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

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