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Napoleon: Total War by Richard Beddow

Napoleon: Total War

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Napoleon: Total War (Soundtrack) by Richard Beddow
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Napoleon: Total War (Soundtrack) by Richard Beddow

Napoleon: Total War
Composed by Richard Beddow
Sega Corp (2011)

Rating: 9/10

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“Soaring melodies, sensitive underscoring, and a solid live performance come together to produce one of the best game scores we’ve heard yet this year.”

A Dealer in Hope
Review by Marius Masalar
 


 

I don’t know what it is about real-time strategy games, but it’s often the case that they inspire some of the finest game music across any genre. The TOTAL WAR series has always been an example of this correlation, and NAPOLEON: TOTAL WAR continues the trend with a glorious and organic score by RICHARD BEDDOW and his team of co-composers, RICHARD BIRDSALL, IAN LIVINGSTONE, and SIMON RAVN.

It begins with a strong theme. “Napoleon Bonaparte” (1) serves as a stirring and noble calling card for the emperor, with stately strings giving way to a mighty choral outburst before fading to a gentle outro. This is a magnificent opening, and “Corsica, Humble Beginnings” (2) and “Napoleon’s Promise” develop the theme in a darker form. The second quickens the pace briefly and comes to another dramatic peak, signaling the end of the introductory tracks.

“Preparing the Arcole Charge” (4) is the first of the ‘preparation’ tracks, played while players make plans for their next mission. The first of them is a gentle but tense militaristic underscore, with poignant brass escalations near the end that help set the scene for the album’s first battle sequence. Unfortunately, “The Battle at Arcole” (5) is short and quite forgettable. It gets the blood pumping well enough, but it’s certainly paced according to the slower action of RTS games. This is true of “Naval Battle at St. Vincent” (6) even more, though this cue features some interesting low woodwind flourishes and percussion interjections.

Perhaps the most unusual portion of the NAPOLEON: TOTAL WAR score is the inclusion of three faux ‘classical’ pieces composed for the game, each in several movements. Classical purists will of course be very amused by the so-called string quartets, which barely manage to poke above the 4-minute mark in total, and thus seem quite hollow and unsatisfying despite the ‘authentic’ feel of the small ensemble. Accordingly, while “String Quintet I. Chamber Music I-IV” (7-10) is undoubtedly pretty, the entire suite feels like little more than a set of short exercises for the musicians — the gravitas is a testament to the emotive talents of the musicians more than the emotional content of the music itself. Of the four movements, the final one is the most beautiful.

The full ensemble returns in force, with strong rhythms and whirlwinds of string and woodwind runs dancing throughout “Napoleon Heads to the East” (11). The east is immediately acknowledged with a pleasingly oriental bassoon melody at the onset of “Planning the Alexandria Invasion” (12). This motif is explored in more detail as the track progresses, but the mood remains mellow. At least, until “The Mamluks Attack” (13), of course! This is the best battle track up to this point, and everything from strong rhythms to swirling xylophone runs help accompany the strongly eastern-scale melodies in the strings and brass. It’s a lot of fun to listen to and feels similar in spirit to music from the Mummy films, especially the first.

The eastern feel remains intact throughout “Desert Preparations” (14) and “The Battle of the Pyramids” (15), but only the latter is worth revisiting since it carries on the energy of the previous battle cue, albeit less frantically. The similarity to The Mummy is even stronger in this one. With his business done in Egypt, Bonaparte moves “From Egypt to France” (16) with a stunning (if annoyingly short) transition cue that brings the choir back into the picture. The string quintet also returns, also briefly, for “The Art of War” (17). This time around, the cue is at least long enough to have a noticeable musical arc, which immediately makes it feel more interesting to listen to, and the performances are as precise and engaged as before.

Which brings us to the second set of classical pastiches on the score: the “Choral Music I-IV. a capella” (19-21) set. Like the first string quartet, these suffer from cripplingly short track lengths, making them breeze past. The magical quality of human voices saves them though, as even the most banal of musical phrases sung by a talented choir captures our attention and stirs our hearts. Altogether, they are beautiful to listen to, but one wishes that the in-game context had allowed them more room to develop and really flesh out these segments into more meaningful cues.

As it is, we’re quickly thrust back into the fray with “Threat of Naval Conflict” (22), another tension cue. Muted brass and uneasy string lines brood away sullenly and set the stage for “HMS Victory” (23). The vessel’s theme is dramatic and threatening, and the churning strings return less menacingly in the next cue. “The Napoleonic Code” (24) is one of the livelier pieces on the album, and is also one of the few straight reprises of the main theme. This is an extremely attractive variation, once more hindered by a short length. The ensuing battle cues, “The Battle at Austerlitz” (25) and “Naval Strike at Aix Roads” (26) are both satisfying, but the first is the more interesting of the two, with exciting flashes of orchestral fireworks.

Entering the album’s closing stretch, “Napoleon’s Ambition” (27) is an amazingly powerful cue that delivers a huge climax very quickly before being snapped short at under 40 seconds. Shame. What follows is the last of the classical pieces; the second string quintet. “String Quintet II. Chamber Music I-IV” (28-31) is an even less interesting collection than the first. The third movement, for instance, is literally nothing but a sequence of completely unembellished chords, separated by dead silence. Whatever beauty lies in these prosaic exercises is owed to the musicianship of the string players, who have done their best to make it sing.

“Napoleon Plans Waterloo” (32) opens with a haunting muted string statement of one of the themes presented in the choral music. It unfolds into a very dynamic track that is at times moving and at others edgy and rhythmic. The sombre underscore in “The Fields of War” (33) seems dull by comparison, even though it’s a completely successful cue. It isn’t until “Waterloo” (34) — the final battle cue — that some energy is regained. Interestingly enough, the battle cue doesn’t seem to be as compelling as the preparation cue in this instance, which is unfortunate since it’s the climatic final battle at stake. Luckily, the heavy choir-supported mourning of “The Defeat at Waterloo” (35) redeems with its heart-wrenching sadness. NAPOLEON: TOTAL WAR ends with “The End” (34), a respectful and utterly gorgeous rendition of the main theme, coloured by some of the subthemes that cropped up over the course of the album. From the plaintive oboe to the choir’s beautiful accompaniment, this cue is stunning from beginning to end. The climax is superb and serves as a perfect closing statement.

Despite some qualms about short track lengths and mediocre classical pastiches, RICHARD BEDDOW, RICHARD BIRDSALL, IAN LIVINGSTONE, and SIMON RAVN are all extremely accomplished composers, and the fusion of their talents is brought to life vividly by the Slovak National Symphony Orchestra and Choir — a sizeable and proficient ensemble. NAPOLEON: TOTAL WAR is perhaps the strongest score in the series, and unquestioningly deserves the Ivor Novello for Best Video Game Score that it recently won. Soaring melodies, sensitive underscoring, and a solid live performance come together to produce one of the best game scores we’ve heard yet this year.
 

Rating: 9/10


Track

Track Title Track Time  Rating
1 Napoleon Bonaparte 2:13  *****
2 Corsica, Humble Beginnings 1:04  ****
3 Napoleon's Promise 1:27  *****
4 Preparing the Arcole Charge 2:04  ****
5 The Battle at Arcole 1:57  ***
6 Naval Battle at St. Vincent 1:47  ***
7 String Quintet - Chamber Music I 0:48  ***
8 String Quintet - Chamber Music II 1:09  **
9 String Quintet - Chamber Music III 1:19  ***
10 String Quintet - Chamber Music IV 0:47  *****
11 Napoleon Heads to the East 1:17  ****
12 Planning the Alexandria Invasion 2:05  ***
13 The Mamluks Attack 2:20  *****
14 Desert Preparations 2:01  ***
15 The Battle of the Pyramids 2:05  *****
16 From Egypt to France 0:41  *****
17 The Art of War 1:40  **
18 Choral Music I. a capella 0:47  ****
19 Choral Music II. a capella 0:51  *****
20 Choral Music III. a capella 0:59  ***
21 Choral Music IV. a capella 0:46  ****
22 Threat of Naval Conflicts 2:23  ***
23 HMS Victory 2:22  ****
24 The Napoleonic Code 1:00  *****
25 The Battle at Austerlitz 1:54  ****
26 Naval Strike at Aix Roads 2:11  ***
27 Napoleon's Ambition 0:38  *****
28 String Quintet II - Chamber Music I. 0:45  **
29 String Quintet II - Chamber Music II. 0:43  ****
30 String Quintet II - Chamber Music III. 0:46  *
31 String Quintet II - Chamber Music IV. 0:43  **
32 Napoleon Plans Waterloo 2:04  *****
33 The Fields of War 2:12  ***
34 Waterloo 2:04  ****
35 The Defeat at Waterloo 0:56  *****
36 The End 2:30  *****
  Total Running Time 53 minutes  

 

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