Even before being released, there are many who believe that whatever transpires in the immediate future, Crysis 3 will be the best looking game of 2013. The announcement trailer showed just how good gameplay can look, due in no small part to the brand new CryENGINE 3 being used to build it.

We got a chance at E3 2012 to see a section of the tools being included in the new engine, and the new approach to tessellation, lighting, and texturing that Crytek Studios is incorporating into their third iteration. The name of the game is efficiency and versatility, specifically for the artists usually tasked with most of the manual labor in making video game environments a reality. Besides being technically impressive, the amount of work being done behind the scenes of the actual engine hold the potential of completely changing how games are developed.

The main message for CryENGINE 3 is all about streamlining development and providing instant feedback for environment artists and programmers. According to Crytek Studios’ Field Application Engineer Kirthy Iyer, the studio has gone to great lengths to provide artists with the tools to render and experiment in real time, instead of being delayed while environments are rendered in their entirety, before faults or issues can be found or tested.

Walking through an environment in the demo, then stepping out of gameplay to replace or rearrange game objects, then returning to the new construct in just seconds is the ultimate result of the team’s work-around. The benefits of such freedom and elasticity for artists is obvious, and all in the name of further efficiency and increased productivity which Crytek claims is this engine’s mandate.

As we approach the end of this console generation, several developers are starting to voice their impatience. And while some companies believe the key to the next graphical leap lies in life-like human beings, and others in improving lighting systems and surfaces, Crytek isn’t convinced the answer is so simple.

The recently released ‘Elemental’ tech demo of Unreal Engine 4 showed impressive visuals, which weren’t the heart of Crytek’s presentation. We asked Iyer why it was that so much of the competition is focusing on graphical improvements that make games look ‘prettier,’ like lighting, which Crytek is certainly not using as their headline for CryENGINE 3.

Iyer certainly didn’t mince words in his response:

“See, when I hear that, I think: Crytek has always been improving that. We already scratched that surface. We’ve been pushing lighting in our engine since the very beginning. Now we’re trying to focus on other areas as well… Making things more efficient for designers, not just better to look at.”

One of the more interesting features in that regard was the solution Crytek has come up with to enrich ground textures to new levels of detail and reality. While still a flat plain, a height map is applied to give the illusion of a fully rendered and extruding surface. Since shadows can’t actually be applied using conventional means – as it isn’t true geometry built on polygons – CryENGINE 3 simply mimics realistic darkening on the surface’s ‘lowest’ points. The effect is truly impressive in motion, and like almost every feature in the developer tool set, adjusted with a simple slider.

Assets developed using DirectX 9 can also be fully transferred into DX11 without rebuilding, providing serious ease of use to smaller development studios or even amateur game designers. And the motivation to upgrade is certainly on display, with the new levels of tessellation made possible with DX11 used to their maximum potential. Yet even with the most advanced systems and hardware, taking the strain off of the individual artist is the main goal.

In our own demo of CryENGINE 3’s auto-pilot programming and object texturing, the game object in question was a stone ruin constructed upon a very simple polygonal structure. By increasing the degree of tessellation, the level of detail spanned from a flat surface to textured, then one in which individual stones were discernible, and finally to each brick protruding in a completely random and unique fashion.

Taking things even farther, developers can also choose to optimize tessellation on every object, but only when the player approaches them. The highest degree of detail was obviously the most photo-realistic, but all were constructed on the same wireframe, with the engine doing all of the work, not the artist.

This principle was expanded to human features, and the all-too-prevalent squared ears sported by many modern video game characters. With CryENGINE 3’s autonomous programming expanded to Phong tessellation, the same number of polygons that produce rigid angles or corners in human features are smoothed and rounded internally, without the need for artist refinement. That, according to Iyer, is the entire point of the new engine. It also doesn’t take too much imagination to see why varying refinement of the same structure can provide an experience that is ‘unchanged’ between PC and console.

From a purely development standpoint, the promise of freedom in programming AI routines was one of the most intriguing, and potentially revolutionary for next-gen development. Where AI routines once had to be mapped out ahead of time, a simple set of tools can now be used to mark off an AI character’s explorable territory. If it’s possible for AI to move to a place on the map, it is simply shown in a different color. Obviously the simplest form of AI population was shown, but the developers insist that the new methods are far more efficient and easier on the programmer. Yet again, the engine does all the hard work.

With improved textures came the most realistic water surfaces and weather effects that you are likely to see on current PCs. And even if Crytek isn’t bragging about the visual fidelity their engine can produce – yet – the results speak for themselves.

The list of games being built in CryENGINE 3 continues to grow, so expect to see and hear much more about the engine in the coming months.

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