When you think about the economic strategy genre, a select few of franchises comes to mind. Anno, The Settlers, Tropico, SimCity… and not that much more beyond those. Some of such games rely on licensed music (Viva el presidente!), while others build the narrative from scratch, hiring composers who will bring their unique vision to the title. Such is the case with Anno 1800, the newest addition to the Anno family, where we’re taken back to the 19th century with a goal of clearing our deceased father’s name, once a financial giant, now wrongfully deemed a traitor to the British Empire. We’ll found cities, we’ll conquer the seas, we’ll declare wars and arrange truces… and of course we’ll listen to some music in the process of doing all of the above.
In-game audio complements the gameplay just like it should.
Scoring such a big game can be a daunting task. But with a portfolio consisting of over two thousand titles and some previous Anno games, Dynamedion and it’s co-founder, Tilman Sillescu, should have it all figured out by now. They do – it’s clear from the very first notes on the soundtrack that we’re not dealing with rookies. Signs of that can be spotted both in the very atmosphere (instrumentation, composition, texture and narrative choices sufficing video games’ needs) and in the technical aspect (recording, post-production, implementation). Presented with an opportunity to bring the Industrial Revolution to life, Dynamedion responds with an orchestral suite both epic and intimate, full of clear analogies to the story. On the soundtrack, there is injustice, there is a sense of omnipresent enterpreneurship and a sense of pioneering, exploring the unknown of the New World. Story- and setting-wise, all the intricacies have been captured.
As the album almost hits a two-hour mark, there are many different tracks, most of which can be identified with one of the leitmotifs: the main theme (Robber Baron Suite, beautiful choral Obsequies), the New World (The Rain, Heartland), the newspaper theme (The Great Depression, Did You Read That?) and a couple more. As memorable as they are, after I got familiar with the first entries of the themes, the resemblance to the original in the new arrangements usually left me feel with a need for more, as if the potential was there, but not quite used to the full. In fact, many of the tracks on the album are just that – arrangements, and not very inventive either. In the game, though, they serve as a breath of fresh air, jumping in just when we need a bit of rest from the main composition of the gameplay’s segment.
The repetitiveness of the soundtrack, albeit not a big deal within the game, is a certain drawback. Another big weakness, for those of us that are very familiar with a certain sound, is the general lack of something innovative, something exciting. As we listen to the score, transparent and distinctive inspirations become to unfold: the works of John Williams, Hans Zimmer, even a bit of Ennio Morricone and Vangelis has slipped in. For a game that focuses as much on the New World as it does on the Old World, this left me with quite some disappointment. It’s all there – the orchestration, compositions, the understanding of the story and the game’s needs, but… it’s just that. If I’m to be completely honest, many times when I was listening, I felt like this is a composition major’s homework assignment. Though this should not pose a problem for those of us not very familiar with Hollywood music tropes, connoisseurs might find this release unsatisfying.
Dynamedion does have some aces up their sleeve – but it takes more than a few cards for a house to be stable.
Fortunately, there are exceptions to all of what I’ve written above. Obsequies grips the heart with a tasteful choral arrangement of the main theme, similarly so with The Second Burial, this time commanding solo violin and a harp. The Pyrphorians stands out from the whole soundtrack with it’s monster movie/noir cinema feel (very unexpected direction!) and Hypothermia breathes new life into a riot/fire theme in a very unexpected way (makes me think of John Williams’ iconic score). Dynamedion does have some aces up their sleeve – but it takes more than a few cards for a house to be stable.
The music of Anno 1800 (vinyl) left me with quite some disappointment. Although a step in the right direction (same as with it’s predecessors, Anno 2070 and Anno 2205), a certain lack of inventiveness and a reluctance to trailblazing prevent this release from making it’s way into my everyday soundtrack. If you are craving some Hollywood vibes, go for it! If not, it’s probably better to reconsider. Or just stick to the in-game audio, which complements the gameplay just like it should.