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Medal of Honor Original Soundtrack :: Review by Simon Elchlepp

Album Title Catalog No.
Medal of Honor Original Soundtrack Recording Promotional
Medal of Honor Original Soundtrack iTunes


First-person shooters were still a rare sight on consoles when the first Medal of Honor game was released for Sony's Playstation in 1999. That was to change soon though and it was in no small part due to the success of this Steven Spielberg produced title. Enthusiastically received both by critics and gamers, Medal of Honor laid the foundations for what, as of 2010, is the most successful FPS franchise in history with over 30 million units sold and dozens of games published on numerous platforms. What's more, Medal of Honor heralded a sea change in the thematic and stylistic direction the whole FPS genre would take. Previously, first-person shooters had taken place in decidedly non-realistic settings, and the genre's approach to history was best encapsulated by Wolfenstein 3D's final boss: Hitler in a robot suit. Designed by producer Steven Spielberg to be more realistic and do the subject matter greater justice, Medal of Honor discarded such fantastical trappings and followed Spielberg's film Saving Private Ryan in its pursuit of historic accuracy. This tendency that was also mirrored in Medal of Honor's gameplay, which moved away other first-person shooters' non-stop shooting sprees. In doing so, Medal of Honor started a trend that has spawned countless other historic first-person shooters until this day, to a degree that the World War II FPS has become a sub-genre unto itself.

This aim of increased realism extended to the game's aural component as well, and since Dreamworks Interactive's previous game The Lost World: Jurassic Park had already featured a fully orchestral soundtrack, a similar approach for Medal of Honor was a no-brainer. Also not surprisingly after his convincing work on The Lost World, Michael Giacchino was hired again for Medal of Honor. Heralded by Spielberg as a "young John Williams" at the time, Giacchino collaborated again with orchestrator Tim Simonec and this time 65 members of the Northwest Sinfonia. After having worked on the score for about four to five months, Giacchino recorded the soundtrack with the Northwest Sinfonia in October 1998. After the commercial CD release of the The Lost World soundtrack via conventional music retail stores had proven unsuccessful, the decision was made to sell the soundtrack CD of Medal of Honor exclusively via the just emerging Amazon online store — an unconventional move at the time. Dreamworks Records decided to spent downright lavish care on the soundtrack release, with a booklet that contained detailed liner notes including an extensive review and even a track-by-track analysis. Unfortunately, the soundtrack's physical release is now out of print, although the music is still available via iTunes and Amazon, obviously minus the excellent booklet, and two insubstantial bonus tracks that were included on the CD. To push the soundtrack release of Medal of Honor, Dreamworks Records then sent the CD to "all the internet-soundtrack press", according to Giacchino.

And all the hard work paid off. Not only did Medal of Honor as a game prove highly influential within the world of first-person shooters. Its soundtrack turned out to be just as revolutionary in regards to how game music was perceived outside of gamers' circles and the game press. Before the release of Medal of Honor's soundtrack, game scores were "traditionally classified as electronic garbage by the majority of orchestrally minded film and television score collectors", to put it in the words of score review website filmtracks.com. And although Medal of Honor wasn't the first game to receive an orchestral score, it was the first title that alerted film score fans around the world to the fact that a video game could have a movie-like score — and a pretty damn good one at that! This surprised sentiment and the constant reference back to movie scores is evident in several reviews of Medal of Honor published at the time on soundtrack review websites: "I can't seem to stress enough the amazement that this was all done for a computer game." (soundtrack.net); "Here is one of the finest film scores written in 1999, it's only that it actually wasn't written for a film." (tracksounds.com); "In short, it sounds like a really good film score." (moviemusicuk.us).

There are probably some editorials to be written about the fact that video game soundtracks only found recognition among the music community at large when they started to emulate late-romantic stylings of orchestral music that had been made familiar through decades of use in movies. But such questions of conservativism aside, there is no doubt that Medal of Honor's score remains one of the most important and influential game soundtrack releases of all time — to a great degree, we have to thank Giacchino and Spielberg for the fact that orchestral game soundtracks have now become commonplace and that game scores are recognised by and compete at the most prestigious industry awards, such as the BAFTAs, Igor Novello, and Grammy awards.


Given Medal of Honor's historic stature, does the soundtrack actually live up to its own reputation? Fortunately, the answer is an unqualified and enthusiastic "Yes!" One of the many reasons for this is the score's impressive thematic coherency. There are no less than three different themes that run through the whole score and neatly tie it together on a macro-level. The first of these, the game's main theme, is introduced on the album's first track "Medal of Honor" and actually turns out to be the score's least interesting theme. It's a solemnly patriotic melody, somewhat predictably presented on a solo trumpet, while snare drums in the background give the hynm-like tune a militaristic edge. The quite memorable, if not wholly original, theme is then passed around the orchestra. This gives Giacchino the chance to display his considerable skills at developing a composition, a quality had already become apparent on The Lord World: Jurassic Park. This time, however, Giacchino doesn't have to shoehorn his ideas into two-minute tracks, but is given free reign to paint on a larger canvas. Also, his decision to built not only "Medal of Honor", but virtually every composition around a single motif provides each cue with a level of structural cohesion and increased memorability that sets Medal of Honor apart from The Lost World: Jurassic Park and actually most other game scores. For example, from an intimate flute solo to swaying strings and ending with a jubilant conclusion, "Medal of Honor" presents the main theme in an impressive number of shapes and disguises that are always highly attractive.

It's interesting to note that the first presentation of the Medal of Honor main theme on a lone trumpet is the only similarity between Giacchino's score and John Williams' subject matter-wise related soundtrack for Saving Private Ryan. Outside of this particular rendition of the main theme, the two scores could hardly be more different, with Giacchino's rambunctious work stylistically diametrically opposed to Wiliams' introspective, melancholy music. Even more noteworthy is the fact that Medal of Honor's main theme doesn't end up having the biggest impact on the score among the three themes on the soundtrack. Renditions of the main theme turn up on "Attack on Fort Schmerzen" and "Panzer Attack", but the melody is either only briefly alluded too or attacked vigorously by the surrounding musical material. More extensive presentations of the theme appear on "The Radar Train" and "Approaching Colditz Castle", where the heroic spirit of the theme battles with the hostile musical forces around it. But the only track outside of "Medal of Honor" that is dominated to a significant degree by the main theme is "The Jet Craft Facility", where the melody slowly emerges from the background against string ostinati and snare drums before it receives a definite, victorious rendition.

But even here, it's not the main theme that closes the piece. Instead, that duty is fulfilled by the game's second theme. According to Giacchino, this defiant string melody was created to represent the game's protagonist Jimmy Patterson on a more personal level, while the main theme symbolises the more generic sense of patriotism that underpins Patterson's mission. And indeed, it's easier to relate to the emotional strains of this second theme which plays "during the tougher moments of [Jimmy's] journey" (Giacchino). Outside of "The Jet Craft Facility", the theme makes its mark on "Panzer Attack", "Merker's Salt Mine" and "Securing The Notebook", and in its weary, yet unyielding nature is actually a better representation of Patterson's battle against overwhelming odds than the main theme. Giacchino's decision to compose such a second, more personal theme for the game's main character mirrors his enthusiasm for Spielberg's idea to add more depth to the FPS genre and to make sure the gamer connects with Medal of Honor on an emotional level.

However, the theme that easily makes the biggest impact on the score is Giacchino's melodic idea for the game's bad guys, the Nazis. This menacing, march-like brass theme leaves an impression each time its harsh, bombastic tones interrupt whatever other musical proceedings are going on and usually dominates the soundscape through its sheer tonal force. First introduced on "Locating Enemy Positions", the Nazi theme is usually presented in its entirety — in contrast to the main theme — and accompanies the listener's journey from early tracks like "Attack on Fort Schmerzen" and "The Radar Train" until the end on "Nordhausen" and "The Jet Craft Facility". The theme is a highly recognisable construct, due to the fact that it's instantly memorable and because it harks back to very popular soundtrack — John Williams' Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, which deployed similar means to musically characterise its Nazi baddies. The similarities are quite pronounced — probably not surprising considering Giacchino's self-professed fondness for Williams' works — and might prove distracting for some listeners. But the majority of score fans likely won't mind and enjoy the fierce power of Giacchino's theme.

These three themes are reworked throughout the score and woven intelligently into the compositions. But what keeps the pieces on Medal of Honor so supremely coherent is Giacchino's already described method of structuring each cue as variations upon a motif that is usually stated at the beginning of each composition. These motifs are often quite short and rhythmic in nature, which makes sense: most of the pieces on the album are pulse-pounding action tracks that require energetic musical phrases to drive the soundtrack forward. At the same time, these motifs are sufficiently melodic and intricate enough to never let the tracks descend into bland sound and fury. "Taking Out the Railgun" demonstrates how well this approach of basing each track on an individual motif works when carried out with as much skill as on Medal of Honor. Opening with an instantly energising cello motif that is vividly captured by the recording engineers, the piece impressively builds by adding more and more instruments that either perform the cello motif, play a variation of it or add invigorating counterpoint. The end result is a enourmous, yet superbly organised wall of sound, full of spectacularly full-bodied brass material and thunderous percussion. Each variation of the initial theme flows perfectly into the next and as a result, this orchestral powerhouse never runs out of steam.

On the other end of the spectrum, an initially quieter stealth track like "Securing the Codebook" benefits from this compositional approach as well. Here, it's an ascending, subtly threatening three note motif, first in the deep strings and later on flutes, that builds up tension among eerie violin tremoli and chromatic harmonies. A couple of tracks even introduce two new motifs and work through these during their running time. "Merker's Salt Mine" and "Stopping the V2 Launch" both deploy this technique to stunning effect. In both cases, the first, shorter rhythmic idea is overlaid with a more melodic, expansive motif that still pushes the music forward. Particularly on "Stopping the V2 Launch", this approach yields rousing results when the second melody is taken over by the brass and the piece develops an irresistible momentum. But Giacchino also knows when to quiet the music down and milk a composition's dynamics for full effect. And so, at 2:25, "Stopping the V2 Launch" retreads into piano territory, of course only to build towards the second melody flaring up one more time at the end of the cue.

On this track as on others, Giacchino then also showcases his ability to give each piece its own dramatic arc. On "Securing the Codebook", quiet snares first complement the stealth atmosphere. But then they grow louder and erupt into a ruthless fortissimo rendition of the Nazi theme, followed by Jimmy's theme battling the forces of evil, before the piece closes with a quite presentation of the initial three-note motif on edgy strings. "Locating Enemy Positions" excellently builds up and releases tension and is another example of Giacchino's skills at shaping each cue into a satisfying dramatic whole. The track starts with atmospheric material full of uneasy string glissandi and mysterious chromatic harp fragments, while constantly hinting at danger and the orchestral outburst to come with coming and going swirling violin figures. After the first such crescendo has occurred, ostinato string rhythms never let the momentum falter, before the Nazi theme makes its first imposing appearance.

All these intricate thematic constructs wouldn't mean much if the music itself wasn't captivating, but as you might have already guessed, this soundtrack is rip-roaring fun from start to finish. It certainly helps such robust music that the performance by the Northwest Sinfonia is almost flawless and that their muscular sounds are captured in all their power, to a degree that the ensemble sound considerably larger than an orchestra of 65 musicians. Among the action highlights of the score is "The Radar Train", an irresistibly propulsive, anvil-driven creation that perfectly communicates the motoric drive of a massive train. Even more mercurial is "Rjuken Sabotage", a quick-silvery scherzo that gives the Northwest Sinfonia's string section a good workout and features the fastest material on the whole album. The similarities to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, particularly "Scherzo for Motorcycle and Orchestra", are most obvious here. But being able to create something that's similarly rousing as that particular track in the first place is impressive, particularly for a young composer such as Giacchino at that stage. And even on a hyperactive cue like this, Giacchino doesn't neglect thematic development and leads the track and its opening motif from a light-hearted start to a ferocious brass climax, interspersed with another frightening return of the Nazi theme.

Some listeners, as much as they will enjoy this score, might argue that it doesn't feature the same timbral and emotional breath as later Medal of Honor scores, particularly Medal of Honor: Frontline. It is true that this is the most straightforward of all Medal of Honor soundtracks and that Giacchino would later tweak his approach to incorporate more introspective tones. However, the score's focus on action material also gives Medal of Honor a stirring immediacy that its successors might lack in the eyes of some listeners. And while Medal of Honor focuses mostly on delivering a good blow-out, it packs such a punch that even the most discerning listeners likely won't mind. And you can't accuse Giacchino of simply delivering orchestral mayhem from start to finish. The stealth atmosphere on "Securing the Codebook" is also found on "Attack on Fort Schmerzen", which is based on a tense four note woodwind motif that exudes the fear of dangers lurking in the shadows. Some of the dissonant scoring techniques that Giacchino extensively used on The Lost World: Jurassic Park find their way on this score as well, with the starting motif on "Rescuing the G3 Officer" a jagged, isolated idea in the deep strings, bathed in layers of unsettling chromatic strings. This moody approach continues throughout the piece with single woodwind and deep string accents over high-pitched violins later in the cue that demonstrate Giacchino's knack for such rather atmospheric material. Not surprisingly, the tension is broken twice when the orchestra works itself into a frenzy, but such outbursts never feel abrupt.

Towards the end of the album, more and more tracks incorporate moods similar to "Rescuing the G3 Officer" and the soundtrack mellows a bit as a result. Worthy of mention is "Approaching Colditz Castle", which opens with an almost idyllic clarinet solo and noble horns, and the atmosphere is only ever so slightly destabilised by chromatic violin harmonies in the background. Intriguingly, the Nazi motif now returns on flutes, highlighting that this composition is indeed about stealthily approaching the enemy's location, instead of looking for an open confrontation. The material on this cue remains fragmented and brusque string figures keep up a feeling of unease even when the main theme makes itself heard, before the music then ends in nocturnal mystery. "The U-Boat" does an even better job at musically painting an image of a particularly location, in this case through its oppressive brass chords, whining suspended violins and a slowly rolling melodic idea for the strings. The imminent dread of potentially being buried under the ocean waters' suffocating weight is heightened further when tolling, foreboding chimes enter the soundscape. Amidst this bleakness, a cautiously optimistic flute melody develops and is then passed on to the horns and offers a glimmer of hope.

After "The Jet Craft Facility" has died down, the listener finds some compositions that are essentially bonus tracks. The most interesting of these is "The Road to Berlin", which is a soothing, sultry 1930s-style jazz piece in the vein of Cole Porter. Gently swinging and replete with clarinet and even violin solo, it's an undeniably stylish composition that showcases Giacchino's versatility. Still, after the massive orchestral sounds that have preceded it, "The Road to Berlin" can't help but feel like a jarring change of gears. It's also a bit anti-climactic, mainly because "The Jet Craft Facility" didn't close with the bang one might expect from the final track of such a spectacular album. Then again, the fact that Giacchino decided to end that previous cue with Jimmy's personal theme once more highlights his decision to favour emotional engagement over sheer adrenaline. "Medal of Honor (Alternate Version)" only introduces some minor changes to the main theme and oddly starts to fade out very early, about 30 seconds before the piece finishes. Finally, "The Road to Berlin (Radio Broadcast)" sees Giacchino gently poking fun at the seriousness of the Medal of Honor project. The crackling voice of a radio announcer informs the listener that the Allies' bombing attacks have destroyed all but one recording the radio station had in its vault. That piece turns out to be "Die Strasse nach Berlin" (The Road to Berlin) and before we hear the composition styled like an old recording and in glorious mono, the announcer vows to play this track over and over until Germany's enemies will come begging for mercy.


There you have it: Medal of Honor is more than able to live up to the hype that in the years since its release has gathered around it. Yes, it sounds a lot like John Williams at times. But in this case, this is to be taken as an enormous compliment, because Giacchino writes orchestral action music on the same level as the maestro — both in regards to intelligent thematic constructs and sheer aural pleasure. Incorporating three themes and a great number of sub-themes into one score as skillfully as Giacchino does here is an impressive feat. Add to this Giacchino's capability at perfectly shaping his tracks and make them explode with youthful gusto and you've got indeed a modern classic of the video game soundtrack genre that would point the way forward for orchestral game music. Chances are you already have this in your collection, but if not, you'll want to pick this one up as fast as possible and enjoy each of its stirring compositions.

Overall Score: 9/10