Alps – How we created Crytek’s largest environment in CRYENGINE
By Finn Meinert Matthiesen, Principal 3D Artist for The Climb
To work on our Alps setting was a great challenge and a great experience. The Alps is an area of outstanding natural beauty, a geographic wonder and the largest mountain range in Europe – so it was an obvious choice to provide the inspiration for our second location in The Climb. It contrasts nicely with our South-East Asia-themed bay setting, Bay, giving us a totally different visual appearance and composition. It also gave us plenty of scope to explore new gameplay elements, and we used the larger scale of the environment to increase the play space around the player.
For our art direction, we took the same approach as Bay in order to create a varied mix of different geographic and regional elements. Our Alps setting is not an accurate recreation of a real location, but a combination of various areas from Switzerland, southern Bavaria and the Austrian Alps. This approach allowed us to fully focus on creative level design and to come up with flexible environment art solutions without the need to always stick to or be constrained by reality.
Alps is the largest single environment we've created in CRYENGINE so far, with assets spread over 100km in our virtual space. We really wanted to capture the feeling of being in the real-world Alps, to create the illusion of being absolutely present in a huge, rugged, natural environment. That brought challenges, of course. For instance, traditional billboard background techniques that artists would usually use to efficiently get that sense of a large landscape are way more noticeable as fake in VR, and this can break your immersion. We had to really work at how we composed our scenes and we used more real geometry in the distance instead of using billboard assets only. This in turn demands more performance. VR is already quite resource hungry, so we had to optimize hard and make some improvements to the engine, particularly when it came to lighting and performance, to achieve the effect we wanted.
To take advantage of the scale of the environment, and give you a sense of feeling quite small in comparison to these huge rock faces, we start all of our routes high up on the mountains to maximize the impact of our vistas. You'll see mountain top after mountain top stretching out into the distance, huge glassy lakes beneath you, sprawling thick forests, and powerful waterfalls. Whenever you look around, or down, we want you to get a sense of the overwhelming size and power of nature. And as you explore and ascend the routes ahead of you, you get visual feedback on your progress and achievement as you scale the mountain – especially when you reach a checkpoint and you look down at where you've come from.
The Alps, in reality, are of course inherently impressive. But creating such a vast (and often desolate) landscape in replica detail can make the environment actually feel a little empty for the player when in VR. That's why we chose to take inspiration from our favorite parts of the Alps, and bring them together in ways that looked the most impressive while still making sense. Beyond our geographic elements like the woods, snowy hills and rivers which were all blended together, we also brought in fairy-tale castles(inspired especially by the famous Neuschwanstein Castle ), mountain trains, a Bavarian church, and the kind of alpine villages people might expect to find in a romantic and idealized interpretation of the Alps. In the real world, you might find more modern buildings serving tourists up on the slopes or, down in the valleys, industrial units, but we preferred to stick with the traditional timber-frame buildings that you might find on a postcard from the area.
We also fill our levels with plenty of life – from wing suit jumpers, who'll swoop past you as you climb up the rock faces, to eagles soaring across the sky, butterflies, bats, and more. You might even spot a deer or two. Our hot air balloons, which float serenely across the sky, are a nice visual feature. We take some liberties here again – for example, at night, people would only see the balloons when their burners are activated. But we liked the way they light up the sky in general, so we chose give each balloon a permanent glow.
It's been really great seeing how the team has come together to realize our largest environment yet. Constant testing is extremely important for us, and we spend a large amount of time in the VR environment to iterate on it and improve our perception of the virtual space. As we've progressed through development, it's been exciting to see how our own sense of presence when we're “in" the game has become incrementally stronger as we've added more elements and features to build up the game world. It's been a challenge – creating large vistas with immersive detail that run at 90FPS+ per eye has required a lot of effort, hard work and rethinking some of the processes of our craft. Hopefully the team's effort makes the difference when you get the chance to play The Climb yourself.