Gameplay in DA is poised to be liquified awesome, as are the environments. Looking at some professionally made maps helps put your own environment art in perspective. I have taken a screenshot of a simple random hallway in CS:GO and analyzed why it is the standard people expect in modern games. I thought it would be nice to point out what makes a simple scene awesome, and hopefully our loyal readers will gain a bit of an insight into how to look at an environment as more than just an environment. If you can quantify what makes something look good and then replicate that, you'll progress in your skill faster than the average noob
Here's a simple screenshot I took, and the resulting revelations:
1. Details outside of playing space
Even though those windows face into the playable area outside, they add good detail to this hallway and show a good way of adding detail. If we have just a wall along one side of the room all we can do is populate it with static props, decals and lighting. Rather than doing that, how about making another 3d area, inaccessible to the player? In an office building this could be a closed off room with desks and shit in it. In any building it could simply be a window showing the outside world.
Of course, in DA we love jumping through windows. A glass surface is just another chance to make an epic midair entrance, akimbos asunder. In order to prevent the player from thinking it is a window to be jumped through - and supermanning headfirst into a solid wall - we can use the glass_unbreakable texture (which has wire mesh in it, adding more detail) or put metal bars, wooden planks or some other material in the window to show it is blocked off (and adding detail). Also, as with these windows, you can just make them inaccessible: too small (a player can slide/dive through a space 25 units high) too high, or oddly shaped. Or don't even have them as windows, some places have pipes or wires running behind grills in the wall. This is all 3d detail that the player can't access, but adds to the world in the map.
2. Ceiling just as important as walls
You can't just slap a tiling texture on a ceiling and assume the player won't look up. We boogaloo in all directions. Structurally, ceilings are a good place to put things you need to have, but don't want people to trip over. In this image, pipes. Ceilings are also the first point of contact with the roof, and as such will usually have supports. Supports can add a lot of detail, buttresses, logs, diagonal stays and braces, there's heaps of detail to be had here. Just make sure to think about the collision of it all, we don't want a player falling from glorious flight because of a 2 unit thick brush. Smooth it with playerclip brushes, or func_illusionary that mook.
Also don't be afraid to change up the texture in a long ceiling, or even bring in different levels/materials. Sometimes people add onto buildings and the result doesn't always match. Consider what the floor above is for and made of, and map with that in mind. Other things to have up there are fire alarm pipes, ventilation, maybe a bit of ceiling plaster has come off and you can see the supports and wires inside, go crazy with it.
3. Detailed doors, even if not in use
In this map, we have a nice roller door with side rails, side braces for the roll, and we can see a little bit of the roller door hanging down. That makes for one pretty accessway. In a small area like this, that highish-budget bessie is going to get optimized out out as soon as the player walks through that area-portalled doorway so don't even think about skimping in small areas like this.
The toilet door on the left is another good example of bringing the outside world into our map with bsp trickery. It's a toilet block, ok, that makes sense, but toilets are traditionally dead ends by design, which goes against our map flow principles. Don't delete it, and don't go to all the useless effort building the toilet, just leave the door closed, it adds silhouette AND texture details to an otherwise bare and boring bsp brush. Loving this alliteration or what?
4. Structural features creating silhouettes
This hallway has a lot of that. In concept it is simply a rectangular block with a door at each end and in the side, but we don't need to leave it like that. If your wall is going to have no effect on the player, might as well break it up a bit, kinda like we did in the first lesson. This clever meticulous mapper man has decided to break it up vertically as well, with the concrete block architrave running along the roof-wall edge.
You'll also notice that most rooms have architraves running along the wall/ceiling edge to hide the gap. This can be a good way to add detail. When you have a simple wall that is doing nothing, think about how you can break it up to add structural interest for the player. A boogaloo is nice, but a sexy boogaloo is nicest.
5. Subtle and relevant use of decals
An easy way to add detail to a wall is to throw a decal at it. HL2 has all those nice dilapidated plaster tears and rust drips all over the place, but you can't just slap them down and hope for the best. Why is that decal there? I have seen some terribad maps that have plaster tears on cinder block textures or rusty drips on a wooden fence. Decals are nice, but think about it from a real world perspective. Who would put a nice rug in the middle of an industrial accessway? Why are there oil sump drips on underside of the roof? How did those meddling delinquents spray paint the side of that smooth concrete wall, 30 feet up?
6. Stuff along the edges of rooms
This one is a bit of suck eggs, but it goes deeper than spamming entities. Our design principles of simple world collisions behooves placing models along the edges of rooms as opposed to in the guts of it. DA doesn't have a cover system. Boogalooers don't take cover, they soar through the air like a glorious eagle. An eagle with deagles. Golden deagles.
Players will tend to stay away from walls in DA because they interrupt gameplay so take that opportunity to populate the BSP walls until they look fully nice. Seats, desks, potplants, bookshelves, couches, storage racks, I dunno, have a look at a wall near you and think about what is there and how it could be used in DA. Again, if you need to player clip brush it to ensure a smoov moov, do it.
This is just a fast look at a simple doorway. If you want to make a sexy map, I advise you go through some already sexy maps and have a look. If you don't have CS:GO, I have a few copies I can give as gifts, ask on my forum thread for a copy. I only ask that you make a map for DA in exchange.