Five Great Games That Sound Better With Headphones

These titles will reward you with rich sonic detail

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Hellblade Screenshot, taken by Alex Rowe on Nintendo Switch.

ometimes, games sound so much better with headphones. Speakers provide bombast and room-filling audio splendor, but headphones provide close, intimate detail and accurate frequency response that help you really appreciate the finer points of sound design in today’s modern games.

Here are five recent games I prefer listening to over headphones. Did I miss a favorite of yours? Leave me a reply and perhaps I’ll highlight it in the future!

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Path of Exile Screenshot, taken by Alex Rowe on Xbox One X.

PATH OF EXILE

Path of Exile might have the best sound design of any isometric action RPG I’ve ever experienced.

I’ve been replaying the game on my Xbox One X in the wake of its sequel announcement, and after hearing the news that Torchlight Frontiers is… going in a new direction. Its lush art style and high framerate visual performance still hold up a few years after launch, but the sound design has impressed me more than the rest of the presentation.

Each area in the game has its own distinct, vibrant sonic landscape. The camera view in this style of game is limited in scope, but Path of Exile’s sound fills out the environment with rich, expansive detail. You’ll hear weather effects, animal noises, and other environmental cues that spread far into the distance.

The gameplay sounds are also great. Each spell and ability in the game has its own distinct audio design. My favorite sonic touch that’s easier to notice on headphones comes from the character movement sounds. Depending on the type of armor you equip, the sounds of your avatar moving around the environment change slightly. You’ll hear different materials in both the footstep noises and in the incidental clinking and rustling sounds made by your armor. It’s a brilliant touch.

Most of the gameplay audio is mixed front and center, though enemies do get solid positional mixing to help you locate them. The environment sounds are spread wide out to the sides, and sound even better if you turn on a virtual surround system.

The game also has environmental reverb effects for dungeons and caves, but you can turn these off in the options menu if you don’t like them.

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GreedFall Screenshot, taken by Alex Rowe on Xbox One X.

GREEDFALL

Spiders’ small-budget-big-ambition RPG is a great take on classic genre tropes, and it’s backed up with an expansive voice cast, solid combat audio, and a rich soundtrack by legendary composer Olivier Deriviere.

Both the environments and the music get a boost from headphones. Deriviere’s score uses a mix of orchestral and surreal instrumentation, covering a spectrum of style from regal to genuinely terrifying. The clanging bone-like noises that end each big combat scenario are both relieving and haunting, and you’ll hear nuances with headphones that you might miss on a big surround system.

GreedFall punches above its weight in every presentation aspect, sound design included. The combat cues are punchy and realistic, and the cast of voice actors is well-recorded and mixed properly for each environment.

The only sonic flaw in the game is that your companion characters have only one “bark” recorded for when combat begins. If you don’t switch them out every so often, you’ll get tired of hearing them shout the same thing over and over again. It’s the one sonic sign of the game’s low budget.

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Rage 2 Screenshot, taken by Alex Rowe on Xbox One S.

RAGE 2

Avalanche and iD Software’s open world first person shooter was a totally awesome game, and if I had done a “Best Games of 2019” list it would most definitely have made the cut.

A big part of that is because of its excellent sound design. Each gun hits with a forceful, distinct impact. The characters are all voice-acted with the right blend of serious gravitas and winking humor that the universe requires. The music is a delightful mash-up of rock tones inspired by Andrew WK and loud synthesized grungy noises. And the environments all realistically reflect and occlude audio, giving them an extra tinge of realism to further sell the visuals.

Rage 2’s perfect combat system is at least thirty percent audio feedback. You’ll need to quickly hear where enemies are, aim at them, and know instinctively whether you’ve hit their vulnerable spots or merely damaged their armor, and the sound plays a big part in all of that.

With headphones on, you’ll better appreciate the many distinct audio environment effects and the seamless way that the world blends its sonic landscape together.

Hilariously, Rage 2 also has the same single audio flaw that GreedFall does, in spite of undoubtedly costing millions of additional dollars to create. There aren’t enough lines for either Walker (the main character), or the default car that’s voiced by Linda Carter. So every time you roll up to a bandit camp, or the car runs out of shields, be prepared to hear the exact same line over and over again.

Outside that weird blemish, it’s nothing but sonic wonder. I just wish the game had used the fun bombastic Andrew WK song from the first trailer.

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Official Warframe Promo Screenshot, https://www.warframe.com/media#screenshots

WARFRAME

Warframe is one of the most popular free-to-play games on the planet, thanks to its fast-paced combat, vibrant graphics, and constant flow of new content to enjoy.

The combat design is perfectly complemented by highly-detailed, almost aggressive sound effects work. The focus is more on gameplay feedback audio than environment or music work, with lots of audio bandwidth dedicated to enemy noises, weapon effects, and fun little noises that help enhance the game’s constant stream of dopamine production in your brain.

I can’t help but imitate the weird sounds my ship makes when it returns to base, or the little satisfying tactile blips of the menu. Every sound was picked to enhance the player experience, from the many different gun noises, to the perfect clang when you block a bullet with a sword, to the whooshing sounds associated with the many player movement skills.

With headphones the whole thing kicks up another notch. It’s a great example of in-your-face sound design that’s still fully readable and enjoyable at all times. It never becomes a messy cacophony in spite of everything going on on-screen.

The music frequently takes a backseat, which is a little disappointing, though the voice acting is fun and helps enhance the game’s weird atmosphere.

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Hellblade Screenshot, taken by Alex Rowe on Nintendo Switch.

HELLBLADE

It’s almost cheating to put this game on a list about headphone listening, since the game was explicitly designed to be heard with headphones.

Hellblade’s sound is presented in true binaural audio. It was recorded on a special rig using a simulated head with microphones inside the ears, so that when played back over headphones you hear exactly what the “head” heard, complete with real spatial cues and full depth.

Official Ninja Theory-produced video about the binaural sound design of Hellblade

This allows the game’s sound effects, narration, and music to emanate from all around your position in a full 3D space. You might jump the first time you hear a character voice come from right next to your ear, and just like in Path of Exile, the environments have a massive sense of scope.

Some of Capcom’s most recent games also use this sound technique, including Resident Evil 2, and I hope that more games experiment with full 3D headphone audio in the future, as both Microsoft and Sony have talked up native support for object-based audio in their new machines.

Hellblade smartly uses its 3D sound design techniques to enhance player feedback, providing clever in-universe hints about puzzle solutions, combat tricks, and which way to go next. It’s a proper master class in game sound design, and it only comes fully to life on headphones. I hope that the upcoming sequel will push this even further.

Written by

I do radio voice work by day, and write by day and night. I studied film and production. I love audio, design, and music. Also video games.

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