Inside DICE: Taking terrain to new heights in Armored Kill

DICE Senior Environment Artist Andrew Hamilton runs us through the creative goals of creating the environments for Battlefield 3™: Armored Kill.

Hello everyone, I’m Andrew Hamilton, Senior Environment Artist here at DICE. My role spreads quite far throughout different aspects of the environments within Battlefield 3 and its expansions, but I tend to always lean more towards the natural elements including features such as terrain, vegetation and lighting. Working on the upcoming Battlefield 3 expansion Armored Kill – which covers many square kilometres of natural landscape – has been a very rewarding project due to each of the four levels dominantly organic nature.

I for one have been eager to release some truly large maps, so being able to really push what we are capable of sprinkling across such large expanses has been a fun challenge, not only in terms of density and detail of the environment, but also its believability and uniqueness. As all four levels of “XP3″ (our internal project name for the third expansion pack) are heavily environment focused, the environments themselves had to be a standout feature. Going into the project I wanted to focus on a few key areas:

- Push the quality from up close macro details right out to far distant mountains.
- Make the levels feel even more expansive and immerse players in a living world.
- Tune the terrain creation process to further utilise its unique features.

Soak in the atmosphere of Alborz Mountain. Make sure to change the Quality to 720p, or click through to YouTube to watch it in its maximum resolution.

Pushing the quality

Due to the large expanses of the four new Armored Kill levels, players tend to favour cover, and in this case that cover is generally some kind of natural formation within the environment. We strived to increase the detail of these elements across the board to make the environments as a key feature of the pack really shine. Higher resolution terrain and vegetation textures, more detail in organic objects such as tree trunks and higher density of objects scattering the landscape are just some of the points we focused on to really push the quality bar throughout the entirety of Armored Kill.

One of the great features of the Frostbite 2 engine is the ability to scatter hundreds of thousands of objects across the landscape to accentuate each terrain surface, naturally filling it with grass, stones, twigs, trash and anything else to give the surface of the landscape volume. This approach worked great for Battlefield 3, but for Armored Kill we wanted to increase the fidelity of these details even further. Up close and prone you will see higher density of scattered objects including grass, hundreds of small stones, and in one particular case the glittering grains of sand that fill the dunes of Bandar Desert!

We wanted to maintain this quality across the landscape no matter where you travelled and from what distance it was perceived. From prone face down in the dirt to flying high up above the clouds looking across the entire map, the achieved detail is at a constant level of fidelity. Ground detail is full of volume, and far backdrop mountains are now actual modelled geometry to the horizon – no more simple distant cylinders with an image slapped on its surface! The illusion of a never-ending landscape is much more successfully realised.

“The environments themselves had to be

a standout feature”

From one base to the next, you feel a great sense of traversing through a living environment. Click for full size.

Immersing the player
With Armored Kill having a strong focus on the environment, we wanted to truly hand craft each and every square inch of their kilometres of natural landscape for players to explore, which was no easy feat. While we created convincing and believable environments on all four levels through thoughtful placement of natural elements – understanding how mountains are formed, where water flows down their surfaces carrying sediment and deposits at their base – we didn’t want it to all simply feel like window dressing. We want players to feel immersed in these environments. We set out to achieve this through a combined effort of art, audio and effects.

Travelling up the side of Alborz Mountain the fog and snow in the air gets thicker and starts to feel colder. Continuing above the clouds the sky parts and shines brighter. Birds are scattered throughout the levels and in trees, only to be spooked by explosions or approaching enemies, flying off out of harm’s way. Much greater depth and perception of distance shines through in the levels through use of fog and actual clouds in the sky you can fly through, adding a whole new dimension to traversing the environments.

To accompany the more highly detailed environments, audio and effects also came into great play. When there isn’t a barrage of explosions and gunfire you can hear the trees creek in the wind, ice grinding under the frozen surface, and flags gently flapping in the wind. Likewise, explosion effects fill with dirt from underneath a thin layer of snow, leaves on the ground kick up from the forest floor, and hollow dead trees shatter into splinters when you crash through them with a quad bike. The combination of all these elements work together to create a vibrant, living environment.

Alborz Mountain offers a unique change of setting as you head up to the cold, snowy peaks. Click for full size.

Tuning the terrain
We have developed a pretty solid workflow creating the landscapes for Battlefield 3 within our Frostbite 2 editor, FrostEd, but going into Armored Kill we wanted to tune this process further utilising its unique features to introduce finer landscape details. The bulk of the terrain process remains largely intact, but it was in the fine tuning where features continued to be refined and polished.

The versatile terrain toolset within the Frostbite 2 editor, FrostEd, for producing vast landscapes.

Firstly within FrostEd using its terrain toolset, a terrain is roughly sculpted with gameplay and broad, natural landscape formations in mind to get a quick visual idea of which direction we want to take the level. At this early stage strong reference material is of high importance as to not deviate too much from what is naturally possible in the real world. Height information we have sculpted in FrostEd is then taken into WorldMachine, where we erode the landscape via an assortment of erosion tools to produce more natural results than what is possible by hand sculpting 8 kilometres of terrain directly within FrostEd. Various assets are produced in WorldMachine, such as a Heightmap, basic Colour information and Masks which define the natural flow of erosion across the landscape. Taking these newly generated assets back into FrostEd we can start piecing it all together. The new naturally eroded height information serves as a great base from which we can hand-sculpt gameplay features where needed, and the masks serve as the starting point from where we define where grass grows, rock protrude the earth, and any other related natural features.

Into the details, we further use these masks for more defined features such as the formation of sediment sliding down the surface of the landscape, or where water and puddles would accumulate. Where landscape surfaces meet each other, such as snow to rock, the surfaces now behave in a more convincing manner. Snow and grass fall between rock, for example, instead of a gradual linear fade between the two. Finer details have worked their way into each surface, such as snow and desert sand sparkling in the sun, or ice distorting and reflecting the environment. The strong focus on such small details throughout the entire landscape really pays off when most of the players’ time is spent with the environment filling the entirety of their screen.

More environmental detail than ever when prone in the undergrowth of Alborz Mountain. Click for full size.

Building the environments of Armored Kill, filling them with detail and life, has been a lot of fun and extremely rewarding. I can’t wait for everyone to get out their winter boots come September! If you have any questions regarding the environments in Battlefield 3 feel free to ask in the comments section below and I’ll try answer where I can. And don’t forget to vote in the poll to let us know your favorite multiplayer setting.

Andrew Hamilton
Senior Environment Artist

Battlefield 3: Armored Kill is out September 4 for PlayStation 3 Premium members / September 11 for Xbox 360+PC Premium members. Learn more about Premium.


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