Composed by
Stephen Rippy and Kevin McMullan

 

Published by
Sumthing Else Musicworks (2005)

 

Tracklistings
1) Noddinagushpa (Main Title)
2) Across the Ocean Sea
3) Get Off My Band
4) Felonious Junk
5) Runion
6) Pirate's Temper
7) I, Menervo
8) Scruffy and Underfed
9) Leisurely Brows
10) Hot Meal
11) Bubble Chum
12) Of Licious
13) Rest With Us
14) Get Ye Sum
15) Where's My Uncle
16) Muptop
17) Meet These French
18) Old Timer
19) Major Rewrite / General Chunks
20) Take His Toes
21) Happy to You
22) Camles, Straws, and Backs
23) Years in the Making
24) Last Name Crane, Icabod
25) Ludus Perditus (The End of Happy Times)
26) Niceterium (The Sound of One Hand Clapping)
27) There Is Weather / Decisions Are Made (End Credits)

 

Availability
- Amazon.com
- Something Else Musicworks

 

Extras
- Game website
- Interview

 

Review by
Oliver Ittensohn

Age of Empires III

In 1999 Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings helped define the genre of real-time strategy games as we know it. With Age of Empires III, developer Ensemble Studios safely builds upon this foundation, but transports the player from the middle-ages into the colonial age. A number of European nations are on their way to discover and colonize the new world. It’s up to the player to build a functioning settlement, muster troops, control the ports and trading posts and ultimately overtrump the other competitors. This latest entry in the series is with no doubt the most stunning looking and the gameplay, though a bit harsh and unpolished at its release, has gained through patches and updates so that now players fight each other online on a daily basis.

Composer Stephen Rippy is one of the longest standing members of the Ensemble Studios. Being their in-house composer from the very beginning, he has written scores for all Age of Empires games. This third entry in the saga, however, would bring new elements to the compositional table. First of all, the score introduces a number of new themes in addition to the classic main theme of the series. Secondly, Rippy (with assistance of composer Kevin McMullan) got the chance to record his music with a selection of the Northwest Sinfonia. This allowed him to pay more heed to the historical time frame the game is set in and to provide a score that was less synthesized and modern but more orchestral and baroque. Thirdly, Rippy focused more strongly on interactivity and improved the in-game dynamics of his music.

The Age of Empires main theme has been an integral part of the series’ atmosphere from the get-go. It’s a high-spirited, adventurous and above all very memorable melody. It’s also the one musical element that connects the different titles and historical backgrounds they feature. This means in turn that new themes were required to set the age of colonization apart from ancient Rome and medieval Europe. Rippy composed two new themes: a broad, sweeping and melodic theme and a more uplifting and joyous motif. The first one, written primarily for strings, means to musically express the new world and its colonization. It’s featured most prominently in “Noddinagushpa (Main Title)” immediately after the main theme phrase. The second is tied to the game’s storyline which tells the tale of the Black family. It’s mostly featured in the cinematic cut scenes when important characters of the family’s history are introduced or fateful steps in the family’s legacy are taken. You’ll therefore hear the theme in “Across the Ocean” performed by bagpipe to symbolize the family’s roots in Scotland or in “Old Timer ” in a venturesome Old-West arrangement underscoring their trading efforts on the frontier. The themes therefore excel at joining the third game to its musical legacy through the main theme and to set it apart from its predecessors by introducing expanding new themes.

Perhaps more important than themes is the overall musical approach that Rippy took. It has been a problem with the previous Age of Empires soundtracks that they sounded both inadequately synthesized and inappropriately modern. It’s in this entry that Rippy finally focused more strongly on giving the featured historical time frame a fitting musical canvas. The recording with live orchestra is a blessing in this case for the baroque and Americana stylistics gain much through the professional performance. The composer makes convincing use of the instruments of traditional orchestra: strings and basses, brass and woodwinds, light percussion and a few exotic additions like guitars and a harmonica. The underscore cues he wrote are impressively vivid. This is achieved through a fine balance of performances of solo instruments, soft choir renditions and sweeping orchestral statements. “Of Licious” and “Muptop” are two good examples of how these orchestral dynamics and instrumentational diversities excel. The tracks start out calmly with either solo violin or female choir, pick up pace with strings before bursting into a more full orchestral presentation. The melodies themselves often develop around the colonial theme and thereby also offer a distinctly memorable component. Yet, Rippy achieves the difficult task of always staying in the background of the game and never be overpowering or all too repetitive. At the same time, he provides diverse and captivating orchestral music that fits the timeframe like a glove.

The underscore cues get interrupted as soon as the player attacks the enemy colony. This interactive switch between musical cues is something that Rippy began to develop for Age of Mythology, but it’s in Age of Empires III that this system shows its full potential. The score adapts to both peaceful settings and combat situations. Additionally, it differentiates between the scales of combat. In smaller encounters, “Camels, Straws, and Backs” kicks in, a fast-paced and energetic cue. Once the player attacks the enemy town center, the cue transforms into the victorious “Bubble Chum”. These interactive components of the score take the series’ music a step further and certainly make its soundscape more successful.

Despite its excellent aspects, the score has at least one regrettable flaw. It doesn’t sound epic. Even the most sweeping statements of the orchestra still remain frustratingly understated. Whether it’s the budget constraints that would not allow for hiring of a bigger orchestra or Rippy’s reluctance to orchestrate for a bigger ensemble remains up for debate. In the end, it seems like Rippy has gone a step forward with the series’ musical accompaniment, but still hasn’t gone that extra mile.

To sum things up, Age of Empires III is a great musical achievement and convincing step forward for the series. Although there are still things to improve, the composer has worked on many aspects of the score to make it a fitting and enjoyable experience, both in-game and as a stand-alone listen.