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Jesper Kyd, the composer responsible for the music in the first four Assassin's Creed games, will be handing the musical baton to Lorne Balfe, who along with Kyd contributed to the soundtrack to last year's Assassin's Creed: Revelations. As any longtime Assassin's Creed player likely agrees, this is a substantial change.
Assassin's Creed's stark, dry visual design and techno-retro aesthetic have always been two of its most defining characteristics, but Kyd's music has always been the soul of the series for me. Let's take a trip through the musical progression of the first four Assassin's Creed games.
Kyd's soundtrack for the first Assassin's Creed is probably the least well-remembered—it was somewhat cold, a mix of middle eastern instruments, chanting, open drones and strings. I was one of those weirdos who loved Assassin's Creed despite and sometimes because of its flaws, but I don't have much memory of the soundtrack. I do, however, remember that it fit in very well with the open, wind-swept sound design. There was a distinct sense that this composer got what Assassin's Creed was about, from a gameplay standpoint. It was a game about sitting perched atop a high spire, surveying the horizon before making a leap of faith. Kyd captured that.
Assassin's Creed II was better than its predecessor on every level (except, perhaps, for how much easier it was)—Ezio was a personable and relatable protagonist, the cities were gorgeous, and the game had much more variety. But the thing that really won my heart was the soundtrack. Two games later, Assassin's Creed II remains my favorite soundtrack of the series.
This theme, which plays while running across the rooftops of Venice, flows through many of Kyd's compositions for Assassin's Creed II. That ascending four note melody, those driving drums and guitars… it's great stuff.
This kind of track is exactly what set the second game's soundtrack apart from the first one. A shifting, serpentine groove reminiscent of Steve Reich, eventually giving way to wide open pads with sharp, dancing harp notes… all the way to a deep, romantic string part. When this started paying for the first time in Assassin's Creed II, I thought, "Wow, shit. They are really going for it here." It almost sounds like Mass Effect, and perfectly blends the game's old-world and sci-fi sensibilities.
Brotherhood was an interesting soundtrack. I didn't warm to it as immediately as I did Assassin's Creed II, but over time, I came to enjoy its dark overtones. It features more grandiose choral work than Assassin's Creed II, and is on the whole much darker—strange voices chant in the background, and Ezio's journey through Rome feels much less certain than anything in the last game.
This music plays when Ezio is infiltrating a Borgia tower, looking to stir up some trouble (and light things on fire). This is some sinister stuff, dark and pulsing, very different than anything from the other games. I still remember when "Countdown" was playing and the whispering, scary music started up and I thought "Man, what the hell is going on?"
Here we have the main theme for Revelations. The soundtrack was a joint effort between Kyd and Balfe, though Kyd wasn't involved with this particular theme. I have to say, I don't find it as interesting or memorable as the music from the first three games. It's not bad really, and it still feels like "Assassin's Creed Music," but it lacks that vision that Kyd brought to the first three soundtracks. The Revelations soundtrack is the main reason I'm somewhat apprehensive about Balfe taking the reins for Assassin's Creed III.
Assassin's Creed isn't the only franchise Kyd has left behind—he's also left the Hitman series, for which he was the primary composer for years. It's always nice to see artists embracing change—Kyd's music will be heard on plenty of upcoming games, including Borderlands 2 and Darksiders II, a soundtrack I've enjoyed so far.
For his part, Balfe has been a team member for go-to-soundtracker Hans Zimmer on films like Inception and Sherlock Holmes, as well as Zimmer-scored games like Modern Warfare 2 and Crysis 2. This is an opportunity for him to step away from Zimmer and create his own themes, so I'll be interested to see what he does with Assassin's Creed.
It is, of course, too early to say what that will be; all that seem certain is that it'll likely be markedly different than Kyd's work on the first games. That's fine; good even—with a different setting, vibe and protagonist, different music seems appropriate. Furthermore, Balfe is a skilled composer with a lot of experience, and he's worked on some soundtracks I really respect.
But there's no denying that with Jesper Kyd gone, Assassin's Creed will now be a substantially different experience. Here's hoping that Balfe can step into Kyd's rather large shoes and usher in a new era of sneaking, stabbing and soaring.