Take a walk through our Hey! Listen columns, and you’ll find that the world of video game music is weird, wonderful, and remarkably varied. From Gran Turismo‘s Japanese jazz fusion roots to the wild connection between Queen and the Ogre Battle series, so many of our favourite original soundtracks have thoroughly fascinating backstories that are worth celebrating.
However, this article serves as a homage to the simpler things in life: licensed music. Whether it’s used to inject some well-placed laughs or even foreshadow a game’s plot, plucking an existing song from the ether can work wonders. In this article, we’ve avoided games that are largely soundtracked by their licensed music and instead opted to highlight specific moments that were brought to life by a banger – sorry FIFA and Pro Skater fans.
With all that out the way, get comfy and stick on your best set of headphones – here’s our favourite licensed music magic from over the years.
Saints Row 4 – ‘I Don’t Want To Miss A Thing’, Aerosmith
At first, Saints Row 4 mission Zero Saints Thirty plays like a (fairly) straight-faced Call of Duty parody. There are terrorists to pick off, a big baddie to quick-time scrap with, and a world to save. Skip forward a few minutes, however, and you’re clambering up a launched nuclear missile to hand-defuse it, soundtracked by touching messages from your teammates who think you’re making the ultimate sacrifice and…Aerosmith‘s ‘I Don’t Want To Miss A Thing’.
Oh, we should have mentioned – it’s also the game’s first mission. ‘I Don’t Want To Miss A Thing’ hammers home the opening sequences’ ludicrously silly stakes, and sets the tone for the truly wild sandbox that’s yet to come.
Also: the Saints’ wonderful car karaoke of Sublime’s ‘What I Got’.
Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy – ‘The Final Countdown’, Europe
Because of the important role that ’80s rock plays in Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy, it gets away with one of the biggest clichés in media: using ‘The Final Countdown’ to soundtrack a big, bad showdown. In this case (spoilers ahead), Star-Lord and the gang face off against Magus, Adam Warlock’s sentient evil side, in a bid to stop the villain from devouring the universe.
It’s a deliberately tongue-in-cheek music choice, yet one perfectly suits a bunch of misfits telling a god to shut up to its face. As ‘The Final Countdown”s iconic riff plays, our favourite Guardians ping the all-powerful Soul Stone around like a baseball before Star-Lord uses it to save the world (again). It’s cheesy, cinematic, and a little bit silly – everything you would want from a Guardians Of The Galaxy game, basically.
Also: Star-Lord blasting ‘Holding Out For The Hero’ as the team blasts through overwhelming odds.
Call of Duty: Black Ops – ‘Sympathy for the Devil’, The Rolling Stones
“I rode a tank / Held a general’s rank,” boasts Mick Jagger on all-time great ‘Sympathy for the Devil’, a catchy accounting of the devil’s dirtiest deeds through the ages. In Call of Duty: Black Ops, poor Satan is demoted to a boat and shadowy role in the CIA, but it’s no matter: the mission this Stones classic plays over – Crash Site – is a blast.
As Jagger’s darkly charming lyrics blare over the radio, you and your oo-rah bunch of soldiers bring an aquatic apocalypse to Laos in search of a crashed Soviet cargo plane. The plane was hauling a deadly nerve agent when it went down, so it’s your job to hop on a gunboat and cut through Viet Cong and Spetsnaz forces before it can be whisked away. Crash Site’s river section could have been a dull on-rails shooter, but ‘Sympathy For The Devil’ elevated it to a viciously fun and memorable rampage.
Also: ’60s staple ‘Fortunate Son’ blaring as Black Ops knocks out every Vietnam War cliche going – “This is ‘nam, baby” included.
Fallout 3 – ‘I Don’t Want To Set The World On Fire’, The Ink Spots
When Bethesda‘s post-apocalyptic RPG Fallout 3 debuted in 2008, fans were treated to a haunting reveal of Washington DC’s radioactive ruins. The opening cinematic wasn’t without a splash of irony, either: as a slow pan revealed a world reborn in nuclear fire, it was soundtracked by The Ink Spots’ ‘I Don’t Want To Set The World On Fire’.
Today, the track has become synonymous with the Fallout series. Not only did it help introduce Fallout to a whole new audience, it was also a mainstay play in the game’s Galaxy News Radio along with a host of catchy tracks from the ’30s and ’40s. Fallout wouldn’t be the same without its radio stations and old-timey music – and while ‘I Don’t Want To Set The World On Fire’ went on to appear in Fallout 4 and 76 respectively, this is where it all started.
Also: Fallout: New Vegas turning Marty Robbins’ ‘Big Iron’ into a fan-favourite gunslinging epic.
Far Cry 3 – ‘Make It Bun Dem’, Skrillex & Damian Marley
In Far Cry 3‘s Kicking The Hornet’s Nest, players are tasked with taking a flamethrower to the Rook Islands’ largest cannabis field. Suitably, your fiery reckoning with the devil’s lettuce is soundtracked by Skrillex and Damian Marley‘s ‘Make It Bun Dem’ – a choice that’s a little on the nose, sure, but undeniably effective.
It doesn’t take much to make wielding a flamethrower feel fun, but the punchy dubstep track turns Far Cry 3‘s fiery thrills up to 11 in a way that, cheesy lyrics aside (“end your week just like a Sunday” – really?), means we’re still thinking about Ubisoft‘s over-the-top blaze to this day.
Also: a very similar scene plays out in Far Cry 6, with Dani going to town on a plantation while ‘Bella Ciao’ blares.
Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain – ‘The Man Who Sold The World’, Midge Ure
Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain opens with Big Boss bed-bound in a sterile hospital, heavily wounded after finding himself on the wrong end of a bomb. Enjoy the moment: it’s one of the few lie-downs that Kiefer Sutherland’s beleaguered soldier gets, and it’s soundtracked a cracking cover of Bowie‘s ‘The Man Who Sold The World’ by Midge Ure.
The Phantom Pain couldn’t have picked a better song to open with – as it trickles out of an old cassette player, Big Boss finds himself in a similar position to the star of Bowie’s song, awakening after many years of being near-dead. For those who have finished the game, a careful listen to ‘The Man Who Sold The World’ will reveal that the game’s opening track choice hides a ridiculous amount of meaning – from the lyrics, right down to it being a cover of the original – and there are few (if any) games that have used licensed music as such an effective foreshadowing device in the way that MGS 5 pulled off.
Also: sticking ‘Kids In America’ in your Walkman and tearing through a Soviet military camp – bonus points if you play it through your attack helicopter’s speakers.
Borderlands – ‘Aint No Rest For The Wicked’, Cage The Elephant
A dilapidated billboard. Roaring roadkill. Cage The Elephant. When Borderlands debuted in 2009, it told us everything we needed to know about the alien planet Pandora in a few short scenes – namely that life is hard, violence is plentiful, and your party of protagonists are in it for the money.
When your protagonists aren’t much for talking in their introduction, ‘Ain’t No Rest For The Wicked’ fills in the blanks. These are money-grubbing mercenaries who have no qualms working within a moral grey zone, and in Pandora’s miserable wasteland, can you really fault them? Though journey to find the planet’s mythical Vault will take you many miles from this scene’s dusty road, yet never far from Cage The Elephant’s aptly anti-capitalist message: there ain’t nothing in this world for free.
Also: Borderlands 2 stacking up even more roadkill to The Heavy’s ‘Short Change Hero’.
Grand Theft Auto 5 – ‘If You Leave Me Now’, Chicago
Though Grand Theft Auto 5 protagonist Trevor’s mood swings between anger and ecstasy like a pendulum, you rarely see the hillbilly career criminal cry. That is until he parts with his love interest Patricia Madrazo, and sobs his heart out to Chicago’s ‘If You Leave Me Now’.
Of course, it’s hard to pick a favorite from Grand Theft Auto. Over the years, Rockstar has created a formidable set of radio stations that manage to go beyond sounding like simple playlists. Part of that is down to some phenomenally talented curators pulling in everything from FIDLAR to Eazy-E, but heaps of credit goes to the station’s satirical adverts and celebrity hosts (Kenny Loggins! Danny Brown! Iggy Pop!) for working their sonic magic and creating the lifelike, banging airwaves we’re still hopelessly in love with.
Also: The likes of Michael Jackson and Kate Bush meant Vice City’s stations boasted hit after hit.
Are we missing your favourite soundtrack? Share it with us at NME Gaming.