WIP Pillars of Nosgoth area in Unity 5

Pillars of Nosgoth (Basic Render)

It took me a little longer to compile and edit things. With that done and with some rust on using the site out of the way, the full video is now ready to share. It’s long, because the map is huge and I wanted to offer a treat for those who know the world by heart and would like to see the paths explored. Fellow fans, I give you (still very much a work in progress — I will be doing my best to figure out how to optimize things for better performance, especially with the water, particles, and grass in the scene) The Pillars of Nosgoth:

In addition to simply showing the area within Unity, I’ve also explained some details of, and revealed fully, the map of Nosgoth I helped make with members of of the “Lore Council.” We helped in being a voice of advice for the team at Square and the developers within Psyonix during their work on the multiplayer, ‘Nosgoth.’ The task we all were most proud of during that time was most certainly in putting our collective heads together to work on this map. I say “this” map, but it really wound up being at least two maps, tackling the large expanse from Blood Omen 1 until the ill-fated empire of Kain in Soul Reaver. I’ll explain the map further, along with a gallery of references and works in progresses, in the next posting.

I crafted most of this by hand. After modelling the bulk of the terrain in Zbrush 4r7, I took it into World Machine 2 for procedural weathering and aging, then brought it back for further tweaks and I’m still making some minor tweaks, here and there, in Unity. I tried using the default trees in Unity, and a few from an asset pack I got, so that I wouldn’t have to worry about trees and could focus on the bigger things. After a while, though, it just became apparent that I needed better trees. The rest of it all looked too good not to, so I picked up Speed Tree for Unity and played around with that. I made a few different custom trees and might wind up making more for this area. That program is pretty amazing. I currently have two different types of Norway Spruce, two types of Scotts Pine, and two different Lime and Oak trees. I’ll plot in some dead versions and maybe another tree type, vines, stumps, and whatever else I can. I scoured around for just the right leaves and pine needles, and tree bark, to make better textures from. The nice thing about the trees is they can use more mapping types to bring the details and light reflectance to life. The leaf/pine materials also allow for light to pass through naturally, as I show in the video. It looks very nice.

The few rocks used are currently from the Norway Forest pack I got. I may keep some of them in place, but I will add more unique rocks and models. I need to for certain areas, like the passage to the Lake of Tears Vista, to make a better cliff side there.

While besides the grass, mainly, most everything else is either hand painted, or composited (like the textures on the terrain) by me, the real reason they shine so well is due to the material shaders and lighting. Unity 5 has fine lighting now, especially in the beta, and PBR material options. However, it doesn’t have all of the bells and whistles I could get in Marmoset, for instance. I added the Uber -Standard Ultra Shader and Relief Terrain Pack shaders, which basically add a lot of options that make it AAA worthy. The textures have better color representation — especially using a specular workflow, like for clothing — better nuanced sliders for metallness and gloss/roughness reflectivity, and nice options such as tessellation and better displacement. They also have translucency options, which can create a very convincing fake subsurface scatter, or an emissive translucency, like you might find in a lit candle’s wax. It also can make material appear wet, even animating water flow and rain droplets, or snow and iced over surfaces, which is pretty nice. For the marble statue and on the pillar base stone there is animated glitter which can mimic the small, reflective granules found in stone when light passes over it. Just a really nice, subtle element. It doesn’t really cost much more in rendering, either. Same with the terrain. Instead of Unity’s default, which only can basically use a normal map for a bump, you have real PBR options and real displacement and tessellation options. You have the same water and glitter effects, and better color, all practically that the Uber shaders can do with regular materials. Something like this is really needed to make Unity shine, I think. Otherwise, you can wind up doing much of that if you know how to script, but I have not learned that particular talent :p I also don’t really have the time to do the art and animations, and do the coding, too, obviously. I’ll also note that for the longest time, I really didn’t understand why the textures on the two Kain models weren’t appearing right. They were kind of ok, but it was like they were softer and washed out in detail. It only happened in linear space, though, while appearing fine in gamma space. Linear is supposed to be closer to real world lighting and for PBR shaders, so it didn’t make sense. Turns out those textures were DDS files and Unity doesn’t read them properly, natively. I think there is a coding work around, but simply converting the textures to PNG, or Targa files, solved this. This was during my time capturing this video that I came upon this revelation, so I had to go back in an get more shots…:p You might notice you can barely get glimpses of lighter-looking versions of the Kains in some of the sweeping shots, as they are using the old footage. But now, all looks just as it should, finally…

The other thing I needed was a full, proper sky. I thought about sky boxes, and looked over other packages. I wanted from the start, though, an animated sky that had realistic day/night cycling, and one with actual clouds which could move instead of a static sky would be ideal. I eventually decided on TENKOKU Dynamic Sky, and it is amazing the quality it achieves. It also comes with dynamic weather — rain, snow, and fog — and I think the updates have made those better. Unfortunately, trying to install the recent update didn’t work so well, so I had to revert. I think that I am using the beta for Unity 5 right now is the reason, but you can’t really go backwards in a Unity version once you start in a new one without potential problems arising.

I also needed convincing water in rivers and in lakes. The DCG River shaders I’ve gotten do a very nice job, but man do they do a number on the performance. I will have to find out what I can do to optimize the scene, as I mentioned. I can’t even put the added effects on yet. There are some particles which would make the waterfalls shine better: splashes at the bottom and underwater ripples, mist, etc.But they currently aren’t usable.

The Pillars are all modeled and textured using Maya and Zbrush, further tweaking in Photoshop. The base template of the Pillars is modeled to the Soul Reaver 2 specs. In fact, I captured the Pillars and area in SR2 in order to have a precise template to model from. I first modeled a version in Zbrush, which I had to scrap. It wound up being much easier to model in Maya the low poly forms and then detail them in Zbrush. I wasted a lot of time doing it in Zbrush only, along with the South Gate and other things. Even now with the addition of the zmodeler brush, which allows you to do the functions you can in Maya, Max, or what-have-you for basic modeling, it really has some quirks and things that I find a bit time consuming to work around. Looking at every texture and every version of the Pillars, the dais is best described as light gray/white marble with blue/gray veins. GlyphX’s Soul Reaver 1 intro is bathed in yellow sunlight, but the marbling is visible there. SR2’s textures went maybe a little too blue and marbled, but they were on the right path there. Defiance’s are a slate gray stone look, without really any veins. As always, I try and choose the best version to depict. The placement of the marbling corresponds close to both to the SR1 intro and spots seen on the Blood Omen 1 ingame sprite and cutscene model. I also used both to figure out where cracks should roughly occur in the corrupted version. In the BO1 cutscenes, near the end when Mortanius confronts Anarcrothe, it shows an overhead shot of the pillar dais. Here, parts of the dais have actually been healed, along with the Pillars by Kain killing their Guardians. I thought that would be especially great to show that not only have the columns corrupted, but the actual bases and the dais they sit upon have — the entire structure has suffered by the corruption of the Pillars.

The bases and middle plinth section are envisioned both with the Blood Omen 1 version’s solid gold representation  in mind and the SR2 version for bordering and recreating the center tiling around the symbols. The bases have a more fully envisioned version of the borders from SR2. Those textures are pretty faded, so it’s hard to get the full detail from them; however there are other spots in the game that use a more detailed version of that gold bordering. I was also able to incorporate elements seen further into the game in architecture accents of the Ancient’s structures. I kept it subtle. I didn’t want to go overboard with the detailing on these. Defiance goes into a whole different direction with the vortexes on the bases and such, but it would not make sense to have that much gold there without some detailing. SR2 is pretty classical and judicial about it. Then there’s the version seen in the SR1 intro again. On those bases and up to the mutated throne for Kain which came about after he damned the Pillars, there are some interesting etchings going on. I wanted to evoke something like that in the corrupted state. After some thinking and tinkering, I wound up adding into the mix some etchings using brain coral patterns. I think it does feel evocative of corrupted waves of energy shooting upward, if that were given a form. I have the symbols actually burned through into the center pillar tiling, as if each burned through the tiling from deep within the pillar. I thought it would be interesting to have that melted part vanish away entirely when the Pillars are damned by Kain, and look solid colored like they are in SR1. We’ll see on that. The corruption warps around the symbols in the corrupted Pillars version, with the brain coral pattern, cracks, and darkening spread all over those tiles. Same with the gold parts. Some of the pillars become more corroded-looking in those centers than others. Nature really suffered, it seems.

The symbols on the dais, you may note, are more of an aged, corroded bronze. This hearkens back to what seems to be on the Blood Omen 1 dais, while also offering a visual change from the brass trim segmenting the dais’ sections. Defiance alters this again drastically. With the level of brown on the bases and trim on the dais, maybe those are supposed to be dark bronze, or really, really corroded over time, even when the Pillars are pure, while the symbols might have a hint of gold to them… It’s a bit muddied to tell. Around the center plinth boarders in Defiance, that almost looks like stone, but I think it’s also aged bronze. The SR1 Intro has a look of bronze to those dais symbols, too. The tiling around the symbols I’ve made black marble and onyx. I was looking for just the right pattern in black marble for it. The pillar symbols also pulsate. They’re close to yellowish white when purified and have a duller, red tint to them when corrupted.

The final thing left to do to the Pillars is to make the totally damned version with Kain’s throne for Soul Revenant. I have the low poly throne modeled and the template to make the broken columns, so that will be done soon enough.

The one Pillar Guardian statue there is finally done, modeled a long time ago in Zbrush and, for the first time trying it out, textured in Substance Painter 2. I really like the program and I think that will help to speed up completing works much more efficiently. I let myself get bogged down in Zbrush painting that way. In Zbrush painting the base color, it kind of feels like the “dry” coat. What things wind up looking like as actual materials takes a lot more work. This can cut a lot of that portion out, as like 3D Coat, you can paint all channels as once.

The gates are still works in progress. For the South Gate, all of the design is finished. I only have a portion of the step and plinth sections in the video, but that all is modeled back in Maya. I am part of the way through UVing it all. The West Gate will be done partially using some assets from the South Gate, but some of the design will be different. I need different statues and other things there, too. Then the old Sarafan Stronghold ruins need to be made, the gate to the “Cemetery Vista” (odd choice, since the Cemetery is miles away and not visible, really, from here — I take it this pond area is an old cemetery location that maybe collapsed, or maybe the relief there is an old tomb…), the giant relief there where Kain finds the Dimension shard, and oh, just everything else still needs to be made. Bridges, steps, etc., etc., etc. But, this is as good a place to be as any to show things off.

The placement of the Pillars is set up so that they face straight on south, with the direct north at their back. This also provides a real world compass for all else to exist around. The land is set up to be positioned as if it were located in the real world at Frankfurt, Germany. This wasn’t randomly picked. I was looking to make the land really hold with its Germanic roots. I was also looking for a location in Europe that would work well as a nice place to start with north of it really feeling like it’s close to the “roof of the world” in the lighting and atmosphere. Setting the location there and the celestial orbit for the sky at around the start of fall (late September, is currently what I’ve picked) lets me use a sky that’s not too sunny and bright, even when the sun is out. It has that colder, darker feel to the forest and even high noon doesn’t feet like it’s a balmy, sunny day. Color toning it more toward that type of feel on top of this helps the final look come across.

I’ll go into detail about human Kain in another post. I’ll show off his sword, the fully aged Reaver, and a few other things. I have to break this up now, though. This is a lot of description, but I know there are those out there who like to read this stuff. The very next post will address the map, specifically.

Next up for Soul Revenant will be wraith Raziel and Ariel. I’ve also done some animations with elder Kain: attacks, running, walking, with and without the sword — stuff like that. Looks like we’ll have a lot of animation goodness happening. I have to figure out why my one attempt at getting the capes to be made cloth was a disaster in Unity, though. It’s supposed to be pretty easy to set up. I wanted to show them with their hair and capes moving right, but maybe next time…

Thanks for all of the continued support. Some of us are still trying to keep the memory alive for Legacy of Kain. I hope you all enjoy a little romp through Blood Omen-era Nosgoth. The frame rate, notwithstanding. Perhaps someone out there in the gaming industry could find this interesting, too. But until that may, or may not happen, I’ll continue on with trying to re-imagine what I can. In the off chance this could gain some interest, once I refine it to where it is smoother and things are better in place, I can make a trailer-sized presentation of it.

The Hylden
Patrick Johnson

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