Remember what we talked about a while ago about divorcing any stigma a game carries from its music? Let's apply that to Vanguard, possibly one of the most stigmatized MMOs of all time. For all of its negative reputation, Vanguard's been slowly recognized as a gem in the rough, and its soundtrack is just second to none in the field.
I'm serious: This is a whopper of a score. This is music that makes you weep that you don't hear it in the MMOs you play. It's definitely not as well known because it's attached to Vanguard, but I love this music so much that I'm going to do an entire series on it (spread out over time, of course). Unfortunately, the only place that I could find it was packaged in with the collector's edition -- and good luck finding that!
The only composer I found credited for this score was Todd Masten, who writes on his website that he worked on the project over a period of two years. Masten took an interesting angle to the score: "The music for this game was designed and composed in a modular fashion for each distinct environment and was created to be interactive."
So let's dive in and take a look at the first six Vanguard tracks to catch my ear!
This is a selection of songs that are played in the town of Ahgram. Right off the bat, you can tell that this music is not your typical MMO fare but something delightfully exotic and relaxing. It's got a slight Egyptian or perhaps Indian bent to it, although the female vocals keep it from sounding too much like anything from our world.
Masten further explained the interesting use of the music in the game: "Each piece is composed of 12 layers that are triggered on and off by a series of in-game events or actions by the player as well as environmental variables such as time of day and the length of time the player spent in a region."
2. Ancient Port Warehouse
Don't you dig the beats on this? I do. I dig them most whole-heartedly. It actually sounds very similar in parts to the old Barrens theme from World of Warcraft, believe it or not. And that's a good thing; I love how both pieces capture a wide, expansive outdoors feeling.
It actually also reminds me of these Native American cassette tapes (look them up, kids, it's history!) that I used to listen to as a teen. They were just peaceful and relaxing, with the same languid drums and flutes that I'm hearing here.
3. Bamboo Forest
"The game world inhabitants were as culturally diverse as our real world," Masten said of Vanguard, "so I was able to use instruments and voicings from around the globe."
If you couldn't guess from the title, we're in for a little Asian melody here. It doesn't take a trained ear to catch the connection to the region, although it feels like a mash-up of both Chinese and Japanese styles to me. In any case, it's the kind of song that I could listen to while floating down a river of dreams.
4. Bordinar's Cleft
This is more like what you'd expect from an MMO soundtrack, yes? I'm not complaining; having those peppy battle tunes is a good counterbalance to all the peace I was feeling with the previous tracks.
Bordinar's Cleft was on the original soundtrack and would be my first choice for trailer music for the game if I had to pick. It does the job of escalating an urgent tone into an epic shout of instruments. I won't go so far to say that it raises goosebumps, but that doesn't bar it from getting a sincere thumbs-up.
5. Brightwood Dells
For me, the highlight of this track is an eerie tune that starts coming out at 0:35. It plays against the happy tribal music that proceeded it and creates a deliciously uncomfortable tone.
A track like this illustrates how the music of this game wasn't out to pound its listeners into submission but rather aimed to create an environment. I haven't played much of Vanguard at all, but just listening to this song brings all sorts of images to my head that I could easily envision an environment where this would be at home. I think it would be a place that's forbidden yet beautiful, a place that's old yet full of life, and a place that you don't want to be lingering when the sun goes down.
6. Cave of Wonders
I don't have much to say about this track that wasn't covered by the previous ones, so I'll finish this by explaining how I sift through music. I have a very simple system: I'll flag songs I like with a plus sign (+) after the file name. This allows me to quickly find tracks that stand out from the rest.
So when I listen through an entire soundtrack, I'll be marking the tracks I like as I go along. This allows me to do something else: I can look back afterward and see what the ratio of songs I liked to the ones that I felt were "just OK" or worse. What's odd is that Vanguard is an anomaly in my collection because it boasts an incredibly high ratio of tunes I like, something on the order of one song out of every four.
This is why I didn't want to short-change Vanguard by just featuring it for one week; there's just too much goodness here. So while we won't be coming back to it for a while, rest assured that we will continue our journey through this game's OST in order to squeeze out the rest of the best songs.
MMOs aren't just about looks; they also have great soundtracks that often go unnoticed. Heroes don't stand for that! Every Tuesday, Jukebox Heroes will check out a game's soundtrack and feature the best tunes to share and discuss. Your DJ for the hour is Justin Olivetti, and the request line is open!