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Mercenaries: Playground of Destruction
  • Composed by Chris Tilton
  • Themes by Michael Giacchino
  • La-La Land Records / 2004 / 58m

Set in a fictional conflict in North Korea, the 2004 video game Mercenaries: Playground of Destruction – released for PlayStation 2 and the original Xbox – saw the player with the unusual dual aim of making a profit and preventing a nuclear war.  (All in a day’s work, ma’am.)  It was met with a very favourable critical response and a sequel followed in 2008 with a further one announced, though it seems to have disappeared from the agenda for now.

Michael Giacchino was the hottest video game composer around in the aftermath of Medal of Honour, but by the time Mercenaries came around five years later his remarkable career ascendency was well under way and at the time he was busy scoring The Incredibles.  He still did work on the game, but his involvement was limited to writing the themes, so a different composer was required to write the score, incorporating those themes.  Nobody had to look very far to find him because Giacchino’s assistant Chris Tilton stepped up to the task.  Tilton had done a little composing himself for video games by that point (including the cultural landmark Muppets Party Cruise) but in many ways this was his big break.

Chris Tilton

Chris Tilton

The album begins with the big, bold, brassy, ballsy main theme, not perhaps the most memorable tune but it sets the tone very well and proves to be a malleable asset as the score progresses.  To no great surprise, there is a host of action music on the album and to a similar lack of surprise, it’s fantastic.  When I reviewed this score when it was released a decade ago, I wrote that it was more John Williams pastiche, which makes me wonder what I was smoking at the time, because it’s certainly not Williams pastiche at all.  You can hear that the Medal of Honour composer was involved in some capacity, but this is more muscular, angrier music.

Listen to “Deck of 52”, the fabulously detailed percussion (slightly recalling Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon of all things) so energetic and fast-moving, leading into grand blasts of the main theme.  There’s a dashingly villainous feel to “Family Business” – if it doesn’t underscore footage of a main with slicked-back hair and a pencil moustache, I’ll be very disappointed.  “Show Me the Mercenary” is a ferocious piece, with a stylish swagger to it that wouldn’t be out of place in a James Bond score.

It’s not all action though – there are several much calmer, more contemplative moments.  “For the Motherland” is a lovely, moving track, an oasis of sweetness between big action cues.  “Sniper” is a beautiful little piece.  “Honour and Strength” isn’t exactly what most people would find calm, but I think there’s quite a surprising serenity in its repeated percussion with ethnic woodwind flourishes, at least until the voices appear to add an element of chaos.  Voices then take on a much more prominent role in the following cue, “Hidden Valley Bunker”, a majestic choral section preceding some more urgent suspense material.

“Swedish Fireballs” is a terrific action cue with an a certain epic sweep to it.  “Trains, Planes and HMMWVs” is a blockbuster of a piece, thunderous and adrenaline-pumping all the way.  “Gas Tank on the Roof” only lasts for a minute but is arguably the most exciting piece in the whole score – it’s a pity Tilton didn’t have the chance to develop it a bit further, but he does follow it up with “Explosion Scherzo”, which is virtually as good.  “Thermal Event” then sees the frantic chorus joining the orchestra again for another first-rate piece of action.  The score concludes with “World’s Best Carpool Lane”, another frantic action piece which is followed by a period of silence before an amusing little hidden bonus.

Mercenaries is a fine album.  There’s a lot of great material here; ironically about the weakest aspect is the slightly generic-sounding main theme, but the construction of the bulk of the score itself is very impressive.  Tilton was a very able replacement for Giacchino and in the years since has of course firmly established himself as a composer to be taken seriously with subsequent video games and tv series (most famously his work on Fringe).  Interest does wane slightly a couple of times during the album, never enough to do any harm.  Well worth checking out if you’re a fan of Giacchino’s game scores and want to hear something else composed very much in the same world.

Rating: *** 1/2 | |

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