The white hot burn of FPS stories play out like immersive, heart-palpitating action movies. There’s periods of intense shootouts broken up by human moments of emotion and anticipation of danger. Contrast that to the sometimes meandering momentum of RPG games that reward backtracking, side-quest completion, and hearing the same 3-4 catchphrases from any NPC you speak with.
The difference in pacing here can be reflected by the soundtracks they feature. While RPGs can account for that easy-easy pace, FPS music needs a bit more deliberate feeling in the music. Sounds that electrify the soul of a moment, dominating the heart to spur intensity of battle or sentiment toward the events transpiring.
Check out the list below to get our take on the FPS soundtracks that accomplish this best.
Trent Reznor of the industrial rock band Nine Inch Nails couldn’t have been a stronger pick for producing this soundtrack, which almost feels like an extended companion to their wildly successful 1994 album, The Downward Spiral.
The sound of this album is warped and unsettling, unobtrusively atmospheric without being bland or forgettable. It helps the whole experience that Reznor also assisted with the game’s sound design, so there aren’t any audio elements that feel out of sync.
9. System Shock 2
The eerie cyber-thriller System Shock 2 is the second Ken Levine production on this list, but you’d never guess it from how radically different the vibe is from Bioshock Infinite. This is largely in part from the different environments of the two games and the change up of composers, the SS2 soundtrack led by Eric Brosius. Still, the cyberpunk reality deftly immerses the player, laying the groundwork for some of the more terrifying moments of the original Bioshock.
Upon researching this game I found a vocal community advocating for the muting of the music during the game, though I can’t imagine why. The chilling story set onboard a starship rife with a deadly disease is propped up by creepy atmospheric music, and propelled to fierce adrenaline rushes during the numerous drum n bass sequences.
8. Half Life 2
I’ll admit, the Half Life 2 hype is a bit before my time, but upon reading about how memorable people felt this soundtrack was, I had to jump into it. Plus, the most recent addition to the series, Half-Life: Alyx, dropped not too long ago meaning this is a good time to give some recognition.
Drum and bass plus pumping techno with forays into eerie ambience fit the Sci-Fi shoot ’em up Half Life 2 fantastically. However, the developers made a bold decision to conserve their usage of the music, so much of the game is spent listening only to the sounds of your movement and the world around you.
What this amounts to is a massive amplification of emotion when the soundtrack kicks in. Spicy hot desperation when protagonist Gordon Freeman is backed into a corner fighting seemingly endless waves of Combine to the powertrack “You’re Not Supposed to Be Here.” Core-shaking fear when creeping around the headcrab-zombie pit Ravenholm, or the sentimental sadness of heavy loss within “Triage at Dawn.”
Worth the hype, composer Kelly Bailey crushed it on this one.
7. Left 4 Dead 2
Forget all that spooky hair-raising music, the best tunes for sending the undead back to hell is country-fried rock n roll, baby. Dive-bar drums, Bourbon Street trumpets, slide gee-tars, banjos in the distance. Plus, Left 4 Dead 2 excitingly enlists the help of fictional road-warrior band, “The Midnight Riders,” singing timeless anthems of shootin’ whiskey, chasin’ women, and leaving the devil in the dust.
To expand on the band’s mythology, the finale of “Dark Carnival” even features an all-hell shootout at the pyrotechnic concert venue where your party is standing in for the cancelled Midnight Rider’s performance.
While I obviously have an overriding love of the rockabilly influence on these tracks, I will also admit I have a great appreciation for the dixieland tweaks composer Mike Morasky made on the original L4D themes. Overall, I give this one a resounding “HELL YEA BROTHER.”
6. Metroid Prime
Tough call here, Metroid Prime being one of those games that doesn’t fit so easily in a genre box. Sure, there is a consistent FPS view throughout, but the exploration elements really fit more into a non-linear action-adventure game. Whatever, we can take this to the forums after the list if you really have an issue.
Metroid Prime was one of those A-tier games released on the Gamecube, a status achieved in large part because of the lively soundtrack that, perhaps more than any other soundtrack on this list, brought life and musical ecology to the various zones you explore on Tallon IV.
Phendrana’s glacial beauty crystallized within sparkling pianos, anxiety reached fever pitch due to the warped Phazon Mines theme, and the oppressive heat of the Magmoor Caverns only grew with the induction of thumping drums and a dramatic choir arrangement. Plus, the boss battle themes here thrash, some memorable hits including the plated beetle fight, the rave-core Metroid Prime fight, and my favorite, the Metroid-series obligatory Meta Ridley fight.
5. Medal of Honor: Allied Assault
Before composing music for The Incredibles, Mission Impossible III, Cloverfield, and many more iconic soundtracks, Michael Giacchino was already winning numerous awards for his robust scoring of the Medal of Honor series.
Allied Assault gets the medal for my favorite of his work in the series, incorporating a full orchestra to amplify the brave exploits of Lt. Powell during his service throughout World War II.
What is most remarkable is how much flavor variety there is in this soundtrack. Going from the Star Wars “Imperial March” -inspired “Rangers Lead the Way” to the Arabian Nights feel of “North Africa” is a sensational headrush, and mood exploration only increases from there. Tensions plumb to downright sinister depths in “Sniper Town,” only to be pulled back out of the mire by the time “Tiger Tank” rolls in.
The 2nd most prolific composer on this list can count MoH:AA among his greatest works, which is no small compliment for a man who has over 50 soundtracks within his repertoire.
4. Bioshock Infinite
The original Bioshock may have had the upper hand on a wealth of licensed music playing throughout Rapture, but composer Gary Schyman really blew my mind on his work on Bioshock Infinite.
This soundtrack redefines imaginative gaming instrumentation. Each battle sequence is closed with a rising violin screech and headshots are signaled with a lone piano key plink. Schyman also enlisted the help of Bioshock creator Ken Levine to bang on old drums for “the Battle of Columbia,” as well as Elizabeth voice actor Courtnee Draper to provide vocals for the secret guitar cover of “Will the Circle be Unbroken.” Spoons and out-of-tune pianos were also incorporated into this intimate musical experience.
As for the choral version of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” on no other FPS soundtrack will you find an acapella hymnal whose message is so intertwined with the theme of a game’s plot. While other soundtracks on this list may have a bigger sound, Bioshock Infinite gets points for primal battle sequences, fun musical diversity, and a creative list of covers including a barbershop quartet version of “God Only Knows” by The Beach Boys, (If you dug that, check out this ambitious cover here).
3. DOOM (2016)
The DOOM soundtrack is glorious sonic violence. Hard to resist punch-dancing and head-banging while roaring to composer Mick Gordon’s masterpiece of spine-crushing drum n’ bass, gore-washed heavy metal and roaring dubstep.
DOOM is a game about stomping hellfiends of every caliber, with a pace that doesn’t stray too far from ‘roid raging coke fiend. While the allure of 13+ hours of gunfire and brutal melee executions may get stale for some, the soundtrack constantly switches up the flavor of combat in an irresistible way.
On top of that, Gordon deserves further recognition for his imaginative inclusion of satanic symbolism in the soundtrack, fusion of a chainsaw rev as an instrument, and the hidden “Jesus is Love” message in one of the tracks. Really enjoyed learning about his process here, which only deepens my appreciation for this diesel-powered thrillride.
2. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2
You would have to be living under some sort of noise-cancelling rock to have never heard of Hans Zimmer, the composer responsible for the legendary soundtracks of The Lion King, the Pirates of the Carribean series, the Dark Knight trilogy, Inception….. I mean the man just doesn’t stop. You know you’re a commercially successful game developer when you can hire an individual with 4 Grammys under his belt to sonically illustrate your work.
I can’t overstate how hard this THREE HOUR soundtrack goes. I mean, not DOOM hard but Jesus what maniac mortal could conceivably withstand that amount of audio assault? Anyway, Hans Zimmer delivers by far the longest soundtrack on this list, composed of hit after hit, not a single dud included.
Sidebar: It’s soundtracks like this that make writing about video games so enthralling. Here is a game I’ve never even played, but because of vocal internet strangers I can discover an absolutely phenomenal piece of work. Go check out this one if you enjoy listening to gaming soundtracks, like, immediately.
1. Halo Reach
If I wasn’t restricting each series to only having one addition to this list, multiple spots would be occupied by the iconic work of Martin O’Donnell and Michael Salvatori throughout the Halo series. Choosing the best Halo soundtrack is a contentious endeavor, because each game has an individually stirring sentimental value and preferred atmospheric sound to players.
For me, Halo 2 and Halo 3 are personally near and dear to my heart, as they were the first soundtracks I ever purchased. Both could occupy a top 5 spot on this list. Halo 2 gets extra points for unique, bombastic collaborations with Breaking Benjamin and Incubus, Halo 3 for polishing many of the themes introduced earlier and elevating them to epic echelons.
Ultimately, Halo Reach tops the list for me, though I put Halo 3: ODST just behind it. I could go off on ODST, all I’ll say is that it is a dazzling gem I’ve listened to countless times. Halo Reach though, narrates the ferociously tragic storyline with emotional waves of warm brass, kickass kick drum guitar distortion, heart-rending string arrangements, spectral vocals and perfectly timed piano solos.
There are many callbacks to previous Halo tunes without relying on the ubiquitous Halo theme overture. Special shoutout to the Reach track “From the Vault,” treating fans to a medley of pieces gathered from different games in the series. “Tip of the Spear” “Long Night of Solace” include dramatic high and low points, respectively, but the rest of the soundtrack is unceasingly cinematic. For me, Halo Reach is definitively up there as one of the greatest video game soundtracks of all time.
Below all of this, I should add the disclaimer that I understand the inherent reaction-engineering of a top ten list. This is particularly the case when categorizing art that, based on my own feelings and the sentiments of thousands of YouTube comments, is deeply sewn into the hearts of listeners.
I’m not a composer or an audio engineer, so I can speak little on the structural strengths of these soundtracks. It all comes down to how the music makes me feel, though I do take time to become familiarized with the games I’ve never played. I watch reviews and gameplay videos, even reading wikis to get halfway informed about the game.. From here, I like to think I have a general picture of the game’s atmosphere, enough that I can judge how much the soundtrack jibes with it.
Ultimately though, how do you quantify feeling? I’ll leave that question to the psychologists, but on my end, just know that I think all of the above soundtracks are all bangers.