures and finishes with a dramatic soprano melody that pushes the track to truly Gothic grandeur.
While Heroes of Might and Magic IV doesn't mix various moods within quite as masterly within a single cue as its predecessor, "Town - Death" and "Town - Might" still carefully balance lighter and more serious elements to transform themselves into rich, fully-fledged compositions. "Town - Death" is a particularly fitting showcase for the composers' attention to ear-catching detail. The piece is energised by an ascending 'haunted house' violin figure that's set against slow, building brass orchestrations which become particularly effective when they break into Major key territory and contrast to great effect with the dark drama of the violin line. And let's not forget the return of the composers' beloved waltz rhythms on "Town - Order", once more deployed to produce a composition that is both delicate and sweeping and which closes the album on a moving and fitting note.
The soundtrack's Celtic sounds are heard on the album's terrain tracks, which are just as outstanding as the location themes on Heroes of Might and Magic III. These cues transfer the series' trademark melodicism onto the evocative setting of a traditional Celtic ensemble (accordion, mandolin, fiddle, tin whistle etc.) And if you've assumed that these instruments' romantic and nostalgic timbres bring out the best in the composers' melodies and emphasise their charm even further, you'd be correct. A track like "Terrain - Dirt" even surpasses the melodic beauty of The Witcher's similarly Celtic-tinged pieces and will be the cause of many, many repeat listen. And did I mention that a good number of these terrain cues add expressive wordless soprano soli? Combine all this with the fact that the composers successfully transpose the dense structures of their orchestral music onto this smaller ensemble without choking up its graceful sounds, and you have a collection of lyrical compositions of the highest order.
Some series fans may criticise that these Celtic-inspired pieces are less colourful than the terrain tracks on earlier Heroes of Might and Magic scores and that they do a less successful job at portraying the game's diverse environments. That objection is only true to degree no matter how lovely "Terrain - Swamp" is, its gossamery Celtic strains sound nothing like a dense swap. But generally, the composers tease an admirable variety of expressions out of the smaller Celtic ensemble that fittingly underscore specific locations. "Terrain - Water" successfully breaks the mould of mostly slower-paced, floating terrain tracks to represent a swiftly flowing stream, approximating an Irish jig in the process. "Terrain - Rough" uses Celtic instruments to depict a more barren environment, and "Terrain - Sound" is a particular highlight, mixing the Celtic ensemble with soli for soprano voice and alto saxophone on a desert track like no other. The lush composition not only appropriately emits sensations of heat and emptiness, but its jagged, freestyle saxophone material gives it an intoxicating, hallucinatory quality. "Terrain - Volcanic" reprises this atmosphere of crossing vast, sweltering lands through purely orchestral means, in particular with its muted, forlorn bassoon and saxophone melodies.
The only significant deficiency that these terrain tracks carry is the fact that somebody made the odd decision to include them twice on the GOG.com release once as single compositions and additionally as part of a redundant 15-minute medley confusingly titled "Terrain - Grass" that only serves to pad the album's running time. Just deleting "Terrain - Grass" from your playlist won't really solve the problem either, because then you'd lose the original 'grass' segment that's exclusive to this cue. The composition closes with additional exclusive material that isn't included on the soundtrack's CD release, but it mainly consists of slow march rhythms that are nothing to get excited about.
Seasoned Heroes of Might and Magic listeners will know that there's one more "But..." to follow: the game's battle tracks. Unfortunately, on Heroes of Might and Magic IV, these cues have become a much bigger "But..." than before. On previous scores, they were quick interludes, but now, they occupy a good 25 minutes of the album. And since their monotonous, moody nature hasn't changed much, they're still a good deal less interesting than the rest of the album, full of generically tense string pads and drum loops. The hand percussion rhythms that made the battle cues on Heroes of Might and Magic III moderately interesting have become less vivacious again and resemble Heroes of Might and Magic II's anaemic drum patterns. This lack of gusto is emphasised by the fact that the percussion layers, more than ever, are plastered over with vaguely atmospheric synth pads that seem to carry over from the composers' work on Might and Magic VIII: Day of the Destroyer. "Combat - Track 2" and "Combat - Track 3" contain some intriguing melodic elements, but they're hidden in the background so that they don't interfere with the dull rhythms. When the battle cues develop some traction, it's because the mellow string and synth pads shake off their overcast mood and move into Major key territory, but these occurrences are still only slim attractions. And since the battle tracks are all grouped together at the album's beginning, the soundtrack is off to an awfully slow start.
To make things more frustrating, it's obvious that the composers know how to write a battle track that doesn't push its grandeur shamelessly into the foreground, but still has substance and melodic beauty. "End Turn", the album's only orchestral combat cue, may be quieter than what you would expect from a 'last battle' theme, but its darkly seductive nature makes it captivating enough. Its rhythms can be a bit repetitive at times, but the way the women's choir changes its expression during the piece from innocence to wickedness, hinting at the evil to combat, is another sign of how well the composers develop their pieces - when they decide to not write in the style of ambient background music. This digital release doesn't contain the physical release's "The Gathering Strom" and "Wandering", although neither piece is essential. The GOG.com release also compensates by including "Main Menu", which is absent from the score CD. Through its full-blooded orchestrations and melodies, it's a stronger piece than "The Gathering Storm" and "Wandering" and makes a fine addition to the album. All in all though, the differences between both releases and their content are negligible and only concern a few minutes of material.
Rating a release like this is frustrating business. On the one hand, Heroes of Might and Magic IV has some of the most beautiful pieces ever written for a fantasy score I've lost count of how many times I've listened to "Town - Life". It's good to see the composers' sweeping ambition that characterised Heroes of Might and Magic II return here, albeit in more controlled fashion. The inclusion of a Celtic ensemble at a time when this was quite an innovative move makes the music only more ravishing and gives the album an earthier sound that distinguishes it from its more symphonic predecessors. These Celtic-styled compositions don't develop quite as much as their orchestral counterparts, but they're equally beautiful. And on the relatively few occasions that the operatic soli are heard, they're just as magnificent as on Heroes of Might and Magic II.
On the other hand, Heroes of Might and Magic IV is riddled with more severe issues than its predecessors. While previously a passing nuisance, the monotonous battle tracks now occupy a lot more time on album and slow its beginning down to grinding halt. On top of this, there are problems with to the album's presentation. GOG.com can't be blamed for the low bitrate the music's presented in, but it's still less than ideal. Also, the odd, repeated inclusion of the terrain tracks only serves to senselessly pad the album's running time and mess up its flow. But while all this results in a less-than-outstanding final score, soundtrack fans are urged to still check out the score's plentiful highlights and to try and ignore the album's less savoury sides.
Released by GOG.com as a free bonus item when purchasing a digital copy of the game.
The tracks' tags don't include track numbers.
Performers (according to MobyGames):
Karin Mushegain (Soprano)
Dean Elzinga (Bass Baritone)
Justin Bahrami (Flute)
Brock H. Summers (Alto Sax)
Rob S. (Bassoon)
Victoria Richardson (Cello)
Jonathan Willard (Clarinet)
Paul Romero (Keyboards and Programming)
Steve Baca (Keyboards and Programming)
Robert King (Keyboards and Programming)
Raymond Hill Symphony
Luke Daniels (Button Accordion)
Paul James (Bagpipes & Whistles & Bodhran & Alto Sax & Guitar & additional programming)
Simon Mayor (Mandolin & Mandocello & Guitar.)
Julie Murphy (Vocals)
Andy Taylor (Fiddle)
Brian Willcocks (Piano Accordion)
Mark Hawkins (Additional Programming)
В октябре пройдет Фестиваль игровой музыки
Combat - Lose
Combat - Start
Combat - Track 1
Combat - Track 2
Combat - Track 3
Combat - Track 4
Combat - Track 5
Combat - Track 6
Combat - Win
Terrain - Dirt
Terrain - Grass
Terrain - Rough
Terrain - Sand
Terrain - Snow
Terrain - Subterranean
Terrain - Swamp
Terrain - Volcanic
Terrain - Water
Town - Chaos
Town - Death
Town - Life
Town - Might
Town - Nature
Town - Order