RICK LANE Avalanche
Rick Lane parachutes into the tech behind the spectacular Just Cause open-world sandbox games
hen it was released back in 2010, Just Cause 2’s virtual island archipelago of Panau was one of the largest true-3D open worlds ever created. Its landscapes ranged from rugged mountain ranges to thick tropical jungles and even a sprawling metropolis.
It was a tremendous achievement in terms of environment design, and the game was fun to boot, so you might be surprised to learn that the developer wasn’t entirely satisfied with its work on Just Cause 2. ‘We felt limited by the way the landscapes were represented,’ says Linus Blomberg, co-founder and CTO of Avalanche Studios, developer of the Just Cause series. ‘In Just Cause 2, we used traditional height maps for terrain, like most other open-world games, but their two-dimensional
Wnature negatively affects what kinds of landscapes you can express.’ In the five years since, Avalanche has been quietly working on multiple projects, culminating in two games launching this year within months of each other. One of them, the upcoming Just Cause 3, runs on an entirely new version of the developer’s eponymous engine, which includes a radically rethought method of sculpting 3D landscapes.
‘This new technology is what we internally refer to as “digital clay”,’ says Blomberg. ‘It’s an entirely new and groundbreaking landscape technology based on a volumetric data representation known as “scalar fields”. This technique is common in medical visualisation, for rendering volumetric data sets captured from CAT-scans.’
To give a basic summary of how volume rendering and scalar fields work, a scalar field assigns a single value to every point in a given space, which can either be a mathematical ‘real’ number or a physical quantity. It works differently from vectors, which use multiple numbers to calculate points in space – usually x and y values when referring to 3D graphics. Physical scalar fields have units of measurement associated with them, but they must be independent of the coordinate system used to describe them. As such, two observers using the same units of measurement will agree on the value of a scalar field at the same absolute point of space.
Scalar fields can be used to render 3D datasets as a highly accurate 2D projection. Where generating a
Just Cause 3’s vehicle handling
has allegedly been improved through Havok physics, although this only works when the car is
on the road in the first place