Top Five Most Impressive Game Explosions

game explosions
by Jason Johnson
Freelance writer and editor

From Just Cause 3 to World of Tanks, video game designers push the tech behind game explosions to their fiery limit.

In the opening moments of Just Cause 3, an innocent looking gas tank tumbles down a hill and winds up blowing up an entire city.

Creating impressive fiery blasts can be a challenge for any development team. Great explosions that capture the player’s imagination tend to put a strain on the system’s resources, and the team must carefully manage visual effects and physics of a blast to achieve ultimate destruction.

There is an art to simulating perfect chaos, and games like Just Cause 3, World of Tanks and Sniper Elite 4 have mastered the darkness. These games enlist some seriously impressive technology and design techniques for the sheer joy of blowing stuff up.

Just Cause 3
Just Cause 3 began as a parody of over-the-top action movies. Image courtesy of Square Enix.

1. Just Cause 3’s Playground of Chaos

The Just Cause franchise began as a parody of action movies that “jump the shark.” Three games later, even high-octane film director Michael Bay would be hard-pressed to top its endless explosions. The series is beloved as a playground of anarchy and chaos, where a single bullet can set off incredible chain reactions, causing entire facilities to erupt.

Game creators guide this chaos, but never want to put a limit on the player’s control.

“It is impossible for us to predict every possible scenario that can play out,” said Christofer Sundberg, chief creative officer at Avalanche Studios. And nor do they want to.

Much of Just Cause 3’s mayhem stems from a design philosophy known as emergent gameplay, where the developers create simple rules that govern a world. But then, the player is let loose without restraint, resulting in unexpected bouts of destruction.

“Everything from AI to physics simulation has a certain degree of dynamics [in Just Cause],” said Johan Fläckman, the studio’s vice president of technology.

This means the game’s explosions are able to respond to player interaction more than usual, so things often get out of control. Fläckman said he’s constantly amazed by the unintentional havoc their creative fans wreak on their world.

Just Cause 3
Following the emergent gameplay philosophy, Just Cause 3 players are free to create havoc.  Image courtesy of Square Enix.

2. Strategic Bombing of Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak

In Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak, the player is given the keys to a massive, futuristic army and sent off to battle on a warring planet. During the game’s development cycle, the need for many different types of explosions arose quickly. The team created more than 210 unique explosion effects to account for all the diverse ways that military units can blow up, from electrical explosions to mushroom clouds of black smoke.

“We felt that explosions were a really important part of making exciting vehicle combat,” said Steve Mumford, senior VFX artist at Blackbird Interactive.

As a result, at any given time half the map is lit up with firefights. However, the mayhem comes at a cost to CPU performance. During intense moments, the game’s frame rate can dip, slowing the speed of battle. To find a solution, the programmers created visual tools that determined which explosions were hogging the resources and took them down a notch.

Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak
Mapping FX in Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak. Image courtesy of Blackbird Interactive.

3. World of Tanks’ Rugged Ruins

Ever since developers added destructible environments to World of Tanks, no building has been safe. In previous versions of the game, houses simply turned into a pile of rubble and dust when hit with a projectile. Now, they explode with finesse. Pieces of brick and debris go flying and cause damage to surrounding objects. The second story of a building will collapse when the ground floor is taken out.

Instead of relying on better graphics to make bigger, flashier explosions, the team used physics calculations to create eruptions that pack a punch.

According to Josh Bancroft, a community manager of developer engagement at Intel, realistic destruction falls squarely in the CPU’s wheelhouse.

“Do you want to see the pieces rip apart, and be able to follow all the pieces as they explode?” he said. “To have that level of reality and immersion, you need to have more CPU performance.”

Sniper Elite 4
Sniper Elite 4 features realistic explosions. Image courtesy of Rebellion Developments.

4. Sniper Elite 4 Reveals the Anatomy of Destruction

Sniper Elite 4 offers a precise anatomical breakdown of an explosion’s effect on a virtual avatar. Not only are enemies sent flying through the air by the blasts according to the laws of physics, but the enemies also have a realistic skeleton and organ systems. The game even models the effects of shrapnel tearing through a battlefield.

In the future, the development team hopes to push the tech even further.

“[I’d like to have] skeletons dynamically shattering with real-time physics simulations,” said Oliver Cullen, senior VFX artist at Rebellion. “Getting organs to wobble and tear with every possible scenario would also be interesting.”

Of course, these kinds of calculations would require an excessive amount of processing power.

For now, the CPU already has its hands full rendering the physics of large scale destruction of bridges and radar dishes in the environment.

Sniper Elite 4
Using physics, Sniper Elite 4 renders accurate destruction and mayhem. Image courtesy of Rebellion Developments.

5. Halo Wars 2’s Realistic Rumble

While physics are important, explosions also need to sound mighty. To make sure that Halo Wars 2’s explosions were as authentic as possible, the U.K. based studio Creative Assembly traveled to the U.S., where they were allowed to record the sound of flamethrowers and also run over cars with a tank.

“We worked with 343 Industries studio to capture the sounds of weapons and explosions: M40 rifles, a Barrett M82 rifle, .50 caliber weapons you can’t get ahold of in the U.K.,” James Magee, the game’s audio designer, said in the Microsoft News Center.

The live explosions and real-life gunfire serve as a counterpoint to the game’s soundtrack, which was recorded with an 80-piece symphonic orchestra and, as usual with games in the Halo franchise, a large choir.

With destructible environments, real time physics calculations and intense graphical effects, video game explosions are built to impress — but the best is yet to come. As technology progresses and processors become faster, games will rocket into the sky like never before.

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