Soundscapes – Why Mass Effect 3 might be the best sounding game of all time
Mass Effect 3 might just be the best sounding game of all time. This is quite an achievement for Bioware when you consider how the series started out. The audio in Mass Effect 1 was barely passable and in some cases even worked to destroy the drama rather than enhance it. Given that nobody pays any attention to sound in games apart from the music, they didn’t actually “need” to improve the sound. Nonetheless, I’m glad they did: there needs to be a benchmark for audio in games. Without a frame of reference for excellence it wouldn’t be as easy to point out the mistakes everyone falls prey to.
As an example of how poorly the first game did audio let’s look at the death of Lieutenant Jenkins. He is the first person to die in the game and does so in order to introduce the first enemies of the game. Once you’ve passed the combat tutorial you move to Jenkins’ corpse and suddenly a loud mono recording of a sad song plays. However, Jenkin’s character hasn’t been built up at all. We don’t know him and we don’t care that he’s dead. Some player might actually be happy that he’s dead at this point if they didn’t like his voice actor or bland design. Trying to force sympathy with the music backfires and we become annoyed at Jenkins for now wasting our time even in death with a cutscene. The tone of the music is overly dramatic and it’s loud and poorly compressed in mono makes it grating to listen to. In a later scene a character tells the player that the crew is taking Jenkins death hard. If you still even remember who he was at that point, it’ll probably be because of the bad sound your brain had to endure. We all know death is supposed to be sad, but if you don’t handle it properly you’ll bring out the worst in players and they’ll wish they could desecrate his corpse for wasting their time.
The third game avoids inappropriate use of music like the first game did with the death of Jenkins. Instead the death scenes of Mass Effect 3 might be some of the most memorable of all time in video games given the reactions I’ve read from players online. To not spoil too much I’ll use an early scene in Mass Effect 3 and compare it to the death of Jenkins.
The player met the child earlier in the game, so he/she is already familiar with him. By setting it up properly the death of the child has some dramatic impact and is greatly aided by the song composed by Clint Mansell. It’s given most of the audio space in the scene as the sound effects are muted. In Mass Effect 1 the player meets Jenkins on the Normandy before the mission and has a brief dialogue scene with him. But because he’s wearing a helmet the player will most likely not recognize him as the rookie you met earlier so he is essentially a faceless nobody who dies all of a sudden after running out into the open. The clip from Mass Effect 1 might not look too bad compared to most other games, but compared to Mass Effect 3 it looks clumsy and unnecessary.
The use of mono music samples is something Mass Effect 1 does several times and in every instance it sounds awful. You can clearly hear the effort that was spent on composing and recording the music but the work is being destroyed by storing it in mono. I assume it was done to save space either on the DVD or in memory. By far the worst time it did so was right at the end when the end boss had been defeated and triumphant music was played. By doing it in mono it lessened the emotional impact of the scene. Mono music stands out and sounds bad even if you don’t think about it. You’re constantly hearing music and ambient sound in stereo in the game, so when it suddenly changes to mono it sounds cheap. The first 10 seconds of the clip are stereo and the rest is mono.
When the second game came out it was obvious right from the opening scene that Bioware took the presentation to the next level. The first game never had anything that sounded good enough to be comparable with movies, but the sequel pumped up the bass and sounded huge. Not at any point did the sequel use mono music samples.
Using a lot of bass is something one would assume most games would do given the emphasis on guns and explosions in the medium. Yet, for the most part there is actually an alarming lack of bass in games. The better the audio system you’re using is the more obvious it is that even TV shows have bigger sounding guns than most the AAA shooters out there. The notable exception to this is the Battlefield franchise. With Mass Effect 2 Bioware began to use the bass frequencies more actively, although they did it mostly for the larger plot events and pre-rendered cutscenes. But this was a taste of things to come for the third game.
The second game was at a level where most studios would say that the experience was “good enough”, but not Bioware. The leap in quality from the second to third game took the series from sounding on par with everyone else to the highest levels of quality achieved so far in any game. Whatever it is that sounds the best of all time might be up to debate, but there is no question that Mass Effect 3 is a contender for the position from just about every angle. It has a wide dynamic range and quite possibly the best use of acoustics I’ve heard since Metro 2033. In the club Purgatory for example when you move between different areas of the club the way the bass bounces off the walls changes, so up at the bar disk nearest the speakers there is much more bass than downstairs where you’re a bit away from any walls. This attention to detail for the sound helps suck you into the world and makes it a more believable place.
Most games have a few ambient sound effects and an environment echo, but I can’t think of any that go as far in creating believable ambiance as Mass Effect 3. In the Citadel every area has many sound layers that create a wall of noise effect, but it’s done with a sense of depth other titles can’t match. Usually noisy game environments tend to sound flat because everything is done at max volume. But because of the wide dynamic range in Mass Effect 3 individual sounds can be given emphasis when needed so if the player wants to overhear people talking in the docks the dialogue is easy to hear as it can be louder than everything else without the game having to temporarily cut down the volume of all the other sounds. In other games you might have noticed that it can sound as if the game designer is sitting with his hand on the volume knob and is turning down the sound whenever important dialogue is played back during gameplay. This is because most games don’t have any dynamic range. If everything is at max volume you have to turn down the sound in order to make something stand out. But if you do it like Mass Effect 3 and have everything play at a lower volume level by default the sound designers can more naturally put clearly audible dialogue or sound effects in there when needed without having to turn down the sound of guns or music first.
The action in Mass Effect has with each successive title gone away from a rigid RPG like combat system and moved closer to titles such as Gears of War and Uncharted. With a more aggressive style of combat the sound of battle from guns, punches and explosions have also gained more weight and impact. Even though most players aren’t attracted to Mass Effect 3 just for the combat it now actually sounds and works well enough that it can actually stand toe to toe with the best of the genre from that aspect. Thanks to the dynamic range built into the game the rifles, shotguns and assault rifles you get later in Mass Effect 3 all sound more powerful than they do in almost all the recent shooters. In the development of Mass Effect 3 Bioware got help from DICE who from the Battlefield franchise know how to make guns sound good. They delivered some of the best sounding weapons I’ve heard with appropriate visual feedback for them as well. If a shotgun sounds like it can blow heads off it most likely will do so with one shot.
The human hearing is more sensitive to midrange than bass and treble so in order to properly make weapons sound powerful developers must have dynamic range in the sound. Ever since around 2004 with the release of Doom 3 action games have often made their ambient sound or music too loud with constant noise playing at max volume. Modern Warfare, Gears of War and many more left no room in the sound mix for the player weapons to have any noticeable bass. If your ambient noise is at maximum volume the only thing you can do in order to add punchy bass to weapon sounds is to lower the volume of the ambient sounds. Mass Effect 3 clearly shows the potential of having dynamic headroom in the sound mix at all times. Even in the most intense action scenarios Bioware left some space for even louder sound bursts from the Reapers. The Reaper roar might be the only sound in the game that ever reaches max volume in the sound mix and that makes their roar stand out in a way it never could have otherwise had there not been any dynamic range in the game.
The sound of Mass Effect 3 might in fact actually be at the level of being too good for most speakers to reproduce properly. Given the wide dynamic range of the game it demands you pump up the volume to hear the dialogue and on some systems it might distort the speakers when the game throws a loud effect at the player. The bass itself is also so low in frequencies that monitor speakers or low end subwoofer might not be able to play it back at all. The opening scene of Mass Effect 3 might sound curiously silent for some players who can’t hear the constant rumbling bass line because their speakers aren’t good enough. Unlike some other recent games however Mass Effect 3 properly down mixes the bass in stereo so players with decent headphones should be able to enjoy the bass.
The third game still isn’t perfect though. There are a couple scenes with no ambient sound whatsoever even when there really should be. For example when discussing plans in the middle of a war torn city you’re not hearing any sounds of the battle raging in the background, instead it’s dead silent. Also in of the pre-rendered cutscenes some of the soldiers firing guns don’t make any sound. These instances of dodgy audio are brief and nothing like the first two games that had side quests which could have the player explore areas in dead silence for 10+ minutes at a time. For the most part Mass Effect 3 is spectacular when played over higher end speaker or headphones. Depending on the scene you will be blasted by loud and deep bass from the Reapers, or you will be immersed in layered and believable ambient sound that makes the Citadel sound like a real place. Every area has sound that works perfectly for the intent and potential of the scene.
For all the minor issues Mass Effect 3 might still have it comes through with the audio when it really matters. The first game simply didn’t do this and I’m encouraged by the very noticeable growth in quality with each title. No other series has made such rapid improvements in audio presentation. The difference between Mass Effect 1 and 3 is as subtle as a brick to the face.