Issue: Volume: 25 Issue: 10 (October 2002)

Grim Reality

Little has changed in the lives of the enslaved humans depicted in the 1999 blockbuster PC game Unreal Tournament. In Epic Games/Digital Extremes' newly released Unreal Tournament 2003, players are once again fighting for their lives in the futuristic gladiator-style tournaments—a punishment inflicted on those who do not yield to the commands of their powerful alien ruler. Aside from this familiar story line, though, players will find little resemblance between the two titles. In Unreal Tournament 2003, they are introduced to extremely detailed environments and characters, as well as a plethora of compelling visual effects, including advanced AI and physics technology powered by a completely rebuilt Epic game engine.

Matching—or even exceeding—the level of success attained by the original title was a hard-fought battle. Unreal Tournament almost immediately received industry accolades for its fast-paced style, quality graphics, multiplayer action, and supercharged Epic game engine, all of which helped elevate the game to a team sport among rabid fans and professional gaming leagues. "We wanted to raise the bar on every single level we could in UT 2003," says James Schmalz, creative director at Digital Extremes in London, Ontario. "So we focused on technology and game play improvements for both the single-player and multiplayer modes, to make an entirely different experience."

However, for players to experience the maximum effect of the sophisticated graphics in Unreal Tournament 2003, Digital Extremes recommends they use at least a Pentium 4 PC with an Nvidia GeForce 4 Ti 4200 graphics card.

Using 3ds max and LightWave, artists created a range of robust game environments. Many of the textures were also generated as modeled geometry that was rendered directly in the 3D software.

The game action in Unreal Tournament 2003 occurs within 30 exotic indoor and outdoor environments, including Lava, Ice, and Jungle World, each with its own unique objects and high-resolution texture sets. The environments—which range from lush tropical regions to harsh war-torn areas—were created with Discreet's 3ds max and NewTek's LightWave, and textured by hand or through photographic sources using Adobe Systems' Photoshop, Procreate's Painter and Painter 3D, and Jasc Software's Paint Shop Pro.

Other textures were rendered in 3ds max and LightWave through a relatively new technique. Instead of using photographic textures and rendering them in a 2D package such as Photoshop, the artists created the textures by modeling the geometry and then rendering the textures directly in the 3D software. "This process was more involved, but we were able to produce crisp textures that are realistic," contends Pancho Eekels, lead designer. "The results were much sharper than photosourced textures, despite using a $15,000 camera."

By using Shaders, a new texturing process developed at Epic Games, the artists were able to combine multiple textures and alpha-blend them together to generate rich, robust imagery. The technique also allowed them to set a panning opacity map and apply a specular map to the materials for even greater realism.

The team also generated dynamic volumetrically lit particles, including scorching flames and billowing smoke. "Most of the effects now are done with a particle system that can interact with players and weapon projectiles." Similar dynamics have been extended to the procedural, high-density mesh-generated water. As a result, the water reacts in real time to objects, such as when a bullet grazes its surface or a person walks through it.

To streamline development, the team constructed the game levels from "prefab" models contained in an objects library, which were imported through Epic's proprietary UnrealEd tool set. "The main advantage was that we didn't have to re-create complex geometry; we could simply grab an object that was already created, import it through UnrealEd, and then alter it as necessary by rescaling, stretching, or rotating it," Eekels notes.

While prefabs made it easier and faster to complete the game levels, this process also increased the possibility of "cluttering" the levels with 3D objects. To ensure that the elements didn't impede player movement through the levels, the team conducted numerous test runs, then moved or eliminated problem barriers. Any necessary changes to the art assets were synchronized with Perforce Software's Software Configuration Management (SCM) system. "We generated a large amount of content for the game," notes Eekels. "When we had to make changes, we updated Perforce's SCM with the new assets, which in turn imported the updated objects to UnrealEd. The software then automatically synchronized those changes across the entire production pipeline, saving us additional development time."

The Unreal Tournament 2003 characters are more lifelike than their predecessors. The detailed models contain advanced artificial intelligence, enabling them to issue and follow orders in a logical manner. The characters even move and fall more naturally,

In addition to the detailed environments and particle effects, the artists generated 50 highly individualized characters with unique physical characteristics. Constructed mainly in 3ds max, as well as in LightWave, the characters contain approximately 3000 polygons, making them more lifelike than their 700-polygon predecessors in the original title.

With enhanced artificial intelligence, the characters are also "smarter" than before. During team play, rather than blindly attacking opponents, the characters will wait for allies so they can attack in groups, following orders that are dictated on the fly by human participants who are connected through a LAN or Internet connection. This same AI extends to computer-controlled "bots" for an enhanced single-player mode. Furthermore, the intelligence, accuracy, and agility of the bots improve as the player progresses from level to level, thereby increasing the difficulty of play.

Perhaps the most impressive feature in the game is the incorporation of technology that simulates true-to-life character movement, which is accomplished through MathEngine's Karma rigid-body physics technology built directly into the Unreal game engine. With this feature, when a character is hit, it dynamically buckles and spins before falling to the ground. During the fall, the game engine's physics technology assumes control of the skeletal-driven animation by processing the information affecting the character's current state. If the character's body comes into contact with an object during a fall from a ledge, for instance, it realistically bounces off the object based on the skeletal setup information, rather than following a preset movement. As a result, each animation is unique.

"The first-person shooter crowd has been waiting for this feature for years," notes Eekels. This is an especially desired feature in Unreal Tournament 2003, he adds, where rebels are constantly snatched from the brink of death and regenerated through advanced "resurrection" technology created by the aliens. Karma is also used to generate realistic environmental interactions. For instance, if a player shoots a hanging light bulb, it will swing realistically, and the glow beneath it will move accordingly, explains Eekels.

Many of these new features that have been added to Unreal Tournament 2003 will be further defined and incorporated into Unreal II, which is expected to be released in a few months by Legend Entertainment and Epic. The Unreal II game, part of the Unreal game family, will also contain a sophisticated facial animation system, complete with AniMeter, an automatic facial animation system from LipSinc. In addition, Unreal II will contain bumpmapping and dynamic shadowing effects, and accurate specular reflections.

In an unusual marketing strategy, each Unreal Tournament 2003 box will contain a copy of Alias|Wavefront's Maya Personal Learning Edition and a special plug-in developed by Epic and Secret Level (San Francisco) that will allow players and developers to build and export game objects and characters to the Epic game engine, thereby offering a creative environment for those looking to expand the game with unique content. A team at Epic used Maya to create pre-rendered animations that appear in the game.

Karen Moltenbrey is a senior editor for Computer Graphics World.

Adobe Systems
Jasc Software
Perforce Software