The Halo 2 Listening Guide: A Review and Retrospective

We cap off our Halo 2 review with a look back at every musical score ever released for the game. You can listen to them all in one place!

Editor’s Note: This is a companion piece to our big Halo 2 retrospective from earlier this week.

In case you haven’t heard, Halo 2‘s re-recorded score for the Anniversary edition is gorgeous. Martin O’Donnel and Michael Salvatori’s original score receives a lot of love from Skywalker Sound, elevating the music to video game godliness. Really, could there be a better match made in heaven? 

After a week full of retrospectives and reviews of all the Halo games, thanks to The Master Chief Collection, I thought it was time to give Halo 2‘s score some well-deserved acknowledgement for being one of the greatest ever made. Few video game scores — the only other ones I can think of belong to Nintendo games and Final Fantasy — have become so deeply-rooted in the gaming scenes as has Halo 2‘s. I basically here “Mjolnir Mix” everywhere I go. 

But whether its still popular isn’t a sign of the score’s greatness. It’s the way it becomes its own separate masterpiece, having a life of its own through sound. Each movement tells a story.

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Just listen for yourself:

“Halo Theme Gungnir Mix” perfectly introduces the fast-paced action of Halo 2, as you run around Cairo Station with an SMG in each hand, killin Grunts. Or perhaps you prefer the sense of adventure introduced in “Jeopardy,” as you drop down into Delta Halo to…er, kill some Grunts. “Impart” is a beautiful musical refrain that appears throughout the game’s more solemn moments, and leaves behind a trail of mystery even after the curtains have closed on the cliffhanger ending. “Moon Over Mombasa, Pt. 2” is perhaps what every sci-fi shooter should sound like if it plans to include guitars in its score. 

This entire score is an awe-inspiring work from movement to movement. The crescendos come often, but then we’re hit with such quiet moments where the barely audible scratching of a violin and Gregorian chant set the scene for Halo 2‘s horror moments. “Librarian’s Gift” is one of the scariest things I’ve ever listened to. 

I wouldn’t call Skywalker Sound’s take on O’Donnel and Salvatori’s original score an “improvement.” That implies that the original sound, melodies, movements, and themes of Vol. 1 and 2 aren’t perfect. They really are. Like Halloween without John Carpenter’s famous piano score, stripping away the game from its score would render Halo 2 a completely different experience. Perhaps even a bland one. No, this score made the game even better than it already was.

But I maintain that you could take this score and put it in anything. Or simply turn off the lights and play it in the dark. You’ll immediately be transported into the depths of space or the secret alien ruins that make up much of the game. The unearthly sounds are perfect for a writing session, as well. I’m Exhibit A.

Want to listen to what started it all? I’ve got you covered. Below is the original score from back in 2004:

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Vol. 1

Perhaps most famous for giving me a legitimate reason to listen to Hoobastank and not hate myself, Vol. 1 focuses in on single scenes in the game — the little stretches of music that cue many of the big moments in the game. There’s also a Breaking Benjamin song called “Blow Me Away” that didn’t seem to make it into this volume, although it complements one of the most important moments in Halo 2: the Elite Rebellion.

OH! And Grammy Award-winning musician Steve Vai played the guitar tracks for a lot of the score. Some dude named John Mayer also did a little uncredited work. According to O’Donnell’s interview in the Halo 2: Anniversary documentary, he was even offered Jeff Beck. Yikes! Just goes to show you how willing Microsoft was to put awesome music in this game.

This volume is broken up by four preludes from Incubus that sound more like they were having a Halo-theme jam session than recording something for the game. Still, “Movement of the Odyssey” makes for nice little transitions in the score. 

“High Charity” remains my favorite thing ever in Vol. 1. It is without a doubt one of the most beautiful pieces of music that O’Donnell and Salvatori have ever recorded. Master Chief fights his way through the Flood in the infested Covenant capital city spaceship, High Charity, while looking beyond towards the purple skyline. All around you, the scenery unfolds like an oil painting. Seriously, take a moment in the game to stare off into the distance while on High Charityand listen to the accompanying music. You could put this piece in Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. No offense, Hans Zimmer.

Vol. 2

Vol. 2 is made up of the longer pieces that you hear during the cutscenes. And they tend to sound a bit more cinematic as a result. “Mausoleun Suite” is my all-time favorite here. The lo-fi sound of the track reminds me of Vangelis and what he’s done with a lot of his synthy sci-fi scores. “Mausoleum Suite” complements the Arbiter scenes during his first mission for the Prophets at the Heretic installation, sharpening the mystery of his character and the undiscovered world around him. After all, this Elite is stepping into the truth about the Halo rings almost by accident. Or is that fate? This piece capitalizes on all of that. 

I could almost imagine listening to “Sacred Icon Suite” in one of those prestige war films about honor and duty. This piece instills a sense of god and country in its first movement, followed by darker instances in the second half. By the end, things get really eerie. The Flood are afoot, after all.

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As a whole, Vol. 2 is all about ambience, clinging to the environments and scenes in the game, and creating the moods that move the story along. This is definitely more of the “listen in the dark” variety than the head-banging jam session that makes up most of Vol. 1.

Put together, these three works make up a powerful compilation of music that stay with you far beyond game’s end. Like the greatest tragedies in cinema and on stage, Halo 2 stays with us through music as much as it does through Grunt kills.

What are your favorite parts of the Halo 2 scores? Tell us in the comments.

* Illustrations are courtesy of Darkneshasfallen.

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