Gamers have been singing the praises of the Gears of War series since the first epic installment broke out to major acclaim. That first entry featured a tough, muscular score by the talented Kevin Riepl (Aliens: Colonial Marines) which helped set the gritty, ultra-violent tone of the series and remains one of my personal favorite game scores. Since then, the following two GOW editions went for a more sweeping, grandiose landscape, accompanied by uplifting themes by another celebrated composer, Steve Jablonsky – whose primary credits began in feature films (including the 2003 Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake and its prequel), and whose work in those games took on an appropriately cinematic quality. Jablonsky is joined by Jacob Shea (a frequent collaborator with Hans Zimmer, including The Dark Knight) to accompany the latest chapter in the hit saga, which fuses the heavy, adrenaline-pumping elements of part 1 with the broader canvas of 2 and 3. Much like the game itself (which is itself a tangent/prequel of sorts to the series' story arc), the soundtrack marks a return to the game's darker, roots, and as a standalone album it's packed with chilling, even shocking moments.
While there's still a big, boisterous sound to most of these cues, many arrangements here are stripped down to more punchy, action-packed elements, bringing in rock and industrial instrumentation which ramps up the sonic tension, whether paired with game play or not. The opening theme "Judgment" captures this synthesis very well with its jabs of guitar feedback, industrial noise and stomping electronic percussion; there's even a baritone guitar interlude that gives it an early Nine Inch Nails flavor. While it's an appropriately martial-sounding theme, and is riffed in various ways throughout the album to signify the march to battle, the energy really kicks in on blistering tracks like the electro-industrial kicker "High Surge,” the chugging electro-metal backbone of "Disorder in the Court” and the snarly lead guitars of "Shibboleth."
Dark ambient suspense cues, which stand mostly alone in tracks like “Upper Reaches,” "Pendulum Swings" and "Slowly But Surely," also mesh well with the percussion-and guitar core of cues like "Undefined Charges,” with just enough touches of traditional orchestra to keep the playing field expansive, and there's pure terror permeating the simple but intense tracks “Vantage Point,” "Return Fire" and "Gauntlet,” the latter pairing distant, quivering strings with a creepy, crunchy guitar-and-beat crawl; sudden shocks are in play too, especially in later cuts like "Around the Court,” which might launch you out of your seat. "Tower of Lightmass" and "Evac Zone" are both a bit reminiscent of Brad Fiedel's first Terminator score, blending pulsing industrial electronics and rhythmic hisses with low, brooding strings and brass, and when things go epic for climactic moments like "Enemy Unveiled” and "Taking A Stand,” you may hear a slight touch of Tyler Bates' crushing battle motifs from 300, but with a more blackened industrial edge. The closing cut "Charges Dropped" begins as an ambient synth piece, but segues into a Philip Glass-style string figure and wraps on the same epic martial note that began with “Judgment,” making a cool bookmark to the album.
Even if you dig the more traditionally orchestrated music of the last two Gears installments, there's plenty of big-screen vibe at work in Judgment, and it comes less from the “bigness” of the production than from the beefy, dramatic punch that brings back the action-horror groove of the fist game in the series. You can get a strong sample of that approach in the opening theme, which you can spin in the clip below...