Soundscapes: The Best and Worst Sounding Games of 2011
Sound in games has come a long way since the 90s. We’re now at a point where improvements harder to spot as almost every game seems to sound good enough at first glance. The bar has been set so high now that a game has to try very hard in order to push the envelope in any audio aspect. The overall quality of sound is higher than ever, and in general you can expect a game to at least sound good enough to support the rest of the game without making many glaring mistakes. What I’m here to talk about though are the titles that stood out from the rest in one way or another, for good or bad.
Since 2004 EA has generally done a fantastic job with the audio in all their games. No other publisher has such a high standard of audio across all their titles. In general, you can be sure that buying a game from EA will provide you with cutting edge audio tech, design and fidelity with minimal problems with the presentation. Much as I expected EA released most of the best sounding games of the year as they have done for several years now.
Giving this award to Battlefield 3 is easy. This entire series of games is famous for sounding better than just about any other franchise out there, and even if it seems as if no audio improvements were made at all over Bad Company 2 nobody is complaining. The use of acoustics and dynamics combined with very high quality sound samples create a sound that rivals any action film. What happens in Battlefield 3 is that no matter the amount of noise the sound experience doesn’t break down. Thanks to the large amount of filters applied on sound samples depending on the environment echo, distance and occlusion effects for sounds behind walls the sense of authenticity and immersion is kept intact. For example in the map Metro with 64 players you will most likely have several players firing the exact same weapons at close proximity to each other and yet it does not sound like a single sound effect being repeated. Instead you can easily identify each individual person firing as they all sound unique and distinct. Not only is this well designed, but it is also executed with such high fidelity that it becomes great demo material for those like me who use 4000$ stereo systems with their computers.
To put the achievement of Battlefield 3 in perspective I’d compare it to another recent title Serious Sam 3 BFE. It has a simpler sound engine that has echo effects for interiors, but apart from that the amount of sound samples for enemies, weapons and the filtering which is done based on distance and placement is nowhere close to what Battlefield 3 does. The effect of this is that the game can sound like it’s running in mono even with a surround setup if enough noise is coming out of every channel. You can still pick out where sounds are coming from to some extent, but it does not sound natural. To show you what I’m on about I made a video comparing two very noisy situations in both games. In Battlefield 3 you can despite the noise still pick out where each sound is coming from, while in Serious Sam 3 there is a wall of noise where only a few sounds can be directly tied to what you’re seeing.
Best Racing Game
Representing the best sound in racing games is Need for Speed The Run. The last NFS game Blackbox did before The Run was Undercover and that had a very similar style of audio mix as The Run but didn’t turn out nearly as well. The Run dynamically changes the volume of music and engine sounds depending on the situation so when the car is reaching top speed the sound of the engine is lowered and the music gets center stage. For most race events the dynamic volume system works well as it constantly changes the volume of music and cars based on the situation without making the system too obvious. There is one event type where the system doesn’t quite work, and that’s in checkpoint events. During those events the music can become disturbingly loud and is then cut down in volume too sharply when the player blows past something that requires the “woosh” sound. While playing it should not sound like there is a virtual game designer sitting with his hand on the volume knob constantly turning the music up and down, even if that person exists. With the checkpoint events the trick became too obvious. During most race events however the system worked well and having the music swell during appropriate moments did a lot for the drama the game was trying to achieve.
This category doesn’t have nearly enough contenders as I’m a fan of horror games and this game barely qualifies as one given how action oriented it is. It’s Dead Space 2 which sounds similar to the first game, but still deserves mention as it has some tricks I don’t see anyone else using yet. The samples in the game have an shrill quality to them in order to make the player feel uncomfortable, but manages to not go too far with the effect by adding heavy acoustics that takes the edge off just enough. Also the use of music is unique as enemies have their own themes that only play once they’re on screen. If an enemy is sneaking up on the player there will be no music warning of the approaching menace and when the player turns around the monster theme will blare loudly and hopefully create a successful jump scare. While I would still rate System Shock 2 (if used with EAX) higher than Dead Space 2 as the best sounding Sci-Fi horror game it is a very tight race between the two. The difference is more in the game design itself than the audio tech or design, and there is no doubt in my mind that Dead Space 2 is a stellar sounding game that, much like Battlefield 3, is appropriate demo material for a high end sound setup.
Special mention needs to be done to Mortal Kombat for its outstanding use of dynamic range. At first I was taken aback by how much dynamic range had been allotted to punching sounds over everything else in the entire game. To hear dialogue clearly during cutscenes the volume had to be raised to such a level that the punching noises could be described as truly loud. Thankfully nothing else in the game ever intruded in that space reserved for punch/kick sounds so I was left with the impression that extra care had been taken when designing the audio experience of the game. The result of this was that the violence had about as much impact as it possibly could since the audio and visuals worked hand in hand thanks to the dynamic range reserved for the punching, kicking and bone cracking x-ray effects. Not since Medal of Honor Airborne have I seen a game reserve dynamic headroom as effectively for specific sound effects, and this is something more games should do.
Portal 2 probably did more for game audio than any other game this year, not counting any indie games I might have missed. It used a music system that dynamically raised volume and tempo depending on player actions, so when the player is using different tools in the puzzle rooms such as jump pads different pieces of music are tied to those specific actions to match the visuals. The execution of this system was pretty much perfect both technically and in the context of the game. I recorded a bit of the first time you encounter this music system in the game.
Getting on to more negative things a mild offender, but an offender nonetheless is Crysis 2. What it did wrong was to play music almost all the time in the game when it really wasn’t necessary and to the detriment of the game itself. The sound engine was top notch and most levels had more than enough ambient sounds to work well without any music. The effect of constantly playing music is that the music puts pressure on the player to act a certain way while no music gives the player freedom from expectations. In both Crysis 1 and 2 there is a bit too much music for the games’ own good and muting the music and the voice actors profoundly changes the atmosphere of the titles. Both games would have benefited from simply shutting up, not having as much music play, and leave the player to play his/her own way to a greater extent. All the pieces are already there for the player to play with, but the music discourages free thinking as it tells the player to either sneak around or use gung ho tactics. The music was of a very high quality in Crysis 2 and overall the entire audio experience was a big step forward from Crysis 1; If only the music hadn’t played so much it would have been much better.
Uncharted 3 as a comparison also has music playing most of the time, but because it is a more controlled corridor like experience the music is usually more appropriate for the action on screen. Unlike Crysis 2 you won’t have a situation where the action song is looping constantly despite there being no enemies to be found because the AI got stuck under some stairs on the other side of the arena. A big difference between the two is that Uncharted 3 makes the music front and center of the audio experience as there are very few, if any, ambient sounds while music plays, and Crysis 2 always has plenty of ambient sounds that could work by themselves without any music. Turning off the music in Uncharted 3 makes the game feel broken while Crysis 2 still works thanks to the effort that was put into environment sounds.
And the worst of the worst award goes to..
Duke Nukem Forever is without a doubt the worst sounding game of the year. The list of problems is long starting with that most weapon sounds lacked bass or impact and the music was too obviously made with a synthesizer that made the game feel like a tv movie production. It didn’t help that the sound engine appeared to be on par with games from the late 90s which added to the feeling of it being a historical artifact and not a brand new game. The voice acting and script also added to the cheapness by repeating the same lines that were present in the famous 2001 trailer but in a worse way. In the trailer the lines all had appropriate context and decent delivery while they in the final game appeared forced. The lasting impression was that the big blockbuster had been cancelled, and instead we were given the tv movie version.
What Duke Nukem Forever did was to not only having an old school sound engine and poor production values, but the music itself was of a style that fans didn’t expect or want. The intro film after the logos was done correctly as it had a rocking version of the Duke theme song, but after that the menu song was a droning tune that was a bit of a downer that would be appropriate for some dark post-apocalyptic scene. It did not pump up the player; the load screens had a similar problem. The monotone loading songs became mind numbing all too quickly and you could feel your energy being sucked out of you while the level loaded. Getting into the game was a sweet escape from the terrorizing music. If only the audio had been done properly for Duke Nukem Forever players might have forgiven the game for the many other problems it had. As it stands now it has almost no redeeming qualities of any kind. When your only music is this bad it’s better to not have any music at all. Silent menus, load screens and in game audio only consisting of ambient noise would have served the game better. In fact the strongest moments of the game were the ones where no music was playing, when the game managed to create some atmosphere. For those few moody moments there were many more with inappropriate and intruding songs that did not match either the setting or actions occurring on screen.
And the winner is…
Portal 2. Apart from Portal 2 no game truly pushed the envelope in any way over previous years in audio. Titles such as Metro 2033, Gothic 3 and Medal of Honor Airborne all match or outdo the best of 2011 in some way. Most big franchises sound largely the same with each sequel with minor improvements to tech and design. Portal 2 however came with a completely new music system that was not the product of small improvements over multiple titles. It didn’t sound like Valve was just sitting still comfortably doing only the minimal efforts required to satisfy fans. Instead it made them sound like a company who are ready to take some risks in order to push the envelope and possibly raise bar for what games can do.