Games: Independence War 2


Developer: Particle Systems
Publisher: Infogrames
Street Price: 39.99
Genre: Simulation

Released in 1998, Independence War was one of the few free form space epics that got it right. It had enough complexity to make piloting a starship feel eerily realistic, enough story depth to immerse you in a sprawling war-torn universe, and enough straight up action to keep your fingers twitching. But it was Independence War’s graphics that really put the title on the map. With colored lighting effects lighting up epic battles between intricately-designed capital ships, the only way you could feel more space bound would be to sign up with NASA.

With Independence War 2: Edge of Chaos, Particle Systems set out to create the Flux engine, an entirely new game engine that takes full advantage of the technological advances of the NVIDIA® GeForce3™ graphics processing unit (GPU) that arrived with DirectX® 7.0 and 8.0, while upping the ante with a fresh approach to zero-G physics. Since so much of the graphics load can now be offloaded to GPUs such as the GeForce3™ that can handle the Transform and Lighting calculations but also a multitude of programmable shader effects, Particle Systems was able to focus a lot more energy on advancing the physics engine and tweaking the game’s artificial intelligence. With so many new pixel shader effects lighting up the ships and star systems, the graphics of Independence War 2 are breathtaking. The result is a game that’s more deep and engaging than the original, while less complex and more playable to the casual gamer.

The producer of Independence War 2, Roger Godfrey, and the lead programmer, Dr. Derek Marriott, stepped into the game spotlight to give us a glimpse into the game’s development.

The original Independence War was a sleeper hit despite its linear story line and lack of an online component. What did you learn from the original that you applied to the sequel?

Godfrey: Independence War was a very different kind of space simulation to the other space games of the time. We had properly modeled Newtonian physics, a fleshed out universe with consistent fictional technology, and a compelling story. We took these key elements and added free form game play and a slightly darker story. Also, with advances in graphics technology and our new Flux engine, we could almost make the ships look as gorgeous as those in our FMV sequence.

The original I-War was a Glide-only title; what were the difficulties designing the Flux engine, Independence War 2’s new D3D graphics engine, from the ground up?

Marriott: The major design consideration for Flux was scalability. The key to the scalability is a concept borrowed from the world of photo-realistic rendering in which shaders describe the look of a model and each model has several shaders. A surface can reflect light like aluminum, but in this case the aluminum has been scratched by various collisions. On top of all this is a nice paint job that looks a little beaten up. This would typically be rendered using multipass rendering techniques, but since a shader describes each of these effects, the Flux engine can automatically render the shaders in the most efficient way for the graphics card being used. For slow systems, the subtle effects are dropped to keep the speed up. The beauty of the shader language is that it allows the artist to ignore performance issues and concentrate on making things look good. It also made compositing special effects easier.

While Flux was designed for scalability, you still managed to use it to create some dazzling effects in Independence War 2. What five words would you use to describe the graphics in I-War 2?

Marriott: Subtle, Shiny, Spectacular, Sensational, Scrumptious.

Did you go into the development of the Flux engine with the intention of implementing a lot of vertex and pixel shader effects? If not, was it difficult to add them during development?

Marriott: DirectX 8.0 and GeForce 3 support were introduced towards the end of I-War 2’s development and we were too close to freezing the code for release to rework a major part of it. Before the GeForce 3 was launched, we spent some time with NVIDIA looking into what we could do and how we were going to do it. The GeForce 3 is an amazingly quick chip. It doesn’t sweat having all the graphics options turned on full and can cope with some antialiasing as well. Quality features in the GeForce 3, such as anisotropic texture filtering, also improve the overall image quality of games.
As I mentioned earlier, the Flux graphics system was designed around photo-realistic rendering concepts and this is the way the DirectX graphics system is moving. Since the launch in Europe, we’ve been working on enhancing the game using NVIDIA’s technology. The vertex and pixel shaders fit directly into this scheme. As well as speeding things up on an already quick chip, the new effects add a certain realism to the game.

The I-War 2 screenshots show judicious use of material properties such as metallic sheens, rust, and reflections on ship surfaces. Was it pretty easy to get these effects just right using NVIDIA’s pixel shaders?

Marriott: Pixel shader code follows directly from our original DirectX 7.0 code. So it was very easy. The pixel shaders do allow for better color control so the image quality is actually better using pixel shaders. So far, most people have used pixel shaders to avoid multipass rendering, and we do this too, but it’s good to get something extra for the effort. Much of the graphics quality in I-War 2 came from our high attention to detail and concentration on small particulars like color quality. We’ve even been working on some new effects, which we will soon release in a patch.

Much has already been made of I-War 2's gameplay improvements. What did you do to make the game more playable for the casual gamer in terms of controls and interface?

Godfrey: The original game made a lot of use of the keyboard, and despite having a very elegantly designed control system it had a very steep learning curve. With Independence War 2 we wanted the user to be able to play the entire game using only the joystick. It is this idea that led us to design an easier-to-navigate HUD menu. This system allows you to control your whole spacecraft without even touching one key on the keyboard.

One of the hallmarks of Independence War was an incredible physics engine. What have you done in the sequel to heighten this sense of realism?

Marriott: The flight model is the same as the original game. You may recall the Newtonian model used in the I-War gave a good feeling of flying in space rather flying some form of glorified airplane.
The physics of the collision system have been completely reworked in I-War 2 resulting in significantly more accurate and realistic-feeling collisions. The reaction is based upon impulse momentum physics. The improved physics means when youpush a ship off center it’ll spin off like you would expect. This wasn’t possible in the original game and leads to some spectacular collisions.

Speaking of collisions, what kind of advanced lighting effects will we see in Independence War 2?

Marriott: The most noticeable are the specular lighting on the space ships that simulate anything from aluminum to glass and, when combined on the same model, gives the ship a solid feeling missing from most games.
The lighting itself can be quite subtle. We refuse to use ambient lighting (a constant term used to brighten up scenes) because (a) it doesn’t exist in real life and (b) it looks awful. So the I-War 2 universe is lit from the star which is closest to you, with a little discrete fill light to ensure things don't get lost in the blackness of space. The lighting also changes as you move about. Fly up to a star and the lighting becomes much harsher, exaggerating the shading and making the scene much more dramatic (just before your ship melts). The goal was to give a cinematic feel to the game, which I’m confident we achieved

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