Editor's Note: Columnist Wayne Santos is a dedicated gamer from the infancy of the medium. He is a contributor at IGN and associate editor of Southeast Asian gaming publication GameAxis. In this new, semi-regular column, Wayne will be discussing a broad range of topics related to High-Def Gaming.
By Wayne Santos
Sound occupies a funny place in both games and movies. On the one hand, it’s something that few people can readily appreciate or examine in the way they do graphics or cinematography and special effects. On the other hand, audio is absolutely crucial to conveying the emotion of a moment, whether it’s a stirring piece of music or a visceral sound effect. Although sound lacks the same “punch in the face” that overwhelming visuals immediately have, they can make or break the verisimilitude of games, and quite often don’t have the impact they should. As an example, cinema has for the most part embraced the importance of having good, believable dialog delivered in an effective way, whereas delivery in games is more often than not considered unimportant.
Lately though, the audio side of games has been changing, due in large part to technology that has improved dramatically in the 30 years since games first entered the public sphere. The earliest games could only sport electronic “beeps” and “boops,” whereas modern games have voice acting, and in some cases, full blown orchestral accompaniment gracing their audio environments today. Another factor is the rise of the home theater. Whereas it was almost unheard of the 60’s and 70’s for all but the most dedicated movie lover to have a set up at home that approximated the movie viewing experience, by the 90’s it was possible to buy surround sound packages at retail electronics stores that approximated the theater experience to a reasonable degree. Obviously it’s the quality of the individual components such as amplifiers and speakers that determine the overall clarity of sound, but in the 21st century, buying into a basic multi-speaker set for the home is not the huge expense it once was. And eventually, as the prominence of these more elaborate audio set ups grew, the game industry finally took the plunge and developed games capable of taking advantage of this kind of cinematic audio.
In this article, we’re going to look at just a small offering of four games. Each one is multi-platform, so both owners of either the Xbox 360 or Playstation 3 can take advantage of them. The actual quality of the gameplay isn’t quite as important here as what these games do to take advantage of sound systems for today’s consoles. All of them use sound in unique ways and showcase how audio in games can be vastly different, and in some cases more immersive, than what’s found in conventional films. The chief strength of audio in games is the very interactive and dynamic nature of the medium of games themselves. When you watch a movie, you are going to have the same audio experience every single time, with music, sound effects, and dialog all played out in linear sequence. Games do this as well, but can add a random element thanks to the unpredictable nature of the players taking matters into their own hands, so that no battle or other gaming experience necessarily is identical to the previous session. These next few games are the ones that show off this trait in their own ways.
Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare
Infinity Ward’s Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare has, at least on the Xbox 360, done what many thought was impossible. It has dethroned the mighty Halo series as the king of console multi-player first person shooters. Up until this point the COD series was highly regarded as a quality World War II first person shooter, but with this latest addition, the development team at Infinity Ward finally decided to bring the realistic combat they’d been praised for into the 21st century.
As a first person shooter, or FPS, COD4’s chosen genre is the one that perhaps benefits the most from the modern surround sound experience. An FPS puts the gamer squarely in the point of view of the game’s protagonist, allowing them to see and hear the world from their fixed viewpoint. Because of this, sound is at its most dynamic in this genre of gaming, constantly adjusting to the actions and position of the player. When bullets are flying and explosions are rocking the ground from heavy artillery fire, the modern surround sound home theater fills the room in all directions, completely immersing the player in the environment in a way that even the fixed first person view itself can’t quite match. Where the first person view traps the gamer in a “window to the world” through which they must constantly turn to see things on their left and right, the surround sound set up constantly assails the ears from left, right front and behind in a constant, convincing way.
COD4 is currently one of the best examples of this quality in gaming today. Infinity Ward’s reputation for immersing gamers in the environs of WWII combat was almost universally praised by critics. Their attention to detail on weapons of the era, the vehicles such as the lumbering panzer tanks and their coverage of major WWII turning points such as the Normandy landing had made it clear that the developer was dedicated to a realistic portrayal of combat and war, rather than the usual celebration of chaotic, lone wolf destructive rampages that characterized most games in the FPS genre. When COD4 was released, this same attention to detail carried over to the modern era. Now instead of M1s and M1911s as standard arms COD4 puts players in a post Gulf War world of M16s, laser sights and anti-tank guided missiles. As you might imagine, the soundscape of a combined arms battle in the 21st century can be devastating and COD4 ratchets up the noise to take full advantage of this. The guns sound authentic, the explosions from grenades and collateral damage reverberate through the room, the intensity is kicked up by the radio chatter and high frequency hum if you’re standing too close to a grenade detonation, and all of this is accompanied by a score written by Hollywood composer Harry Gregson-Williams.
The combination of all these elements – some scripted, some spontaneously generated as a result of the players actions – creates an aural environment that will rock a home theater system with music, explosions, and combat chatter that rivals any action or military movie. The key difference is that the dynamic nature of COD4’s audio firmly puts players in the center of the action as a participant rather than a viewer, allowing them to sow their own mayhem and experience the earth shattering bass as they take out tanks and helicopters. Aside from its quality as one of the best FPS games currently available – particularly as an online experience – COD4 excels in surrounding gamers with an intense audio experience.
Condemned 2: Bloodshot
Games are a fairly young medium, and as such, they have rarely managed to evoke the same sophisticated emotional responses as more mature arts like literature and music, but there is one emotion that games effectively created in gamers: Fear. And a large part of that comes from the use of the sound. Condemned 2: Bloodshot is the latest example of this.
Published by SEGA and developed by Monolith Productions, Condemned 2 is a multi-platform sequel to the original Condemned: Criminal Origins, an early Xbox 360 exclusive title available when the console first launched. Although it wasn’t a huge commercial success it was judged favorably by critics for its gritty story about Ethan Thomas, an investigator with a serial crimes unit who gets tied up in a case with some mystical elements. At the end of the game, Thomas is apparently traumatized by the events he’s experienced and the sequel takes up almost a year later, with a broken, alcoholic Thomas dragged back to his old job because of a new wave of psychosis taking over the homeless contingent of the city, much like the first game. As to be expected, this return to duty is neither simple nor straightforward, and takes a turn for the irrational as Thomas investigates further.
Condemned 2 has the unique distinction of being the only horror game series currently available on this generation of consoles. But like previous generations, it does what most horror games in recent years have excelled at, creating an audio experience that is absolutely vital to the creation of fear. One of the most basic of human reactions is the anxiety caused when you know something is coming for you, but you don’t know what it is, or where exactly it is. In this respect, sound is the critical element. The graphics go a long way towards portraying broken down, decaying streets and buildings, but the sense of the chase comes from the foot steps, the sounds of moaning from pain or sadistic pleasure, and the eerie use of acoustics to create echo effects or give an immediate sense of distance or proximity.
What owners of a surround sound set up can expect from Condemned 2 is the exact opposite of COD4. Where the military FPS relies on a wall of sound to immerse gamers in the middle of the battlefield, Condemned 2 will often use silence punctuated by specific directional sound effects to achieve its goals. The game experiences long moments of relative quiet, where it is only the sounds of Ethan’s own movement that keep gamers company until an assailant seemingly appears out of nowhere, screaming, or sometimes laughing, before attempting to bludgeon players with a pipe or some other weapon. Here, the audio experience is much more intimate, relying on a more measured pace of audio contrasts to frighten gamers. The use of sound effects is also far less conventional than guns firing and helicopters flying overhead. Music here is less melodic and much more dissonant, mixing raw noise and electronics to further inject paranoia into the atmosphere. Spatially sound is even more important than in COD4 for the simple fact that much of the game takes place in darkness, often with only a single flashlight or weak light bulbs as your sole source of illumination. The game uses sound to great effect to hint at coming threats or simply make you aware of where they are when they’re about to pounce on you. This is probably used at its most chilling in the doll factory level, where Thomas must navigate a massive, decaying factory populated by small automated baby dolls that make noises and explode. The sound of their wind up walking, the flames around the factory as it’s consumed by fire and the genuinely disturbing first boss encounter all make this an exceptional audio experience for people looking for something beyond merely large, loud explosions. Like horror movies, games like Condemned 2 are sometimes better enjoyed with friends as the solo experience can often be a bit overwhelming for people with more delicate sensibilities.
Of all the games listed in this article, it is only Rock Band that has proven to be a regular source of contention around North America, bringing the police down on households for being too loud and disturbing the peace. Hailed by many critics as the ultimate party game, Rock Band has found a place with both casual and hardcore gamers as a game where everyone can come together and have a good time working with each other instead of against each other.
Rock Band is the latest product of Harmonix, the company responsible for the giant pop culture phenomenon that is Guitar Hero. It operates on exactly the same principal as their previous franchise, except that it now throws in virtual drums and vocals to accompany the lead and bass guitars for a full band experience. Harmonix created the game after a split with their original partner, peripherals manufacturer Red Octane who was purchased by the publisher Activision when Activision was interested in acquiring the rights to the Guitar Hero name and franchise. As a result, Red Octane continued to manufacture guitar peripherals for the GH franchise while actual creation of future games was handed over to Neversoft, a company best known up until this point for their work on the famous series of Tony Hawk skateboard games. Harmonix, meanwhile, was purchased by MTV with Electronic Arts signing on to handle to distribution duties. Since then, both Rock Band and Guitar Hero have been battling it out in homes and bars for the title of best music game in this generation of consoles.
Rock Band is the only game on this list where sound is not simply important, it is the absolute crux of the game. As a “music simulator” designed to give players the feeling of playing musical instruments, it relies squarely on its ability to play back recorded audio from bands, but brings in the interactive nature of games to track successful “hits and misses” of the various instruments to give players the feeling of playing well or performing badly during songs. The game takes recordings of each individual instrument and assigns them to lead guitar, bass guitar, drums and vocals so that each player has their role to fill in a virtual band, performing before a crowd that measures the quality of their performance based on how accurately they follow on-screen cues that substitute for standard musical notation. Surprisingly, only a handful of songs in Rock Band are covers performed by other musicians. The rest of the varied playlist in the game – and in the downloadable songs that can be purchased in the game’s music store – are master tracks provided by the original artists, giving music lovers the chance to not just hear, but play along with legendary bands such as The Who and Rush.
Graphically, Rock Band doesn’t compare to the other games on this list. The visuals are functional, and have some nice effects such as the fireworks and smoke erupting on stage as one would find in a live concert performance, but the real showcase here is the music. Rock Band may not have the same dynamically changing soundscape of a first person shooter, but it utilizes sound to its advantage in many other noticeable ways. It’s one of the few games that allow players to play with the sound themselves, making real-time alterations to the music through effects such as echo or “wah-wah” during guitar solos, and rewarding players for good performances with gratifying audio cues such as the audience clapping or singing along with the lyrics when the band is playing well. The combination of the crowd cheering and singing from other speakers as singers and other musicians blast out from the front speakers of a surround sound set up goes a long way towards giving an uncanny feeling of performing at a big concert before a virtual audience screaming for more, and the game itself just begs for surround sound systems to be cranked up LOUD. This is a game that, when played in a party situation, can literally wake up the neighborhood on a high end sound system, and gives players broad, possibly educational exposure to styles and genres of rock music they might otherwise never had had the chance to appreciate. In the 21st century, no party is complete without Rock Band blaring out of the television and speakers.
Prototype is the only game on this list that isn’t currently available on the market. Due for release sometime in the 3rd quarter of 2008, there’s still not too much known about this title being developed by Radical Entertainment, with Sierra as the publisher.
What is known is that it will be a 3rd person action title set in contemporary New York. Players will take on the role of a man known as Alex Mercer an amnesiac who is now gifted with shape-shifting abilities thanks to a sentient virus overtaking New York known only as The Infection. Alex’s abilities range from being able to “consume” enemies and take on their likeness and memories to more drastic morphing similar to that of the T-1000 in Terminator 2 where he can literally reshape his limbs into blades to cut through entire mobs of enemies. The game is also making claims to being an open-world, “sandbox” style game in the vein of the Grand Theft Auto series, with players being able to roam throughout New York and explore the city when they’re not following the storyline.
While all of this sounds promising for Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 owners, what makes the game worthy of inclusion is a recent feature that has been announced for it. Prototype is going to be the first game of the current generation that will fully utilize Neural THX 7.1 Surround Sound, making it THE videogame to own for surround sound enthusiasts looking to get the most out of their 7.1 set ups for gaming. Up until now, most games used the more common 5.1 configuration, except for a few Playstation 3 exclusive titles, so this will be a new milestone in the proliferation of high end gaming audio. This doesn’t actually say much about the actual quality of the game itself, but a contemporary setting with police and military action as well as a sentient virus promises to give a real work out in the sound department for explosions and gunfire. For people that own a 7.1 audio system and are looking for a game that makes the most of it -- questions of game quality aside -- this wil undoubtedly be a must have.
This is just a small sampling of the kinds of games that can give surround sound systems a good workout. As a general rule of thumb, it’s usually safe to assume that 3rd person action games and first person shooters are the genres most likely to make full use of the audio environment, although music games like Guitar Hero and Rock Band are also good exercises in pumping up the volume. Games have certainly come a long way since the simplistic beeps of the 70’s, and thanks to the proliferation of home theater systems, they’re now in a good position to overwhelm gamers with dynamic audio experiences from all directions. This is definitely shaping up to be one of the best times to be a gamer and an audiophile.
Wayne Santos's opinions are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of this site, its owners, or employees.