Ninja Theory Takes an Odyssey with Unreal Engine 3 for Namco Bandai Action Game

By John Gaudiosi

Ninja Theory, the developer behind the critically acclaimed PlayStation 3 action game, Heavenly Sword, set out to create its newest game, Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, with the help of Epic Games’ Unreal Engine 3 technology. With a larger development team this time around – approximately 80 core people through the production period, Ninja Theory decided to focus its talent on creativity, rather than updating its internal game engine to accomplish everything they had envisioned for this new action adventure game for publisher Namco Bandai.

“With Heavenly Sword, we had developed the engine and toolset entirely ourselves which had taken a large amount of resource and would require similarly large development effort to continue to update, improve the toolset and add the new features that we require,” explained Mike Ball, co-founder of Ninja Theory and Chief Technical Ninja. “Once we took the decision to go multi-platform we decided to move to Unreal Engine 3 to allow us to start iterating gameplay much quicker. We were looking to maximize our production time by making sure that the team's workflow was effective – Unreal Engine 3 offered us that opportunity.”

Ball explained that one of the reasons they chose Unreal Engine 3 was because it works straight away out of the box. The artists and designers were able to start experimenting immediately and he said it was not long at all before they were creating great results. 


“Let’s face it, with Unreal Engine you can buy books and videos that provide training courses for it,” added Ball. “Primarily, we were looking for an engine that was multi-platform and had been proven within the marketplace – especially with regard to third-person action adventures. Secondly, we wanted an engine that was truly focused on getting the most out of designers and artists which, despite the glorious results we achieved, was the weak point of our previous engine. It just didn't scale.”

Another criticism from Heavenly Sword was the total length of gameplay, so that was a really big area for the studio to focus on in future projects. Unreal Kismet visual scripting tools were heavily used by the designers to build much bigger play environments for the player to explore and experience.  It also allowed the team to set up much more variety of gameplay across the greater game length, which Ball said is ultimately the key to keeping the player attached to the story.

Enslaved’s story is loosely based on Journey to the West, which is a 400 year-old Chinese novel based on much older folklore. Ninja Theory first came across it in the form of the ‘80s TV series, “Monkey Magic.” While there have been dozens of wildly different adaptations of the story across pop culture, Enslaved is based on a post-apocalyptic future world where magic is replaced with technology and the demons become Mechs left over from a long-forgotten war.


“There are three principal characters on this strange and magical journey,” explained Tameem Antoniades, co-founder and Chief Design Ninja. “Monkey is the only playable character and he is all about Mech violence and Tarzan-like platforming. He has an extendable staff with which he can bash mechs with and can use as a ranged weapon. He also has a hoverboard device called a ‘cloud,’ which he can use in some parts of the game.”

Rounding out the cast is Trip, the hacker who enslaves Monkey with a slave headband she steals. She needs Monkey to take her home because she cannot survive the journey alone. Although she’s non-playable, she aids Monkey in puzzle-solving. Pigsy joins the party halfway through and is an explosives and sniper expert who has a grappling hook for a hand, allowing him to reach places the other two cannot. All three work together to succeed despite their differences. 

Ninja Theory’s strongpoint has always been crafting beautiful environments for these characters (and gamers) to explore. Art directors Alex Taini and Stuart Adcock were the drivers behind the look of the game, which is in line with what the studio did with Heavenly Sword. They follow three principles: color, lighting and movement in every scene. Ball said that using Unreal Engine 3 put much more control into the artist’s hands. With better production tools, the team was able to build more detail into the environment. 


“This was really important for the portrayal of New York that we wanted to build,” added Ball. “Through elements of the environment, we wanted the player to experience the story of people in the past caught in the destruction and trying desperately to escape. Giving the art team control over shaders and post-processing chains allowed us to set up some beautiful scenes that contrasted well with the scenes of destruction.”

Unreal Engine is also known for giving birth to third-person shooters like Gears of War. Antoniades said the main thing the team wanted to do was to make the combat in Enslaved feel really dangerous so that every fight could be your last. 

“We did a lot of experimenting with the camera to make every hit feel like it counts and draw you into the drama of combat,” said Antoniades. “Then we use close-up shots during takedowns and finishing moves to really show the emotional impact combat has on Monkey. It’s more of a cinematic twist on combat mechanics.”


Also offering something fresh to the game are the Mechs that are left over from previous wars.  They sit inactive and if triggered, they kill or maim indiscriminately just like landmines do in places like Cambodia, Angola and Afghanistan today. As a result, the world is charged with this tense, threatening and dangerous ambience set against the lush natural landscapes. 

Throughout development, Ball and his team were able to connect with other Unreal Engine licensees through the Unreal Developer Network. Ball said the community support has definitely been a strong point of working with Unreal Engine 3. He said other developers pitched in and on numerous occasions a technical query was answered by another studio somewhere around the world before Epic could even get to it.

The end result is a longer, more intense, and more epic action adventure game that continues to push the envelope of visuals and innovative gameplay. 

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