Music is Best, Even During the Loading Screen
The slow, deep and brooding horns of Rome: Total War that play shortly before the loading screen segues into the start menu is one of the best ways to introduce a player to a video-game focusing on the conquest of Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa during the late BC era. Of course, the intro showing the nowadays poorly rendered preview of the real-time battles is equally as inviting and stirring for the war generals in us all, but the real fun begins when you finally get to choose your first of three Roman factions (Julii, Brutii, Scipii) and enter into the immersive conquest mode.
And then the song for the loading screen before starting the campaign enters. Another slow and mystical entry of sound, with bells, big drums, and heavy-end stringed instruments plays together, an imitation of the slowl turn-based commencements of diplomacy and trade coupled with the intense excitements of real-time battle awaiting us players shortly after the wars really begin.
Once the campaign map is loaded, “Divinitus”, a song of guitar and the voice of an angelic woman graces the campaign map as you look around the fog of war and plan your first moves. But the real excitement of the soundtrack comes during the battle sequences.
Whether battling Carthage and the Seleucid Empire in the African/Arabic deserts or the British and Germanic tribes in the blizzards and massive forests of northern Europe, the soundtrack to Rome: Total War is vital to the creation and release of tension throughout each real-time battle. The orchestral nature of the soundtrack creates an organic growth of tension in four stages for each battle.
First, a general gives a grandiose speech about the battle ahead, the weather, and the odds in his/her favor. With an army of inexperience, the battles are usually fairly even. However, as your army grows with experience, the general will start praising the troops and begin boasting of his army’s victories. Warcrys come from the soldiers, who cheer on in the face of impending death.
Second, the army stands, restlessly awaiting orders from you, their war strategist. The quiet nature of rattling snakes, Middle Eastern instruments, that ever-present set of drums and heavy strings rolls in a continuous wave of sound. As you set up your army and prepare for battle, the fear of whether or not your strategy will work runs through your mind, parallel to the next part of the soundtrack to come.
You click begin battle. The third wave of music reels in like an earthquake. Big drums and spaced out orchestral hits, piano and massive choirs pave the way for you and your enemy to confront each other. This is where tension builds as your army of hastati, velites, and cavalry approaches the warriors, cavalry, and ranged units of your enemy. Thousands of soldiers, in formation on a simulated battlefield of snow, desert, farmland, forest or city walk and run at each other with a slight fragile fear. Nothing can stop them from approaching the initial onslaught until the battle truly begins.
The Battle Begins
And then the battle truly begins. Your cavalry flanks the enemies outer warriors, them too greeted by the cavalry of the enemy. Or you sent your cavalry straight through the middle of their army, like an arrow stabbing the heart of an animal. Several of the soldiers on the opposing army get flung aside. Their unit panics, and you send your foot soldiers in to finish them off while the enemy flanks you with their cavalry too.
Fourth, the sounds of fighting soldiers coupled with the song “Mayhem” and an intense amalgamation of everything you’ve been hearing prior to this point with the big bass drums, timpani, war cries, big orchestral hits that each fade in and out except for the drums finally brings you fully into a conflict of split-second decisions and fateful errors.
After a long day of battle, your army comes out victorious. The cry of a voice-cracking yell “the day is ours!” comes at you, and you end the battle knowing that your enemy suffered far more than your army did. A smile of relief comes upon your face. You finally won one of hundreds, if not thousands of battles!
After the Battle
After the battle, the slow, mystic music of the loading screen before the turn-based portion of your conquest begins again. All seamlessly connected with a seemingly unconnected set of songs and instrumental pieces. And the soundtrack works so well not because it’s thematically redundant throughout, although it does use the same instruments throughout each song. It works because each composition fits the scenario it’s composed for. I couldn’t imagine the song “Mayhem” in place of the piece “Journey to Rome Part II“. It simply wouldn’t fit in that part of the game’s scenarios. But I can hear each song being where they are in the context of the game itself.
For instance, “Warrior March” plays while your army approaches the enemy’s army. Perfect. “Mayhem” plays during the chaos of battle. Again, the song’s title reflects the battle. “Divinitus” plays during the campaign map, and the lyrics from the song sums up the games themes of “warlike, victory, honour, despair, life, death”.
And that’s why the soundtrack is so effective. It plays to each specific portion of the game. It’s not just a vague, overarching theme, nor is it specific only to a certain aspect of the game. Instead, the songs serve as the theme to each aspect of the game in which they are composed for. In other words, a brilliantly laid out soundtrack for a brilliantly strategic and intense war game.
Total War Forums for the translation of ‘Divinitus’. Although not entirely correct (I believe the words in ‘latin’ are made up), it is a rough translation of the lyrics.
Note: Now that I’ve laid out the narrative behind why the soundtrack for Rome: Total War works, next time I will be deep-diving into the soundtrack for Total War: Shogun 2. Both were composed by Jeremy Van Dyke and both are hailed as the best soundtracks in the Total War series.