I had pretty mixed expectations for the soundtrack to Mists of Pandaria. One the one hand, Blizzard’s scores embarked on a downward spiral starting in 2010. Cataclysm was a poorly planned expansion, and its lack of a clear focus and theme had a serious impact on the music. Russell Brower, Derek Duke, and Glenn Stafford did an outstanding job on Wrath of the Lich King in 2008, but the Cataclysm sound team faced a weak, haphazard plot and (I would imagine) a great deal of frustration as Blizzard scrapped some of their major plans for the expansion mid-stride. Diablo 3 was equally disappointing, with the inexcusable failure to bring back Matt Uelmen taking its toll. I was beginning to think Blizzard had abandoned any serious commitment to ensuring high quality music in their games.
On the other hand, there was no doubt as to what Mists of Pandaria would be about. Just as Wrath of the Lich King had a clearly Nordic vibe from start to finish, Pandaria was thoroughly immersed in Eastern culture and tradition, with a wealth of pre-existing musical themes upon which to build a score. It also brought video game music legend Jeremy Soule into the mix; but considering Cataclysm fell flat in spite of involving David Arkenstone, I wasn’t going to get too excited about this one until I heard it.
As it turns out, Mists of Pandaria might be Blizzard’s best soundtrack to date. Russell Brower, Neal Acree, Sam Cardon, Edo Guidotti, and Jeremy Soule clearly did their research, and the expansion presents a delicious mix of authentic Chinese folk and big-ticket film/game scoring. I am ill-equipped to compare it to similar contemporary soundtracks–I don’t watch movies, and I really haven’t kept up with game soundtracks for the better part of a decade now–but as an avid World of Warcraft fan who plays with the sound on, I can safely say that the music this go around is a fundamental, essential element of the gameplay. This really hasn’t been the case since Wrath of the Lich King. Hour of Twilight (Dragon Soul) had one of the most unconvincing scores in Blizzard’s catalog, for a patch that felt rushed and entirely uninspired. It was a force-fed collection of dramatic stereotypes, and it’s hard to imagine what else it really could have been in the context of the raid. Mists of Pandaria, in contrast, is packed with lively anthems that bring the action to life on a level to par with the mechanical and visual appeal.
My favorite track so far is the music to the Shado-Pan Monastery dungeon. It’s a dungeon that, I think, would hedge on the side of tedious were it not for the score. The Master Snowdrift boss battle begins with a semi-choreographed fight against Pandarian monks who take turns jumping into a ring to engage you. I don’t know if the music is intentionally timed to cue with the fight or if it has just happened that way the two or three times I’ve played through it, but the heavy drumming that starts about 2 minutes into this clip seems to sync up with the start of combat. Playing the game in silence, you might find yourself impatiently waiting for the new challengers to engage you, yawning and tapping your foot to press through and collect 80 valor points. With the music on, it’s one of the most engaging experiences of the expansion: the sweeping anthem gives the fight a cinematic feel, and it’s easy to forget that you’re actively playing a game, not watching a movie. It was on my first play through Shado-Pan Monastery that what Russell Brower and co accomplished in this expansion really hit home. In Wrath of the Lich King, it was the slower-paced themes like Grizzly Hills and Dalaran that moved me the most, capturing the timeless, snow-covered landscapes and subduing the combat experience. In Mists of Pandaria they certainly still achieve top quality questing zone ambiance, but for the first time in a Blizzard game I am also hearing songs that suitably enhance the action.
That, at least, stands for the casual encounters. I have yet to really pay attention to the music while raiding. In a sense, the raids demand the best tunes Blizzard’s sound team have to offer, but they are also the part of gameplay in which you are most focused on what you’re doing and least inclined to sit back and take in the audiovisual experience. What I can certainly say is that for the first time in a while I feel inspired to at least make an effort to pay attention to that experience. For now, I’d like to call further attention to the more ambient, questing zone tracks. The degree to which they managed to incorporate traditional Chinese instrumentation into the score is admirable, and to the best of my knowledge none of the musicians accredited with the Mists of Pandaria soundtrack specialize in Chinese traditional music. The score is certainly of a western film style at heart, and you would never mistake their Eastern fusion for authentic Chinese folk, but such inclusions as a pipa at the outset of “The River” are delicious indulgences that enhance the gameplay experience far beyond what was necessary for the composers to earn their paychecks. Mists of Pandaria is just packed with little Easter eggs that show how much fun Blizzard must have had making this game. (I love how two early, relatively insignificant NPCs you encounter in Jade Forest are named Ren and Lina Whitepaw, as in Ren and Li–Humaneness and Ritual–two of the principles of Confucianism.) Mist of Pandaria’s music offers the same tip of the hat to those of us casually informed on Chinese tradition, and I get a constant thrill in recognizing moments that resemble my beloved eight-volume Chinese Ancient Music Series collection.
Bravo to Blizzard for doing this one right through and through. It’s no masterpiece independent of the video game for which it was composed–I wouldn’t sit around listening to it while not playing the game as I would for say, a Nobuo Uematsu score–but it is an essential component of Mists of Pandaria in a way that the music of Cataclysm never was. Mists of Pandaria is one of the most visually stunning games Blizzard has yet produced, and it’s got a soundtrack to match. I wouldn’t necessarily say I like it more than Wrath of the Lich King, but it achieves the same level of quality while set to a drastically different theme and landscape.