CUTTING EDGE
PC Gamer|December 2020
CUTTING EDGE
The technological innovations bringing the world of CYBERPUNK 2077 to life.
Jacob Ridley

Five years on and The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt remains, in quiet defiance, at the top of our Steam libraries and perpetually ready to play – a testament to the ambition and sticktoitiveness of the studio that built it. But if you thought that meant CD Projekt Red stopped innovating for even a second, think again. The developer has been continuously adapting and building a new set of tools for what’s to come. When it launches this November, Cyberpunk 2077 is promising to deliver something even bigger, the culmination of years of work on an ever-evolving engine by a team that simply refuses to sit still. “The engine is like a living organism, almost like a cellular automata,” Krzysztof Krzyscin, technical art director, CD Projekt Red, says, “constantly evolving, mutating, and expanding from its initial set of branches.” The engine in question is CD Projekt Red’s proprietary REDengine, which made its first appearance with The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings, and the cellular automata is in reference to mathematician John Conway’s Game of Life, a zero-player game that follows a collection of cells that evolve and adapt in response to a simple set of four rules, and thus do not require human interaction. What these two things share is their ability to continuously adapt – both the cellular automata and the REDengine are in a constant state of flux.

Unlike a cellular automata, however, the REDengine requires human effort, and lots of it. It’s what CD Projekt Red has been working on ever since The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, so that it may form the basis of its next game, Cyberpunk 2077. The resulting metamorphosis affects millions of lines of code and introduces many new and experimental features that will make this version of the REDengine difficult to recognise from the one that brought you such memorable sights as Geralt in a bath tub.

RED ALERT

While each new game is a technical leap for CD Projekt Red, they’re also just as much a product of all the lessons learned during the development of those which came before. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt was the culmination of years of game development and years of engine evolution. That game’s legacy has set expectations high for Cyberpunk 2077 and the REDengine, now set for its fourth major iteration.

“There are pros and cons of having your own engine to make games,” Krzyscin tells me. “First of all, maintaining, developing and optimising a game engine is technically complicated and requires huge effort. Imagine four million lines of code where even small changes in a non-related system have a big chance to cause issues or introduce bugs.” It sounds like a near-impossible task, but Krzyscin sees it as just as much of an opportunity. “Being able to change whatever we want creates a perfect environment for ambitious, crazy people with, well, let’s say nonstandard ideas.”

In Cyberpunk 2077, these ‘non-standard’ ideas take form in a huge variety of features. From accurately layering items of clothing for the fashion-forward punk icons, to true-to-life traffic light systems, to accurately mapping the minutiae of brow movements for the game’s urbanite cast – Cyberpunk 2077 is promising an eye for detail at an extraordinary level.

The vast titular jungle of Cyberpunk 2077 is not only a visual departure from the war-torn countryside of Velen or the bustling port of Novigrad, it required a complete redesign of the underlying technology. Processing the increasing amount of data associated with the jump to a technocratic city is no small feat – much like how modern metropolitan areas require complex management, so too does Night City.

“There were so many things in Cyberpunk 2077 that we just didn’t have to do for The Witcher games,” Krzyscin explains. “Safe to say, it goes an order of magnitude beyond Novigrad, in any aspect. Rendering, IO and memory management – all that needed to run on steroids now.”

Krzyscin lists off sweeping changes on the way for REDengine. “After The Witcher 3, we immediately knew what aspects of the engine needed updates.” There’s a brand new lighting pipeline with support for a full day/night cycle. Further environmental upgrades such as volumetric clouds and fog bring engrossing new elements to the environment and opportunities for that new lighting system and a multitude of ray-traced effects to shine. A brand new shared material library allows developers more time to sculpt detail into textures, the results of which will be present all around you in-game. CD Projekt Red has even gone as far as implementing simulation-based dynamics for liquids and clothing so they flow and interact with one another just like in real-life.

And that’s just that which is evident on the surface with Cyberpunk 2077. Behind the scenes, the studio has implemented multilayered shaders, which allows for a leap in effective texel density on screen – that translates to crisp, detailed environments. There’s a new async compute pipeline, to better make use of brand new graphics hardware built for DX12, the new API of choice for Cyberpunk 2077. Lastly, there’s a system for procedural asset generation, allowing for attention to detail on an unprecedented scale.

“Essentially, we made the engine highly customisable,” Krzyscin says.

TECH A LOOK Cyberpunk 2077’s shiniest features

LAYERED FASHION

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December 2020