SAN FRANCISCO, California — When Irrational Games (now 2K Boston) first embarked on its underwater odyssey to bring the city of Rapture to life in the original Bioshock, they chose Unreal Engine 2.5. Although a new team (2K Marin), overseen by eight key members from the original venture, has taken the helm on the single-player sequel (Digital Extremes is developing the multiplayer prequel separately in Toronto), Unreal 2.5 remains the main star of this unique and award-winning universe.
“Frankly, I’m an Unreal fan and I have been since the beginning of my career as a designer,” said Jordan Thomas, creative director on Bioshock 2. “Today, our version of Unreal is its own animal. It started with Unreal and then branched out into a lot of different, very custom things that our teams have layered on top of that base.”
Thomas said the fact that Bioshock 2, which pushes the visuals that wowed critics and gamers alike in the first game, is still running on Unreal 2.5 definitely speaks to the technology’s versatility. He said that while there has been a lot of formidable engineering work done by the Bioshock 1 and 2 teams, which he wouldn’t want to discount, but he believes it’s fairly impressive that Unreal is able to make a game like Bioshock 2 after being customized that much.”
“It’s sort of an interesting situation for us because the flavor of Unreal that we have has been mutated over the last eight or nine years at Irrational Studios and it has had a lot of custom work put into it,” said Zak McClendon, lead designer, Bioshock 2. “All development has its trials and tribulations, but the nice thing about Unreal is it has a really good level design tool set and that’s the foundation of any good design workflow. It’s something that allows our guys to work very quickly within.”
Hogarth de la Plante, the lead environment artist on Bioshock 2, was a senior environment and level artist on the first game. He said the decision was made not to upgrade to Unreal 3 because the team didn’t have any graphical problems with the first game.
“We felt like it won almost every art direction and graphical award the industry had to offer that year so we were like, ‘Okay, do we really want to change our entire pipeline and move over to Unreal 3 at this point or do we just want to retrofit it with the things that we want to do for Bioshock 2.’ So we decided to just do it that way this time.”
De la Plante said the team continued to build proprietary technology on top of Unreal. He wanted to improve how the ocean looked when the player was inside, and so a team member created a special shader technology that made the water look better. De la Plante said Unreal gave his artists a lot more flexibility to be creative with shaders. He added that on a very kind of boring and technical level, it allowed the team to do more with less memory, basically.
“For Bioshock 2, we had someone write volumetric fog on the rendering side, we added ambient inclusion, which we baked into our levels, and the AI system’s been completely re-written,” said de la Plante. “There’s a lot of stuff in there, so it’s not a lot like stock Unreal 2.5. It’s almost unrecognizable. In fact, we have the entire shader system from Unreal 3 in this game. We liked what Epic had done so they bolted it onto our version of Unreal.”
Digital Extremes has a history of working with Unreal technology, which Alan Goode, systems designer at the company said helped the team when working on the new online multiplayer gameplay for Bioshock 2.
“Our previous experience with Unreal meant that we had a lot of talented individuals who already knew the framework and knew how to actually get the things done that we really needed to do in order to push the technology a little bit further,” said Goode. “Even with building the levels, it was really helpful to have that previous experience because our level designers knew exactly how to use the BSPs and whatnot in order to really utilize the technology and then it all just came together.”
Goode said the Digital Extremes team had to build all of the multiplayer code for Bioshock 2 because the modified Unreal 2.5 technology that 2K Marin was employing had no multiplayer support. Goode promises that the end result that gamers experience will be an interactive blast.
“What really stands out with multiplayer is what we could push when it came to the combinations with the plasmids and the tonics and the weapons in Bioshock 2,” said Goode. “The modes are fantastic because they really push all of these different kind of elements of Rapture like dealing with the little sisters and big sisters, and splicing and updating yourself with atom. We had all of these things that were open to us, but at the end of the day it’s the gameplay itself that’s really sticks everything together and really makes it play like Bioshock.”
Goode reiterated that players won’t feel like this sequel is anything but a huge step forward, despite sticking with the original, but highly modified, Unreal 2.5 technology.
“We’re not even using the newest Unreal technology that’s out there, but it’s obviously fairly impressive from what you can see that we’re doing on Bioshock 2, especially within the multiplayer,” said Goode. “We added all the multiplayer code and got that in there, but it’s all because we have the Unreal editor and the underlying code base from what the previous Bioshock team created.
Although the decision was made to stick with this custom variation of Unreal for this sequel, Thomas has kept abreast of what Epic has been doing with its latest technology Unreal Engine 3 technology.
“I think Unreal is very content designer-oriented, so I’ve got a bias, but I am more and more excited by all the features that I’m seeing layering into both Epic’s formal level editor and also their cinematic editor, Matinee, and their scripting system, Kismet, with Unreal Engine 3,” said Thomas. “I think that that stuff is amazing. I sort of crave returning to using some of it, frankly.”
Gamers will be able to return to Rapture and explore new a new single-player sequel and an original multiplayer prequel February 9, 2010.