Lords of the Fallen Creative Director Cezar Virtosu on Building One of the First AAA Unreal Engine 5 Games - Interview

Lords of the Fallen Creative Director Cezar Virtosu on Building One of the First AAA Unreal Engine 5 Games - Interview

Dan Webb

The new Lords of the Fallen (the one due out later this year) has been through rather a lot since the original game first released in 2014, but, under the guiding hand of third developer Hexworks (following Deck13 and Defiant Studios), it's almost here.

Recently, we had the chance to sit down and chat with Creative Director Cezar Virtosu, Creative Director, picking his brain on the studio taking the reins on what started life as Lords of the Fallen 2, what it's like to be among the first AAA Unreal Engine 5 games, and how the new name could prove confusing.

Additionally, we ask Virtosu about the challenges of layering the game's two worlds of Axiom and Umbral on top of one another, and what, if anything the studio has learned and taken from the original Lords of the Fallen. You can watch our full Lords of the Fallen interview with Virtosu below, or read the transcript at your leisure. Or do both, if you like.

So first things first, why drop the ‘2’ from the title? Why start afresh? Is it not gonna be confusing for people with two Lords of the Fallen out there?

Well, it is a challenging, difficult game. I guess this is one of the challenges.. 

To buy it, ha?

Yes, of course, but in all honesty, yes, we set out to make Lords of the Fallen 2. I mean, that was the mandate. That was why we were hired. That's why we jumped on the CI Games ship. 

So the studio was created to handle this game. We were making Lords of Fallen 2, but there was a massive gap between the release of the two games. And when we were putting the bones of this title, we were looking three or four years into the future. What are the creative decisions that we're going to take in order for us to have a fighting chance? 

So, what happened is that after sifting through all the feedback, we knew that, uh, this is an established franchise and it has 8 million users. It reviewed decently and it had a bit of a legacy.

We were keen to wrap the story and have the players see the results of Harkyn, his exploits and his time in Mournstead.

We put it far into the future because one of the first questions on surveys was, “would you buy Lords of the Fallen 2?” And a lot of folks said, “do I need to play the first one? I'm not exactly sure I'm not ready to dive head first into a sequel, especially since they're that far apart.” That was one of the reasons, it's like the death of 1000 cuts. 

The second reason is that we innovated enough to change all the paradigms. And I do mean all the paradigms. We inherit absolutely all the mechanics and the way the game kind of, you know, what type of game it is and the story and the mythos, we explain it tenfold and we changed a lot about it. And I do mean a lot. 

It felt wrong to call it Lords of the Fallen 2 because it was different. It's a completely different game. Yes, the threads lead to the exploits of Harkyn, but it is a completely different game. So then it became The Lords of the Fallen, because it was a reboot, and a sequel at the same time, but mostly a reboot.

Then feedback came that it was confusing, so we decided to drop the The and just call it Lords of the Fallen. And it sounds a bit meandering now that you step outside after all these years and look at it, but this could only be Lords of the Fallen.

It's not like we're pushing aside the 2014 title. That is not the case. We are incredibly reverent and we made good work on it. But this is a reboot, therefore, lots of fun.

So players who played the original and now they’re going to play this one, if it is a reboot of sorts, what are they gonna be able to take from their first experience of the original? Or is it completely fresh? 

No, we took everything. We took the mechanics, the story, the lore, the characters… some characters, important characters, that may or may not make an appearance here. It’s 1000 years later. That is a bit absurd if you think about it, but they will find threads and they will see the consequences of Harkyn's actions.

Another reason why it's not Lord of Fallen 2 is that we move the narrative away from Harkyn. He’s no longer the vehicle. Characters - the players created with their avatar - their own sort of hero, and these are all characters that come to Mournstead and be resurrected and so on. So as I mentioned, we changed way too many paradigms for this to be a sequel.

So, what are the core pillars of this new game, what are you shooting for in terms of foundations?

Firstly, addressing the feedback from the previous game or as we set out, because we built it from scratch, we wanted to be at the forefront of technology. Therefore, we could not create it in the CryEngine like the previous one was, nor work on Unreal 4. I mean, we started to work on Unreal 4, but we were looking at Unreal 5, because we wanted to incorporate all the new technology and be in tune, and be, sort of, the first triple-A that takes the Unreal 5 engine by the horns. So, modernising… It is a key word that we had on that fateful PowerPoint presentation, but what does modernising mean?

It means, the first game was a product of its time and this new game, it has to be competitive in the new market, which means making the game more realistic, more immersive, more grounded, because what is the realism in a fantasy game? You look at your Game of Thrones versus World of Warcraft. Game of Thrones is a dark fantasy. It's much more grounded. You see the misery of the world and how the supernatural twists it and how everything is weaved with negative emotion. How the world itself is on the brink and it's people, their mentality is just frayed. So, armed with this knowledge we just made it a dark fantasy.

Now, it's strongly anchored in medievalry, from the sword techniques to the world itself. We have taken inspiration from actual landmarks and actual places in the real world, because when you establish the foundation, then if you see anything outta the ordinary and weird, it's much easier to be intrigued and be immersed, because the foundation is real. So, that's how we plan to modernise it.

And obviously, the biggest effort was on gameplay. To make it fast and responsive and more than everything, fluid. And not necessarily fast in terms of how fast the character moves. Yes, the character moves faster, a bit faster than in the previous game, but that doesn't give you the feeling of actual speed and alacrity.

But how fluent combat is, how you can transition from a heavy to a light attack seamlessly. Even change stances in between attacks, how you come out of the animations just a bit faster, the recoveries are just a bit faster and you're healing much quicker now. You can parry while moving. You can still play the fantasy of the big burly warrior with the tanky armour, the marauder with the weapon as big as the sofa. We give you more options in terms of playstyles. You play the roles, you play the rangers and everything else in between. 

What has Unreal Engine 5 allowed you to do that you couldn't do before? 

So, firstly, it goes without saying, it allowed us more bandwidth in terms of technology. Initially when we started with the Umbral world, the parallel world, and everything, it felt like a very daunting task.

And the limitation of the Unreal 4 in terms of streaming and characters and everything was keenly felt. Now, looking forward to Unreal Engine 5, we were 100% anxious to see how they would improve on that technology to allow us to load more things in, to have more control on the resources allocated to each job family.

But more than this, the improvements in technology of Unreal such as lumen was incredibly important. It was a shift of paradigms, it took us a bit to understand it, because we no longer made light in the way we did, but now it's more dynamic. It's a bit more work, but at the same time, the results were on-hand.

You can test, you can now highlight the golden path, you can obfuscate elements. It's absolutely fantastic. A nanite for the definition and detail of the environment, it looks absolutely beautiful. It looks like a picture Chaos in terms of all the physics, all the ribbons, everything that hangs and dangles, the improvements on the animation pipeline. So this was a game changer for sure, but the most important aspect is the mental sanity and the confidence that we are on the forefront of the technology race, and we can adopt whatever comes in.

So with the two worlds, the Umbral and the Axiom, are they layered on top of each other? Are you having to build exactly two worlds on top of each other that you just see through different lenses?

Yes, sir, that is correct. So the way we went about to do this, and this was a production hurdle and a nightmare that unfolded slowly, because initially we said, we're not building two games at the same time. No. No, of course not. But we opened the Pandora's Box. Soon, everything was Umbral. People early on from the play test understood, like that is something, you guys are onto something and that gave us enough rope to hang ourselves with. 

But all jokes aside, we realised we had a winner. So, initially, when we ran on older tech to change everything seamlessly, because we load all the Umbral, the NPCs, all the systems, all the mechanics, all the interactables. They're effectively there, but you don't see them. There are Umbral enemies that look at you and they react to you. You raise your lamp, the zombies will see you and they're gonna try to hit you. There are two games. Initially, you had to go through a loading time, so we had to respawn you in the previous area and now in Umbral you have to escape.

But that did not fulfil the fantasy of you playing the error, trying to play through the game over screen, trying to crawl your way back. So, with Unreal Engine 5, we were able to better allocate these resources and be able to load all these things. We still have tweaks to do, but we're quite happy how things are turning out.

So, obviously the new gen consoles are super powerful and the PC you can push as far as you want, but in that mix you've also got the Xbox Series S consoles. There's been a few developers recently like Baldur’s Gate 3 devs, Larian, who said they're struggling a little bit with the console, and it’s delaying the launch there. Are you having any such issues? Did you have any problems with that? 

So, unfortunately I don't know much of their struggles. Yes, each console is a new house. With the new layout, with fans and detractors, and we are making strides to be everything on the same level. And, we have achieved that with the help of Epic.

Epic has been incredibly accommodating, they have been a great support for us, and invaluable to help us understand where they are, where they're going, because when we were working on this game, we were looking forward to features and things that were not quite ready yet. Not finished. The present but not finished.

So, we are in a comfortable place technology-wise, but we are still tweaking.

So what lessons did you learn from the first game then to take into this game? 

So, I myself did not work on the game. Deck13 did. So I, myself, I was not involved. I was a fan of the game, but was not involved.

Okay, as a different perspective then, you, as a fan going into this game, what did you want to see in the follow-up that perhaps wasn't done in the original?

So, me moving in… I mean, clearly this all kicked off based on a PowerPoint that I wrote in a dingy hotel on a laptop. The lessons, because the industry evolved, as I mentioned, the first game was pretty much a product of that time. I wanted more immersion, and whatever project I would work on from now on, I will stick to this tenet. 

Immersion is achieved... It's such an elusive, ethereal, esoteric word, but in order to ground the experience, and make it very compelling, it doesn't matter what the art style is, it doesn't matter the definition, but to create a compelling environment that tells a story without voicing it.

Environmental storytelling, showing, not telling, and all these things. I learned that it's very important to write the story of the place and the history. And what is this room for? Who lived here? Was he a sculptor? Was he a butcher? These are easy things you can render in the world. You put a rotting piece of meat with a knife in it, forgotten because this person hasn't been in the house, and a trail of blood leading to a broken window and that's it. Step away from it.

There's nobody to tell you what happened to that person, and you will go through that space looking with the lamp and moving on. But if you stop for a second, you are gonna notice things that you're not… oh, there is detail here. 

And if rooms like this are everywhere, then it's easy for you to internalise the journey because you are passing through lived areas. So this is my biggest takeaway working on this project. 

So, the game has, obviously, been through a couple of different studios, and then you guys set up this studio to work on this game and you started from scratch… Is there anything you took from the initial builds from the early concepts, that you took forward into the final game, or was this completely just a fresh start for you?

100% fresh. Well, we initially took their builds to create very, very, very small prototypes to show to people that we can do it, because our project hung on the same thread. The same review. So we took it initially to prototype, but obviously it's no longer the case. We have rebuilt everything Unreal Engine 5, started with zero animation, sound, VFX, we had nothing.

And now, in three years and a half, this is it. It's at your fingertips.


Lords of the Fallen launches for Xbox Series X|S, PlayStation 5, and PC on 13th October.

    You need to register before being able to post comments

Game navigation