Countdown to ‘Phantom: Covert Ops’—Art Department Deep Dive

Oculus Blog
June 24, 2020

Phantom: Covert Ops launches on Oculus Quest and the Rift Platform tomorrow, and we couldn’t be more excited. We kicked off the week with a behind-the-scenes take from nDreams Technical Director Grant Bolton, followed by an interview with Studio Art Director Glenn Brace. Today, Brace is back for a deep dive on the game’s visuals.

How big is the team that worked on the art for Phantom: Covert Ops?

Glenn Brace: The team for Phantom was quite big and varied for a VR dev—we peaked at about 27 artists. We had nine Environment Artists, four VFX Artists, two Character Artists, four Animators, two Audio, three Concept Artists, one working on UI, plus one Art Director and an Art Manager!

What influenced the character design and overall art direction?

GB: Our visual pillars were carefully iterated based on a fusion between hardware limitations and creative context. If we picked our battles appropriately, we could really punch above our weight—that was the initial strategy.

This incredibly focused, almost noir visual style and context afforded us the opportunity to really aim our technical team all in the right places. The support we had from our graphics and tech team was second to none. Our code team built upon UE4’s systems to allow us to really amp up our ability to deliver heavy atmosphere, impressive water, massive environments, and most importantly, outstanding flexibility in lighting.

The resulting noir influenced, theatrically lit, atmospheric, and cinematic rendering style all helped amplify the emotional experience, delivering unique and contemporary visuals, in a fully explorable world, in full frame.

Pair that rendering with an early ’90s action movie tonal vibe and you get a Michael Bay finish to a Tom Clancy Cold War plot—an overarching movie style take on a very familiar genre. That was the leaping point for most of the characters and cast. A somewhat archetypical villain vs. you, carrying on the fight from the heroes of past...

The fundamental harmony between hardware and art direction has enabled more than we originally anticipated. It was instrumental for us to deliver something truly original for both Quest and the Rift Platform.

Do you have a favorite piece of concept art you can share?

GB: There was a massive amount of concept art produced—every vertical surface in the studio was covered in it. There are plenty of favorites, but definitely a few stand out pieces that had a massive influence on the team:

Original Pitch Key Art — A very early piece created during the original conceptual phase to communicate the essence of what we were aiming to achieve: that up close and personal feeling when infiltrating right under the enemy’s nose.

Harbor Entrance — Showing there is more to kayaking than rivers and forest, plus offering a sense of the vulnerability that can come with open stretches of water.

The Laboratory — Mission 2, our production benchmark level. Visualizing a shift from the original natural environment into an industrial setting, a creative spin on the early established art style.

Satellite Dish — Although this area massively evolved, the sheer sense of scale and awe achieved when exploring such an epic set piece maintained throughout the development. The sense of scale and dereliction portrayed here has been massively influential and is evident across the entire game.

If you had to pick one, what would you say is the game’s most stunning visual moment for you?

GB: With such an atmospherically charged experience, it is almost impossible to pick just the one. With the varied experiences and emotions amplified throughout the game, each represent such contrasting high points.

For the sweet blend of tension gameplay, visual tone, and extreme sense of atmosphere and composition, I’d have to pick Mission 5, the Ruins, the Train Yard run in. It’s a very memorable moment with cinematic traits and such a heightened sense of presence, plus it’s a great start to a new mission that really switches things up a bit!

If I could a call out another, I would have to give a shout out the main menu’s UI and its eerie underwater theme and tone. I’m not quite sure how it makes me feel at the moment, but it certainly hits an ominous vibe, and I like it!

What’s your favorite part of the game and why?

GB: Mission 6 — the accumulation of all the tactics and tools put into practice— full on stealth, at its best, played my way, with my choices. The peak of badassery.

What’s next for you? Any exciting updates in the works?

GB: Absolutely loads, lots of thoughts towards Quest. Phantom has been a massive learning curve for such new hardware, tools, and technology. Now with so much in place I’m super excited about where we build upon those ideas and maturing tech to take things even further.

Anything else you’d like to share with our readers?

GB: The kayak might sound a bit crazy, but trust us, play it, experience it. This game is simply an intensely immersive place to be and to explore as much as a real gamer’s game.

Whether you are taking part in the core gameplay mechanics or simply traversing and investigating the world, Phantom never ceases to deliver an unprecedented feeling of 1:1 presence with a heightened sense of both immersion and emotion.

Phantom is such a mix of artistic visuals, interactive gameplay, and believable 1:1 Interactions all rolled into a cohesive cinematic experience—I’m still amazed at the emotional rollercoaster it manages to deliver. You have not played anything like this before.

Phantom: Covert Ops launches on Oculus Quest and the Rift Platform June 25.