Epic Diaries: UE3 and Arkham City

Epic Diaries: UE3 and Arkham City

By Mark Rein

December 29th 2011 at 9:30AM

Mark Rein looks at Unreal Engine 3's role in the latest Batman game

In the wake of the mega-hit Batman: Arkham Asylum, Rocksteady Studios, in collaboration with Warner Brothers Interactive Entertainment, has released the game’s highly anticipated sequel, Batman: Arkham City. Like its predecessor, the new title uses Unreal Engine 3 to push game consoles to their graphical limits, and the result is heart-stopping excitement in an immersive, massively interactive world.

Critics and players alike are heralding the game as an innovation in the genre, with Game Informer calling it “the best licenced video game ever made”.

Paul Denning, senior programmer at Rocksteady Studios, attributes much of the success to the fact that the studio sets a very high bar in all they do. Its aim is to hire extremely talented individuals, helping to contribute to the company’s overarching desire to deliver the best possible game from every perspective. And Unreal Engine 3 was a big part of doing just that with Arkham City.

THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS
“Unreal Engine 3 is an amazingly powerful toolset,” says Denning. “There are always new things to learn and new features being added. We had been using the Unreal Engine for about a year before we started Arkham Asylum and it really helped us learn how to tackle some of the key challenges in making a game of that style.

“However, without the experience of making Arkham Asylum, we’d never have been able to push the engine further for the sequel. System refinements coupled with the talent we have in the studio has allowed us to make a much richer world with more detail, characters and features than any other title we’ve ever made.”

Part of the challenge of Rocksteady’s overall vision for Arkham City was to add a living, breathing, open city as the centerpiece of the gaming experience. Denning reports that the team worked right up to deadline in order to perfect the world. Their goal was to deliver a complex game world, replete with detail, from neon lights in every district to dazzling effects lighting up all corners of the world, all while maintaining 30fps. The result, says Denning, isn’t about the size, but about the level of detail, which he believes may be the most sophisticated in gaming so far.

“For Arkham City we spent quite some time on the Detective mode visuals,” explains Denning. “In Arkham Asylum, we had the Detective materials draw behind the post-process layer and used base colours to allow them to punch through the blue tint. This led to a very limited color palette and blocked out models. For the sequel, we moved all the models that were highlighted into newly engineered layers that have given us so much more control over look and colour.”

CONNECTING PEOPLE

According to Denning, one of the essential resources during the build was the Unreal Developer Network (UDN), which allowed the Rocksteady team to keep a close eye on key insights and solutions to challenges they encountered as well as offer their own advice and solutions when possible.

“Unreal Engine 3 makes so many areas of the game much simpler, yet at the same time more powerful, that we forgot how we even made games before learning some of the core areas of the engine,” reveals Denning.

“The time I save writing code that a designer can now simply hook up in Kismet means I can focus my efforts writing those key little moments that really set our title apart from our competition. I wouldn’t recommend anything else.”

In addition to UDN, Denning found the monthly updates and upgrades to Unreal Engine 3 integral to the game’s success.

“While no single innovation or improvement led to unique gameplay aspects, I can say that the multitude of upgrades we saw over the development cycle all went towards truly pushing the envelope of what is possible in a third-person action adventure,” he says.

“We hope to be remembered as an outstanding game among the high-quality releases of the year. I’m most proud of delivering a fully-realised city at a solid 30fps that’s more detailed and alive than any other game on the market with a graphical fidelity to rival any current generation game.”

Judging from the overwhelmingly positive response to the game, that mission is complete.

At the time of writing, Arkham City is the second highest Metacritic-rated PS3 game of all time (96) and the fifth highest rated Xbox 360 game ever (95). In addition, four out of the top ten Metacritic-rated Xbox 360 games of all time and three of the top ten rated PS3 games use Unreal Engine technology.