Who Needs Retractable Claws When You Have Unreal Engine 3?
By John Gaudiosi
SAN FRANCISCO, CA – Once the team behind Marvel Ultimate Alliance at Raven Software saw the Singularity prototype featuring Unreal Engine 3, they were hooked. The fruits of their labor, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, hits PC, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 May 1 in tandem with the 20th Century Fox film starring Hugh Jackman. It’s the first UE3 game from the studio, although Singularity is coming out, also from Activision, later this year.
“We had just struggled to make Marvel Ultimate Alliance next gen and then we saw Singularity and we were like, ‘Holy crap, that’s the type of tech we want to use,’” said Dan Vondrak, project lead on X-Men Origins: Wolverine at Raven Software. “At first everyone was wondering how we were going to turn the engine from a third person shooter into an action game, but we had the experience from Marvel Ultimate Alliance as well as the core combat systems and we rewrote re-wrote them all and applied them right to Unreal and it took. It was a good six months before we felt like we had everything we needed to get in there, but it’s totally worth it.”
The new action game puts players in control of one of Marvel’s most popular characters, Wolverine, and offers a full array of abilities and attacks ripped straight from the comic books. Although the game was started long before the movie became a reality, Raven worked with Fox, as well as Jackman, to bring that storyline to the game. But this interactive adventure goes far beyond the cinematic origin story by adding classic villains from the comics and introducing more action and unique set pieces to the adventure.
Vondrak said that during production, UE3 allowed the artists to jump ahead of the rest of the team. They were able to create these huge jungles with sun rays coming through and leaves blowing and water puddles.
“It was like they were making alkali lake stuff with details like fog around your feet and snowflakes in the air for the mountain level,” said Vondrak. “Working with Unreal allowed us to add depth to the game. That’s why we were able to create a Wolverine model with three layers of regeneration. We have the skeleton, the meat, and the muscle and skin, plus the clothing on top of that. That’s all made possible using Unreal materials and shaders. It’s really powerful when we coupled it with our smart tech guys who put everything together to make it work.”
Vondrak said the designers utilized Matinee to create the bigger moments from the game, some of which were original and others were expanded from the movie. Matinee allowed the team to create action sequences featuring moving trucks and flying helicopters. While the final animations were done by animators, Unreal aided them in getting everything just right – like Wolverine’s perfect landing atop a whirring helicopter in mid-air.
“The Kismet tech is really powerful,” added Vondrak. “When you look at what Epic has been able to do with this technology with the Gears of War games and then look at Wolverine, you can see the type of meaty combat translates across genres. Kismet allowed us to throw all of these huge sequences into our game, which gives players a very cinematic experience. All of these set pieces like when Wolverine is in the air skydiving from helicopter to helicopter were done by our designers using Kismet.
One example of Unreal Matinee, Kismet and AI all working in tandem can be seen in the epic battle between Wolverine and the 100-foot-tall Sentinel robot. Players will pit the tiny, but powerful, Wolverine against this monster in a three-pronged battle that will start on the ground and then take to the air. Vondrak said that all of the sequences, including what traditionally would have been cut scenes, were made playable thanks to Unreal.
“Unreal Engine 3 was just fantastic to work with,” said Doug Smith, senior technical artist on Wolverine at Raven. “One of the challenges with Wolverine is that we wanted to make a game that’s true to Wolverine without spending a ton of time building up our tech. The Unreal engine was a great stepping stone to make that happen quickly. It was a great way to actually give something to artists and designers that was mature and fully flushed out. We knew we could make a good-looking game if we worked it right, and I loved working with Unreal. I think a lot of our team can say the same thing.”
Smith said Raven’s Wolverine team really pushed the shaders in Unreal. Wolverine is a Mature-rated game on PS3, Xbox 360 and PC. That game’s gore system is a shader, primarily.
“We have a separate mesh underneath Wolverine, but we have the ability to pop holes uniquely in Wolverine with bullets tracing through, blood oozes down, and you can see the normals on the skin be pushed out where the wound opened up,” added Smith. “You can see on the edges of the blood. We push in the normal so you can see the specular highlights on the blood. Everything then nicely closes up and these bruises are all shaders. It’s really powerful and cool technology.”
Raven also empowered the artists on the team by authoring a snow shader that allowed anyone to add snow to objects in the environment like rocks and trees. This shader would automatically ensure that snow would rest accurately on top of the object regardless of how it was placed in the game environment.
“If an artist had a log for the environment, he could place it one way and the snow would automatically fill in the cracks,” explained Smith. “This gave us a lot of flexibility and enabled the artist to create very realistic and rich environments the way they wanted without have to worry about spending a lot of time going back and painting or redoing things to get all of the details right.”
Raven was able to utilize Epic’s Unreal Development Network throughout the project, as well as tap into the work that the Singularity team was doing in-house.
“I think the expertise that the guys were able to gain importing over our combat node system into the engine was beneficial to everyone,” said Smith. “We had layers of animation with sequences like Wolverine in Sentinel’s hand and we had to make sure our fight style worked throughout the game’s many action sequences. Some of our tech guys have gone back to Epic to add some of these changes into the engine and Epic has been very responsive to that and put them in. Of course, everyone gains benefit from that.”
Gamers will benefit from all of this work when Activision ships X-Men Origins: Wolverine across all platforms on May 1. This is a virtual Wolverine who’s as brutal and strong as he was in the comic books. And Unreal Engine 3 brings this superhero to life like never before.