A finely curated soundtrack or playlist is a wonderful thing. If even one song is out of place, it threatens to throw the whole thing out of balance. For example, I was once at a wedding where Mr Brightside by The Killers was immediately followed by the Fast Food Rockers Fast Food Song, and I’ve never seen a dancefloor empty quicker.
Video games that rely on licensed music for their soundtracks face a similar problem. Nobody wants to be playing through a set on Guitar Hero 3 and suddenly have to do a Coldplay song. That’s tantamount to torture. It’s all about working out the vibe of a game, and hand picking the best songs to suit that vibe.
This article, if you hadn’t worked out already, is all about the video games that I feel succeed in that area. The following five games have excellently curated soundtracks, and you should stuff them all in your ear-holes at the earliest possible convenience.
Fallout 3 is a remarkable game for a number of reasons, and a big part of the success of Bethesda’s atmospheric post apocalyptic adventure comes down to the haunting, epic score of orchestrated tracks composed by Inon Zur.
While I would have been happy to potter around the wasteland listening to Zur’s work, Bethesda also treated us to an inspired selection of liscened music from the 40’s and 50’s, which perfectly encapsulates Fallout 3’s moody, post wartime aesthetic.
Walking out through the rubble of a city and stepping over long-dead bodies while I Don’t Want To Set The World On Fire by The Ink Spots echoes from your radio and floats across the ruins is just… well, it’s glorious, there’s no other word for it. There’s also a lot to be said for getting into gory gunfights while Bob Crosby’s Happy Times plays merrily on.
Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 4
Oh God, it took me the longest time to work out which game in the Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater series had the best soundtrack. Growing up in the late 90’s/early 00’s, these games were such a massive source of new music for me.
I’m grateful that I grew up with a dad who raised me on classic UK music like The Kinks, The Beatles, and The Jam, and younger sisters who were obsessed with the likes of classic pop bands like Spice Girls and S Club 7, but when the Tony Hawk’s games exposed me to a giddy mix of US punk, vintage hip hop, and heavy metal, my mind exploded and never quite recovered.
In the end, I have to give this spot to Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 4, if only because that’s the game I spent the most time on, and it kicked off my love affair with System of a Down. I’m fully aware there are people who’ll disagree with me on this one, and that’s fine. There’s an argument to be made for every single Tony Hawk’s soundtrack, and that’s a big part of what made the franchise so special.
Personally, I’ll never forget skating around a digital San Francisco while I listened to a heady mix of Iron Maiden, AC/DC, Run DMC, N.W.A, and Goldfinger, convinced I was the coolest, most punk rock kid in the Midlands. There was one point during my time with the game where I turned every other track off and had Number of the Beast on repeat, much to the chagrin of my folks.
Watch Dogs 2
Speaking of San Francisco, I don’t think nearly enough is said about just how good Ubisoft’s digital recreation of The City By The Bay in Watch Dogs 2 is. I was actually lucky enough to go out there for a preview event for the game a few years ago, and spoke to Audio Director Olivier Gerard about how they put together a soundtrack that would capture the essence of the city.
He told me:
I always try to showcase the scene, so when it comes to music selection, I try to skew what we choose to be a bit more representative of where we’re actually at in any given moment in the game. It was an interesting process. The first time we did it was in Watch Dogs 1, and with the second one we wanted to be sure that we could top our playlist and make it even better – and to do that we figured maybe we need some help.
Ubisoft worked with indie record labels both in the UK (such as Warp Records) and San Fran itself, partnering up with the likes of Fat Wreck Chords to get an authentically curated Californian sound for the game. The result was a soundtrack that included a mix of up-and-coming hip hop artists, classic punk tracks, and electronica.
The result is a beautifully diverse and wonderfully authentic mix of music that covers everything from Run The Jewels and Outkast, to Azelia Banks and Aphex Twin, to NOFX and Dead Kennedys. Gorgeous stuff.
Need For Speed Underground 2
Need For Speed Underground 2 is on this list for one reason, and I’d imagine you already know exactly what that reason is. I already know you can hear the song starting to drift into your head as you read these words. I’m talking about Nobody, by Skindred, naturally.
I am of course kidding. I’m obviously referring to Snoop Dogg’s masterful version of The Door’s Riders on the Storm, which was originally made exclusively for EA’s seminal racing game. Who’d have guessed one of the greatest cover versions of all time would have started life on a PlayStation 2 title? Not me, that’s for sure.
For so many of us, Need For Speed Underground 2 is synonymous with this one track. While the Snoop version isn’t on Spotify unfortunately, I often revisit the song on YouTube and find my thoughts immediately turn to neon underglow, and racing through rain slicked dark city streets in my NISSAN 350Z.
That’s not to say there aren’t other great songs to be had on Need For Speed Underground 2 – there’s a great mix of music, including Queens of the Stone Age, Rise Against, and Killing Joke. Nothing comes close to the masterful blend of hip hop beats and Jim Morrison’s inimitable tones, though.
GTA Vice City
What the hell else was I going to put at number one? Grand Theft Auto Vice City doesn’t just have the best licensed soundtrack in any GTA game, it has the best licensed soundtrack in any game ever. This is where an entire generation of 90’s and 00’s kids learned just how full of absolute, stone cold bangers the 80’s was.
To be clear, I’m not suggesting that Vice City gets top spot because 80’s music is better than any of the other genres or decades covered by the other games in this list (it isn’t), but because Rockstar’s PS2 classic so perfectly captures the essence of the decade.
You don’t get just one “best of 80’s” soundtrack either, but a wide variety of stations that cover a number of genres, each summing up some of the finest music the decade had to offer. The result is a delicious buffet of tracks that covers everything from vintage metal like Iron Maiden, Megadeath, and Slayer, to the very best pop and power ballads of the period, such as Squeeze, Hall & Oates, Toto, and Kate Bush.
There’s an entire generation of 00’s kids who now adore Go West’s Call Me, and that simply wouldn’t have happened without GTA: Vice City. I think that’s kind of magical.
Ewan Moore is a journalist at UNILAD Gaming who still quite hasn’t gotten out of his mid 00’s emo phase. After graduating from the University of Portsmouth in 2015 with a BA in Journalism & Media Studies (thanks for asking), he went on to do some freelance words for various places, including Kotaku, Den of Geek, and TheSixthAxis, before landing a full time gig at UNILAD in 2016.