Xbox 360 FPS Triple Review: Part 2 – Sound

Triple Multiplayer Review – Part 2

See part 1 here.

Halo: Reach, Call of Duty: Black Ops, Battlefield: Bad Company 2


The sound experience of multiplayer games changes a lot depending on what you use. Headphones, stereo or built in TV-speakers, and surround sound setups all provide sound differently, and the quality of the speakers in any setup also has an effect. I used to stick to the built in speakers on my TV but a few years ago my parents got me a set of Pioneer 5.1 surround sound speakers for christmas (thanks guys!) and now it feels strange playing games without surround sound. I find that Halo: Reach, Call of Duty: Black Ops, and Battlefield: Bad Company 2 all benefit greatly from surround sound.  I’m sure a good pair of headphones would do the trick too if you prefer the can’t-hear-the-phone-ring experience. Long story short, readers beware, I write only from the perspective of surround sound.

Halo: Reach has a set of sounds that both sound good, and provide a lot of information about what is going on around you in combat. Every weapon, vehicle, and armor ability (abilities chosen by the player like sprint, jet pack, etc.) has a unique sound. With a little practice you can tell what vehicle is coming around the next bend or what weapons your teammates are using even before you can see anything. When an explosion goes off close to the player all sounds are dulled for a short period as if the character is temporarily deafened, which is a nice touch for the sake of player immersion. The soundscape also does a good job of providing information about distance. Gunfire and vehicle engines change volume and pitch as their source changes proximity to the player. To make things sound futuristic human engine and gun noises are similar to what we hear in present day war movies and games, but often sound just a bit off, like it’s not quite the same technology. Not surprisingly, alien vehicles and guns have completely different sets of sounds, but none feel out of place. Like in most FPS games, player footsteps are audible, but considering the heavily armored characters their volume is quite low. It’s nice not having to hear your own character thump around the battlefield like an elephant, but with enemies similarly quiet it is uncommon to pinpoint enemy positions just by listening for their footsteps. The only true failing I find in the Halo: Reach soundscape is quite small. When firing a gun in a large level the player can hear the echo of the shot in the distance, and when the player is in a small area like a cave, this echo can’t be heard. This is quite a nice touch! Sadly, this change in sound doesn’t apply in every situation that it should. Sometimes in small structures the echo is still heard. I assume that the reason for this inconsistency is that many of the structures in the game are removable in the the games level editor, Forge, and therefore only the permanent enclosed areas support the sound modification. Perhaps future games will be able to dynamically detect player location and modify the sound effects on the go.

Call of Duty: Black Ops has the least interesting soundscape of the three. It’s well done, but very generic. It does a good job with directional sound, and seems to change the volume of noises depending on if there is an obstruction between the player and the source. The guns sound like guns, plain and simple, and with so many similar guns in the game it would be hard to tell them apart by the sound.  You can tell the difference between a sniper rifle shot ringing out, the blast of a shotgun, and the rat-tat-tat of an automatic weapon, and luckily that’s all you really need to know to decide how to approach a situation. Unlike Halo the player’s characters shout things out on the radio during combat, but call outs are mostly shouts of “grenade out” or “kill confirmed”. There is also always a voice on the radio with updates on the bonuses you earn through killing without dying. These voices fit in with the game, but I can’t say that I would miss them if they were all gone. The sound of footsteps and character movement is more audible and therefore more important than it is in Halo, and the volume levels are very well balanced so that the faster an enemy is moving the more likely you are to know exactly where they are. As you sneak, run, or sprint around the battlefield you can hear your own footsteps to get an idea of how much more noise you are making, and is a good reminder to not sprint around all the time. I have noticed an oddity in the sprinting sound effect however; often when I am sprinting my own footsteps go mute for short periods of time. I don’t know the reason for this but I will say that when you get used to hearing your own footsteps and they go silent when they shouldn’t it is a bit distracting.

When I started this “triple review” as I’m calling it, I said I wouldn’t bash on any of the games, I would just compare them. As far as sound is concerned, Battlefield: Bad Company 2 makes following that rule difficult. Bad Company 2’s soundscape is so immersive it makes me hope developers of future Halo and Call of Duty games are taking notes. To be fair however, the teamwork oriented gameplay design in Battlefield is the reason that they can make the soundscape so effective. Battlefield games are class based, allowing players to choose from assault, engineer, medic, and recon. I will discuss these classes in more detail in the gameplay section, but for now I can give the example that when playing the assault class, the player can drop ammo boxes, and as the medic, he can drop med packs. Each of these actions triggers a vocal callout to teammates so they know they can grab ammo or heal up. On top of this, the game uses an enemy spotting mechanic which allows players to highlight enemies for their entire team to see. This triggers specific callouts depending on what type of soldier or vehicle was spotted. Combine these vocalizations with well done firefight sound effects, vehicles roaring around blowing up buildings, explosions causing the player to go temporarily deaf, and echo effects applied to gunfire and footsteps when inside buildings and it is just as good as watching a blockbuster war movie. I should note that Bad Company 2 has various audio settings that may effect the experience of the soundscape. When I started playing, the setting was on “HiFi”, and I noticed right away how good all the sound cues were, so I wouldn’t say that changing the setting is the only reason I find the soundscape so impressive. At my friend’s suggestion I changed the “HiFi” setting to “War Tapes” recently and I don’t plan on switching it back. The “War Tapes” setting seems to add more echo, and increases the volume on things such as ambient noises, vehicles, and footsteps. It may make the verbal callouts of characters harder to hear, but it really gives a war documentary feel to the game. It’s also fun when the louder bass makes my floor shake. (You can find comparisons between the audio settings on youtube if you’re interested.)

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