VGBlogger Gift Guides for Geeks & Gamers: Art Books

VGBloggerGiftGuides2013_ArtBooks

So, how did your Black Friday weekend shopping spree go? Get anything good? Or did you save up your cash to blow during the Cyber Monday sales bonanza? Well, if you’re still looking for some gift ideas for friends and loved ones (or yourself, you selfish bastard), starting today through the rest of the month we’ll be offering up some of our hot holiday picks across a wide range of gift guides that don’t necessarily involve video game hardware or software.

We’re kicking off our gift guide festivities this holiday season with a round-up of first-class art books, representing some of the year’s top games like Tomb Raider, Assassin’s Creed IV, God of War: Ascension, Dead Space 3 and Battlefield 4–and more!

The Art of God of War: Ascension (Bluecanvas) – MSRP: $69.99 – Buy From: Amazon.com or Bluecanvas

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Ballistic did an amazing job with The Art of God of War III years back. Three years later, Bluecanvas and Section Studios, in collaboration with Sony Santa Monica Studios, have upstaged and outclassed that book with The Art of God of War: Ascension. Or in God of War terms, slaughtered it like Kratos viciously jamming his Blades of Chaos into the eye of a cyclops. In fact, this art book may just be without equal in the entire pantheon of video game art books, its 400 pages nearly doubling the size of a typical art book, an appropriate accomplishment given the grandiose nature of the God of War brand. But there’s more to this book than its page count and impressive girth. The Art of God of War: Ascension has been put together with a true respect for fine art. Every detail, from the leatherbound hard cover (underneath the paper dust jacket), to the gold-trimmed page edges, to the bone white matte heavy stock pages, to the red ribbon bookmark tether, to the slightly transparent chapter divider pages stamped with a gold omega symbol, to the elegant way the images are framed on the pages, oozes an air of sophistication not normally seen in this medium. This book is like a fine art museum of Greek Mythology you can visit from the comfort of your sofa.

Beneath the classy aesthetics, the book offers an epic collection of orthographics, 3D models and sculptures, environment concepts, weapon and prop images, creature animation sketches, boss designs and more. You will find orthos showing off the many different interchangeable armor pieces for customizing multiplayer avatars. You will see detailed concepts and renders for the game’s mighty mythological beasts. And you will be transported to every campaign location and every multiplayer map simply by looking at the numerous environment paintings. Like the previous God of War art book, you will also be privy to concepts for features and characters that were ultimately scrapped before final production. Archimedes for example was originally designed to be a living cinematic character who would converse with Kratos about the history of the Statue of Delos, but because of time restraints his role had to be reduced to a dead corpse and a few journal entries. Some of the cut boss designs are really cool, too, like the god of fear, Phobos, who actually almost went into production, as well as an epic sea battle that was planned between Kratos and Charybdis. Kratos would be sucked into a tornado-sized whirlpool and fight the titanic sea beast submerged in water. That would have been something special.

The Art of God of War: Ascension doesn’t appear to be as widely available as the other art books you’ll read about, but if you can find a copy it is totally worth its hefty weight in gold.

Tomb Raider: The Art of Survival (BradyGames) – MSRP: $40 – Buy From: Amazon.com

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It’s nice to see a Lara Croft who’s still attractive, yet naturally proportioned and grounded in reality, opposed to previous incarnations which have presented the iconic tomb raider as a larger than life “video game” heroine. Crystal Dynamics has given birth to a new Lara, a powerful female lead who is vulnerable, but full of inner strength, and no longer just a blatant geek sex symbol. Seriously, in Tomb Raider reborn Lara gets battered, bruised, and bloodied more often than Bruce Willis in all of the Die Hard movies combined. She takes a licking and keeps on ticking. Such themes of steadfast survival are the heart and soul of the new Tomb Raider, a far darker and more mature and believable chapter in the action-adventure franchise that was in dire need of a refresh from scratch. Tomb Raider: The Art of Survival’s front cover, a close-up of Lara’s face covered in mud, blood, cuts, scrapes, bruises and the cold stare of unwavering determination, couldn’t embody the game’s artistic vision any better. Once you crack open the cover and begin flipping through the 270 some odd pages, the art team’s mood goal of “Ominous Beauty” smacks you in the face and draws your focused attention until the final page is turned. This new Tomb Raider retains its sense of mystery and wonder, its roots in the discovery of lost civilizations, but is far grittier and more grounded in the real world than any other game in the series. Yet through all the grit and harsh atmosphere, Lara’s coming of age story is a modern-day masterpiece of artistic vision and direction.

In this art book you will discover 3D character, animal, and enemy renders with bios, detailed weapon/prop thumbnails, arresting landscape portraits, beat board sketches visualizing the flow of puzzle sequences and what the art team called “Oh My Shit” moments (like the river slide, the parachute descent, and the scene of Lara tugging the spike out of her stomach) and some archived images of concepts that didn’t make it off the cutting room floor. As always, these “lost images” are some of the most interesting. For example at one point in the game’s early design Lara was going to have to care for a child companion (I’m guessing sort of like how Joel cares for Ellie in The Last of Us). The Oni were also originally described as being creature-like enemies, some dwarfing Lara with their building-sized figures, opposed to the more human samurai warriors seen in the final game. However, the bulk of the book consists of a chronological recap of each environment Lara encounters on her archaeological quest to find the ancient country of Yamatai, complete with an almost CliffsNotes-style synopsis of the storyline. I’m not joking; if you haven’t played the game yet, you might want to hold off reading through the book as it will spoil many pivotal scenes from the campaign. For a real happy holiday, buy the game and art book together. Play the game, and then learn about its creative backstory. That’s a combo sure to put a smile on any gamer’s face.

The Art of Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag (Titan Books) – MSRP: $34.95 – Buy From: Amazon.com or Titan Books
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One of the really cool things about all the Assassin’s Creed games is the way they consistently integrate historically authentic characters and events with the fictional narrative flow of Ubisoft’s video game storytellers. This convergence of real-world history and make believe is naturally most apparent in the area of art design. Ubisoft’s artists always manage to find an ideal visual balance between accuracy to the past with the necessary amount of artistic license to bring the characters and game worlds to life in a familiar yet unique and engaging way. This same philosophy shines through like the bright Caribbean sun in The Art of Assassin’s Creed IV. Ubisoft’s vision of ‘The Golden Age of Piracy’ spills out over 192 pages of detailed character and costume designs, epic sea battles, majestic shipwrecks and painterly sea vistas beautifully representing the more than 50 unique locations featured in the game. For reference, the art team traveled to Havana, Santo Domingo, and Costa Rica, and used photographs as well as maps from the 18th century to design a believable world, while also making sure to give each island a unique visual identity with different atmospheric moods and distinct silhouettes and landmarks that players are able to identify while sailing the open sea (good art design leads to good level design, ya know). The contrast between the high-tech design of Abstergo Entertainment HQ and the exotic open world Edward Kenway calls home sweet home is stark indeed, yet connected through subtle artistic techniques that incorporate some of the nautical design themes into Abstergo’s futuristic architecture.

Ubisoft also turned to the classic works of illustrator Howard Pyle to design embellished yet historically informed pirates like Blackbeard, Calico Jack, and Anne Bonny–and the ships these iconic swashbucklers command. What’s more interesting, is learning about conceptualized content that didn’t make it into the game. For example Ubisoft originally designed Port au Prince to be another explorable island, but due to development constraints the Haitian capital sadly did not make the final cut (though some of the assets for props were salvaged for use elsewhere in the game). Little behind-the-scenes nuggets of knowledge like this are what I love about art books. Want another one? Edward Kenway’s character design was–get this–influenced by Bodhi from Point Break, the hunk-filled action flick about surfing bank robbers. Apparently Patrick Swayze’s reckless charisma was a good source of inspiration for Black Flag’s pirate assassin protagonist.

The Art of Battlefield 4 (Titan Books) – MSRP: $34.95 – Buy From: Amazon.com or Titan Books
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Battlefield isn’t the first series that comes to mind when discussing the topic of video game artistry, but hey, even gritty, hyper-realistic military shooters have passionate art teams that work hard at conceptualizing the characters and environments that the coders and level designers then turn into playable entertainment. In fact, the DICE art team increased from a lone concept artist on Battlefield 3 to a team of five for Battlefield 4, and the added manpower shows itself in the 1,500-1,600 pieces of artwork created during the game’s development. A small sample of the works DICE had plastered all over the studio’s office walls during production can be viewed in The Art of Battlefield 4, which contains character and environment concepts laid out in a chronological sequence based on the game’s single-player mission progression, from the outskirts of Baku, to the neon-lit streets of Shanghai, to the USS Titan naval battle, to the spectacular finale in Suez. Considering multiplayer is typically the main selling point for any Battlefield game, it strikes me as a bit odd that only around 25 of the 192 pages are dedicated to highlighting the design of multiplayer maps. It’s also strange that, for a military game, the book is devoid of concepts for weapons, gadgets, and vehicles. Not even a few pages. These omissions might be met with shock and disappointment from some of the fan base, but overall the book still does a marvelous job capturing the set-piece grandeur, mass destructibility, and environmental variety that explodes on the screen thanks to the firepower of the Frostbite engine. Fans should also enjoy the foreword and introduction, in which the DICE team briefly recap Battlefield’s rise to fame–from the dream idea of a small group of friends at Refraction Games to the blockbuster franchise it has become for DICE and Electronic Arts.

The Art of Dead Space (Titan Books) – MSRP: $34.95 – Buy From: Amazon.com or Titan Books (Text copied from our original review.)
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It wouldn’t be a triple-A game launch without a companion art book, and Titan’s The Art of Dead Space is a classy hardbound accompaniment to the Necromorph-dismembering terror of the Visceral Games space-horror franchise. Over 300 pieces of concept artwork and design sketches present a beautiful, bone-chilling journey through the artistic origins of the entire Dead Space series, including the three main games, Extraction, Ignition, and even the graphic novels Salvage and Liberation. The Art of Dead Space’s pages are splattered with Necromorph concepts and weapon blueprints, jaw-dropping spacescapes and the religious symbols of Unitology. With artwork from the complete series, it’s fascinating to see how the characters and environments evolve from game to game without compromising the core artistic values and tense atmosphere that make Dead Space so visually recognizable. Isaac Clarke’s evolution is of particular interest. It’s so odd seeing his original concept as this generic, buff bro-man video game hero before donning the heavily ribbed engineering suit that has made him a star. I also found charting the progression of environments interesting, going from the terrifyingly confined corridors of the USG Ishimura in Dead Space to the expanse and diversity of the Sprawl space station in Dead Space 2, and now on to the frigid planet of Tau Volantis players will explore in Dead Space 3.

But who am I kidding here? Most people picking up a copy of this art book are probably going to jump straight to the Necromorph chapter, and I for one wouldn’t blame them for doing so. There is a disgusting fascination that comes from eyeballing images of frightening creatures made up of protruding bone fractures, tearing flesh, and body innards that have turned into gory tentacles. The story behind the inspiration for the Necromorphs is just as disturbing. The book debunks the myth that car accident photos were a source of inspiration; however it does reveal that the art team paid a visit to the local butcher to scrounge up experimental animal carcasses, including a goat that was pulled apart and had its insides squished and squeezed. Boy, I sure hope PETA isn’t reading this right now… Interesting design insights such as this combined with nearly 200 pages of glossy artwork make The Art of Dead Space a no-brainer collectible for any fan.

EXPOSÉ 11 (Ballistic Publishing) – MSRP: Starting at $69 – Buy From: Amazon.com or Ballistic Publishing

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Ballistic’s 11th annual bound showcase of the “Finest Digital Art in the Known Universe” has arrived, bigger and bolder than ever. OK, so technically it’s the same size as Expose 10–288 pages. But this year’s edition features two more categories (that brings the tally up to 22), and even more images (587, up from last year’s 548) from an entry pool of more than 400 talented artists from around the globe, 185 of which are new contributors. A total of 8,100 images were submitted and reviewed by an international panel of esteemed industry judges (Epic Games art director Chris Perna, Oddworld Inhabitants Lorne Lanning, legendary movie concept artist Syd Mead, etc) responsible for selecting the standout Master Award winner as well as runners-up Awards of Excellence for each category.

Before diving into the smorgasbord of original artwork, you can read a Grand Master profile honoring the great fantasy artist Roger Dean, and acquaint yourself with the personal bios for the 22 Master Award winners. After the first 20 pages, the only text you’ll be seeing is for the titles of each image, which cover the full spectrum of artistic genres: Portrait (painted), Portrait (rendered), Portrait (illustrated), Warriors & Conflict, Science Fiction, Fantasy, Fantasy Femmes, Concept Art, Comic/Manga, Matte Painting, Environment, Architecture (exterior), Architecture (interior), Robotic/Cyborg, Game Art, Abstract & Design, Whimsical, Transport, Steampunk, Surreal and Storytelling. Needless to say, this book is crammed with artistic diversity, representing the unique styles and creative visions of the global digital art community. Through visuals alone you can feel each artist’s love and passion for what they do–and if you’re like me (someone who’s always loved art but has also always lacked artistic talent and creativity) you might just feel a little bit jealous over the gift all of these artists were blessed with. Whether you’re an artist yourself or simply an admirer of the fine works of other talented individuals, Expose 11 is a must-have for your art book library.

Creative Essence: Creatures (Ballistic Publishing) – MSRP: $69 – Buy From: Amazon.com or Ballistic Publishing

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Part tutorial, part art book, Creative Essence: Creatures provides an insightful glimpse into the minds of some of today’s best and brightest 3D modelers and concept artists. Representing the movie and game industries with credits to video games like God of War: Ascension and Uncharted 2, and Hollywood blockbusters such as The Amazing Spider-Man, Thor, Gladiator, Avengers, Avatar, Iron Man 3, The Matrix and The Hobbit, Ballistic pulled together a crew of eight artists and gave them complete creative freedom to design original monsters just for this book. That’s right, the gnarly creatures brought to still-life over the course of 250 pages are entirely new, never before seen.

After splitting into two teams of four to compete in a friendly creature “cover star” competition, in which each participant worked on a phase of their team’s creature and passed it on to the next artist like a relay race, each artist is given a chunk of pages to describe their process for designing a creature. This book is a tutorial to a certain extent, but not the kind of step-by-step guide typically associated with the word. Instead, you get to take a rare look inside the mind of a master artist, a chance to learn about the decision making process that goes into conceptualizing, drawing, modeling and sculpting a monster that could only exist in one’s twisted imagination. You will see a flying jelly fish bug, a hooka pipe-smoking alien, a rat-turkey egg thief (with texture reference pulled from raw turkey skin from Thanksgiving dinner), a Mantapup (an adorable hybrid between a manta ray and a puppy dog) and other bizarre beasts slowly come alive through sketches, doodles, concepts, 3D sculpts and the final renders. Anyone with an interest in creature/character design will find the tips and insight offered by this book to be an invaluable resource for improving their craft. Or, if you just want to look at some creepy creatures, this book’s great for that too!

Many other art books came out this year that we weren’t able to put our hands and eyes on first hand. Here are a few other book suggestions that any video game art collector will surely enjoy. (If any additional ideas pop up, this guide will be updated throughout the remainder of the year.)

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- The Art of the Last of Us (Dark Horse Comics)
- The Art of Remember Me (Dark Horse Comics)
- The Art of BioShock Infinite (Dark Horse Comics)

Disclosure: All books featured in this guide were provided to VGBlogger.com as review copies from their respective publishers.

About the Author

Matt Litten is a 28 year old from-the-womb gamer turned video game reviewer/blogger and current editor/owner/operator of VGBlogger.com. Matt got his first taste of gaming as a youngster on the NES and Atari, and the rest is history from there. In 2004, three years removed from high school and still looking for a career direction in life, Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com, and after a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez Matt turned his attention to VGBlogger, and to this day is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary.