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Critically Acclaimed Mass Effect Powered by Unreal Engine 3

One of the most critically acclaimed role-playing games of 2007, Mass Effect, is the latest stellar game from the minds of BioWare. The developer, which was recently acquired by Electronic Arts, has perfected the art of deep story lines and engaging characters in interactive entertainment.

Ray Muzyka, co-founder and CEO of BioWare, said that with Mass Effect, the primary goal of the team was to create the ultimate science fiction experience. While that lofty statement may have crippled lesser developers, BioWare was up for the challenge.

"With Mass Effect, we wanted to create a space adventure that fulfills the inspirational fantasy of exploring the galaxy, with an intense, exciting story," explained Muzyka. "We also wanted to push the cinematic nature of the game, making players feel like they were both the actor and director of an epic movie. To accomplish this, we’ve created some of the most realistic digital actors you’ve ever seen or heard in a game, with a storyline filled with emotionally compelling moments. We’ve used cinematic techniques like dramatic camera angles, depth of field, motion blur, and other types of cinematography, so everything looks and feels like a blockbuster Hollywood movie–but even better, you get to take the role of the leading actor at the center of the experience and also the role of the director!"

Mass Effect

With all of these Hollywood cinematic styles, it's no surprise that BioWare drew inspiration from classic science-fiction movies like Alien, Blade Runner, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, and 2001: A Space Odyssey. Muzyka said these films had a very tangible atmosphere and a serious cinematic tone. But movies weren't the only entertainment medium that influenced the team.

"In terms of games, some of our inspiration goes as far back as Starflight, which created an entire galaxy of procedural planets for players to discover, way back in 1986, as well as Star Control," said Muzyka. "A lot of our team’s excitement about the uncharted worlds in Mass Effect comes from imagining what a freely explorable universe would be like inside a very realistic next-gen game."

To bring this realism to gamers, BioWare turned to Epic's Unreal Engine 3 to bring this massive world to life.

Mass Effect

"Combined with the BioWare story and character technology we created to allow us to create deep, compelling worlds and characters, the Unreal Engine gave us a very strong starting point to create one of the most compelling games on the Xbox 360 and PC," said Muzyka. "Thanks to the hard work of the team, we are extremely proud of what we’ve accomplished with Mass Effect." Mass Effect garnered over 90 awards in 2007, including Game of the Year from the New York Times and RPG of the Year from the Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences.

"The Unreal Engine combined with the additional technology BioWare built for the Xbox 360 and PC systems, allows us to deliver highly realistic visuals, digital actors who express emotion like never before and a highly cinematic approach to storytelling," said Muzyka. "We’re really proud of the great teams at BioWare–they’re hardworking and passionate, and it’s an honor to work alongside them all."

Utilizing UE3, BioWare approached the development of Mass Effect for both PC and console by creating a solid core story and design first, making sure it had key elements like compelling teammates, exciting combat, deep exploration, and interesting and fun ways to progress your character. Muzyka said working on next gen consoles and PCs has allowed BioWare to take all those things to the next level.

Mass Effect

"We’ve been able to create some amazing lighting and physics effects that simply weren’t possible in the last generation of technology," said Muzyka. "We were also able to create a very complete Dolby digital sound experience, making Mass Effect a truly premium high-definition experience for your home theatre."

Another thing that next-gen consoles and PCs provide is more memory for animations, allowing characters to physically interact with each other and the environment better than ever before. The characters themselves are truly state of the art as we pushed to deliver realistic facial movements and full lip-synching.

According to Muzyka, all of this adds up to one thing–world class entertainment. Mass Effect is a game world where characters are able to do what they want, see interesting and meaningful results for each of their actions, and affect other characters and the entire galaxy in often tense and always emotionally compelling ways. This is one of the reasons we can’t wait to deliver Mass Effect for PC fans in May.

Mass Effect

"The thing we’re most proud of is our cast of digital actors that we’ve used to bring the level of realism to the next level," said Muzyka. "Incredibly realistic animations and movements, including compelling facial expressions and body language, are all combined with professionally performed dialogue to convince players that each person or creature they encounter is real."

Muzyka has seen a tremendous evolution in digital character growth over the years. He said one of BioWare's biggest achievements has been in the area of creating genuine emotion within its stories.

"BioWare’s earliest games were text-driven and much of the emotion was conveyed through carefully-written dialogue," said Muzyka. "Eventually we were able to add voice, which added a new depth to digital acting because now you could actually hear the emotion in the words. Now we’re at the point where digital actors can now express themselves with physical cues as well: you can get close up to them and see the emotion in their faces and body language. They all move and behave more naturally and realistically than ever before, and this adds up to a feeling of real emotion."

One of the mainstays of any BioWare RPG is deep, engaging story lines. Mass Effect is no exception, as its core story will take dozens of hours to complete without delving into the many side quests.

Mass Effect

"Including all the numerous planets and locations to explore, and all the side quests and missions you can choose to pursue, Mass Effect allows the player to go as deep as they want – completing all of the content in the game would take 40 to 50 or more hours to play through," said Muzyka. "Adding to the depth are multiple unique endings that are directly related to how you play the game. Mass Effect definitely supports players continuing their experience even after they finish Mass Effect on PC and 360–you can restart the game with your high-level existing character, or create a new one with new abilities only possible after you’ve completed a playthrough."

Recently, the team has been customizing the interface for the PC SKU of Mass Effect to ensure that it’s a really great adaptation for PC, as all changes and optimizations were carefully developed building from the original award-winning Mass Effect on Xbox 360.

"Our first downloadable expansion for the 360 version of Mass Effect, Bring Down the Sky, is due out this month and it features a brand new world to explore with combat, quests and exploration–adding up to about 90 to120 minutes of new adventures," said Muzyka, who expects additional expansions to follow for both Xbox 360 and PC.

Unreal Tournament Demo

A demo version of Epic Games’ Unreal Tournament 3 is included with the Unreal Development Kit download. The demo ships with four levels, three weapons, four vehicles and one robot character for your sampling enjoyment. 

The UT3 editor is widely used for learning Unreal Engine technology, and now there is UDK, which gives you all of UT3’s game creation tools in addition to high-level engine features developed since the game’s release.

UT Demo is a great example and starting point for those looking to develop their own first-person shooter experience.

Unreal Tournament Series

Unreal Tournament

The Unreal Tournament series brings to the masses a multiplayer first person shooter that combines the kill-or-be-killed experience of gladiatorial combat with cutting-edge technology. As the ultimate techno-gladiator of the future, players take their fates into their hands, battling against other players online in action-packed, frag-filled arenas.

Unreal Tournament 3 is the third generation of the series, and has been released worldwide for PC and PlayStation 3, as well as the Xbox 360. This version proved to be bigger and badder in every way – introducing new character classes such as the Necris; vehicles such as the alien Darkwalker, the massive Leviathon and the nimble Hoverboard; an enhanced weapons arsenal that includes the Stinger; and the new Warfare gametype. Following Epic's tradition of releasing free bonus content, Epic released the Titan Pack for PC and PlayStation 3. UT 3 is built using the award-winning Unreal Engine 3.

Unreal Tournament

Unreal Tournament 2004 is the second generation in the series, featuring ten game modes – both team-based and every man for himself – providing even the most hardcore gamer with palm-sweating challenges through unbelievably detailed indoor arenas and vast outdoor environments, against challenging AI or up to 32 players online. Standard combat modes were enhanced with large-scale gameplay using vehicles; special moves as double-dodging and wall jumps made players more agile, while Adrenaline enabled short-term boosts; new weapons included the Link Gun and the Ion Cannon; and new gametypes such as Bombing Run, Onslaught and Invasion provided new modes for players to challenge their opponents. UT 2003 and UT 2004 were built using the second generation of Unreal: Unreal Engine 2 and Unreal Engine 2.5, respectively. New technical enhancements included new GUI and AI frameworks, Voice Chat, and server-side demo recording.

Prior to the Unreal Tournament series one game started it all: Unreal. Unreal introduced players to the Unreal Universe and was focused on a single player experience. It also put the Unreal Engine technology on the map as a serious contender in the game engine middleware business – featuring a rich color palette and a modular approach to combining a 3D rendering engine with game-specific components. A critically acclaimed mission pack brought players back to the land of Na Pali; and a sequel later continued the experience on the second generation of Unreal technology.

Unreal Tournament

Unreal Tournament took Unreal to the competitive multiplayer arena, building off of the standard Deathmatch and CTF game play formula used in many first person action games, and bringing new twists on game modes: minor gameplay changes known as mutators and support for new gametypes, such as Assault and Domination. With great gameplay and an amazing graphics engine, it won the undisputed title of Game of the Year in 1999. Epic also started a tradition of releasing add-on content for Unreal Tournament in the form of Bonus Packs, for free!

Of course, the Unreal games have always had strong support for user content, with each game being released with all of the engine tools that Epic used to make the game! Such support has resulted in a mainstream following of modifications and total conversions for the series, spinning off plenty of community-related sites such as Planet Unreal and Beyond Unreal.

Epic also rewarded mod developers for their best efforts by starting the Make Something Unreal contest. Each release has provided new tools along with new game experiences and updated technology, all of which have inspired aspiring game developers to explore opportunities to prove that they, too, can create both add-ons and fresh experiences for the game!

Unreal Engine 3 Brings Airborne to Life

Electronic Arts' Los Angeles studio (EALA) has spent the better part of a decade building the most successful World War II shooter franchise in games. The original Medal of Honor, which was conceived by Steven Spielberg after he had filmed Saving Private Ryan, was released in 1999. The latest game, and first to appear on next-generation platforms Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, Medal of Honor Airborne, shipped in 2007. 

During the development of the latest game, which also was released on the PC, EALA decided to switch over to Epic Games' Unreal Engine 3 technology during the development cycle. Mark Dochtermann, technical director, EALA, said that changing technologies proved to be quite challenging.

"Games are a product of a fiction, a design and a technology," said Dochtermann. "Each element shapes the other, and when you suddenly disturb the balance, some aspects of your game may no longer work.  When we decided to use UE3 for Airborne, we knew that we were going to have to reconsider many of our previous assumptions. Fortunately, the game development tools and technology made it very easy for us to first stand up our game and then ultimately re-balance the trio of factors that make a great game. The fact that UE3 is built on a history of excellent first-person shooter technology made it the perfect vessel for our creative vision."

Medal of Honor - Airborne

The latest Medal of Honor game follows each of the key Airborne missions of the Second World War, including Operation Neptune, Operation Husky and Operation Market Garden. The game separates itself from other WWII shooters by giving players the freedom to parachute anywhere they want inside a level. The heavily populated, multi-level environments open up numerous ways to accomplish any given mission. Players can land on a rooftop and snipe Germans below or congregate with paratroopers in the outskirts of town and sneak in. 

"UE3 and the next generation of consoles allowed Airborne to live up to its potential of having a game where you could literally jump out of a plane, land anywhere and engage the enemy as you saw fit," said Dochtermann. "Designing a game around this core concept is very difficult, but the fast iteration time and horsepower of UE3 and next-gen consoles allowed us to realize this design goal."

While developing the game, Dochtermann said the decision to give players an open-ended sandbox to game in shook the foundations of the team's understanding of a first-person shooter experience.

Medal of Honor: Airborne

"Scripting went out the window along with many other traditional linear techniques we have come to rely on over the years," said Dochtermann. "Verticality, in both single and multiplayer, became incredibly relevant, which was a welcome addition to FPS mechanics.  Our designers and artists started thinking about rooftops, towers and every other surface as playable space, instead of the traditional ground and interiors. This really breathed new life into the designs of our levels.  Overall, I think that Airborne is one of the most replayable game experiences you'll come across because it never really does play out exactly the same way two times in a row."

Dochtermann said his proudest achievement with this game was being able to deliver one of the first open FPS experiences gamers have ever seen. He added that accomplishing this was a great collaboration between technology and design.

"Using UE3 certainly opened our eyes to new possibilities and features we were not originally planning on, but we stayed the course and focused on the core of our game," said Dochtermann. "UE3 has laid an excellent foundation for us to explore new areas of the FPS space as it pertains to Medal of Honor moving forward."

Medal of Honor: Airborne

Although the protagonist that players step into the boots of in this game, Boyd Travers, is fictional, the 82nd Airborne, the missions, the towns, the weapons and the Germans are all based on historical research the team has conducted over the years with each new game.

In fact, the game's final level features a German flakturm (flak tower), a heavily fortified fortress that has never been seen in a game before.

"Airborne is almost entirely based on actual Airborne operations that were flown during World War II," said Dochtermann. "We wouldn't have been able to bring these great moments in history to life without having technology like UE3 there to support our efforts. Epic has consistently improved their technology to take advantage of the latest graphics cards, physics libraries and consoles, but most importantly, they have never lost sight of what makes Unreal Technology great: the toolset. Unreal consistently delivers a user-friendly platform upon which developers are able to focus on the most important aspect of video game development–making the game."   

Because the team did make the switch during development, Dochtermann found the Unreal Development Network extremely beneficial during the creation of the WWII shooter.

Medal of Honor - Airborne

"UDN is a great resource for developers to share ideas, report problems and ramp up," said Dochtermann. "During the development of Airborne we benefited greatly from participating in the network and I encouraged my engineers to post fixes and improvements back to UDN whenever possible."

One of the benefits that many developers are finding with UE3 is the cross-console interoperability of the technology. EA creates games for multiple platforms, which requires development studios like EALA to craft the best possible gameplay experience for each target console.

"While the consoles never truly catch up to the PC, they do make great leaps forward in simulation and graphics processing," said Dochtermann. "But the PC is never tied for very long.  UE3 is written to work well with all relevant platforms, but it also always has an eye on the future. For this reason, Unreal Technology will continue to be relevant for the current console cycle and beyond."

EALA has plans to continue its best-selling WWII franchise and with the next game, the team will be starting from the outset with UE3 in place, as well as with new ideas of where to push this technology in the shooter genre.

Unreal Engine 3 Powers Critical and Commercial Success BioShock

Irrational Games, now 2K Boston and 2K Australia, has been a long-time client of Epic Games’ Unreal Engine technology. The developer, which has studios in Boston, MA and Canberra, Australia, previously worked with Unreal technology on Tribes: Vengeance and SWAT 4. Now the studio has pushed this technology to the next level with BioShock.

“The fact that we had worked with Unreal on previous projects and we were familiar with how to work with the technology, made it an advantage to work with them again,” said Jon Chey, director of product development, 2K Boston. “It was important for us to work with an engine that performed well on a console in addition to PC and Epic made a big push to make this happen. Undoubtedly, we've had a very fruitful working relationship with Epic and their technology.”

Chey said that compared to other development teams, BioShock had a fairly small team with 80-90 dedicated people. He added that much of the team came back to Irrational Games just to be part of the development of the game. That dedication has paid off as BioShock, having accrued numerous awards over the past two E3s, has been a commercial and critical worldwide success.

Ken Levine, Irrational Games’ creative director, said the biggest surprise with the game’s success is that people…lots of people…have been interested in the game.

“It sounds strange, but let's face it, BioShock isn't easy to describe to people,” said Levine. “I don't think we give gamers credit for their wit and intelligence, but the audience is maturing. It's going to be harder and harder for the mainstream media to write off games as ‘just for kids.’”

In addition to the hard work and dedication that the team put into the game, Chey credits Unreal Engine 3 in helping create this original adventure game—a game that has been called a masterpiece by game critics and gamers, alike.

“For BioShock, the advantage of us working with an existing engine allowed us to get started prototyping art and gameplay without waiting to get basic renderer, editor and other functions on the line,” said Chey. “With Unreal's mature technology we benefited a lot from the work Epic did to get the engine running on Xbox 360.”

Ken Levine, the creative director of BioShock, wanted to find some place where the player could be cut off from the rest of the world, so he came up with the notion of an underwater city. The architectural influences from the game came from New York, specifically, Rockefeller Center.

“It was there that the visual concepts of Rapture began to form,” said Chey. “Ken and his wife and spent a day at Rockefeller Center with cheap cameras bought at the gift shop, photographing every lighting fixture, door knob, and Diego Rivera mural they could find. They followed that up by going to the Empire State Building, which hosts the inspiration for the 'wall coins' you find in the lighthouse sequence.”

In addition to the art deco architecture of New York City, the team was influenced by a variety of media when creating the world of Rapture and the story of BioShock. Chey said the largest literary influences were “The Fountainhead” by Ayn Rand, “The Shining” by Stephen King and “Animal Farm” by George Orwell. The music of Bernard Hermann and movies like “Fight Club” and “Logan’s Run” also helped formulate ideas and themes for the story.

“We wanted the underwater city of Rapture to feel like a world that people really live in, not a series of staged encounters,” said Chey. “The game is more non-linear that many other games, as it lets the player explore, interact and experiment with the world.”

Chey said one of the team’s main goals with BioShock was to make a game where the AIs have interesting and meaningful relationships with one another in ways that really impact the gameplay. Specifically, they wanted the Big Daddys and Little Sisters to be the moral and technological center of the game.

“The Little Sisters have become the center of the moral arc of the game,” said Chey. “The creation of the Little Sisters was entirely driven by giving the player the greatest gameplay and story impact as possible.”

BioShock is among the rare first-person shooter hits that have garnered kudos from both the hardcore and casual gaming audiences. Irrational Games was able to focus its development time and energy into the story and gameplay experience, since Unreal gave them a great platform from which to start. 

“Beneath all of the strategic nuances that appeal to hardcore gamers, you have to have a certain amount of accessibility and fun to attract the casual gamer, as well,” said Chey. “By creating a game that has an array of ways to tackle a level, we have managed to provide that balance. For example, a casual gamer might rely on only a couple techniques to battle the game’s adversaries, whereas a hardcore gamer might attempt more complex combinations of attacks. Another key aspect was creating a world filled with artistic flourishes that resonate with gamers regardless of their background.”

With the new generation of game consoles, the industry is getting closer to its own “Citizen Kane,” a game that not only perfects the many elements of cinema, but evokes emotions through digital characters. Many critics have pointed to BioShock’s atmosphere as one of the most visually stunning and original settings ever created in a game.

“Games tap into emotions much more effectively now than ever before because the stories, characters, graphics and gameplay have an incredible amount of depth that wasn’t achievable on old generation systems,” said Chey. “Can they make people cry yet? It’s hard to say, but I know that emotions such as fear, excitement and even sadness are obtainable.”

The overwhelming success of BioShock has made the long years of development well worth the investment, according to Chey.

“We are really happy with the audience reception of the game, since we went beyond the standard run-and-gun gameplay and made players think about what they are doing and why,” said Chey. “We knew we made something special and we are glad that people think that too.”

Levine said BioShock is an example of the shooter genre maturing.

“After playing BioShock (and busting through Portal last night), I think this is a year where first-person games are starting to evolve beyond glorified carnival rides and death matches,” said Levine. “They're getting more sophisticated in story and theme, and we're seeing an audience that is looking to be more in charge of their own gameplay experience. They don't want to be led by the hand anymore.  They want to be let loose

into a fully-realized world. It's becoming about more than just the shooting (though the shooting is key!), it's about experiencing narratives that you just can't experience in movies and television.”

And BioShock, powered by Unreal, is an experience that stands out from anything else out there.