Epic Games’ Unreal Engine 5 is near photorealistic

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Epic games just unveiled its Unreal Engine 5
Image: Epic Games

We’re already starting to get a sense of what the future of gaming will look like thanks to the unveiling of the PS5 and Xbox Series X consoles. However, much of the third-party software that will support them remains a mystery.

On Wednesday, Epic Games announced Unreal Engine 5. The latest iteration of its game engine is absolutely stunning. A demo video running on Sony’s forthcoming PlayStation 5 showed off its many capabilities.

Every indication seems to point towards the fact that the next generation of gaming will finally embrace the idea of living film. It appears that Epic’s latest game engine will deliver what PlayStation has promised from the beginning—games that feel like an interactive cinematic piece.

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Endless Triangles

When it comes to rendering complex virtual environments, triangles are everything. They make up the core of a game’s landscape, characters, and set the stage for the many effects which are layered on top of them. Having more triangles in a single frame is akin to having more pixels in a photo. More triangles allow an engine to render complex, large environments with extreme precision and clarity.

Epic’s Unreal Engine 5 is all about the triangles. Thanks to a new technology called Nanite, the engine is able to render billions of polygons in a single frame. One scene in the demo video shows the main character entering a room full of ornate statues. Epic says that each one is made up of 33 million triangles. It also notes that the entire room is made of more than 16 billion of them. The new engine will create approximately 20 million triangles per frame, ultimately creating “triangles the size of pixels.”

Image: Epic Games

As for what that looks like, the results are mesmerizing. The demo of Unreal Engine 5 looks like it was shot on a 4K camera in real life—not like something being rendered in real-time.

Epic CEO Tim Sweeney says, “The graphics speak for themselves. And Epic has always pushed the bleeding edge of what’s possible.”

Meanwhile, CTO Kim Libreri said, “The next-gen consoles [PS5 and Xbox Series X] are going to give consumers a quantum leap, and UE5 is another leap on top of that.”

To be fair, Epic’s demo is just that—a demo. At their launch, neither console will be able to replicate such stunning performance in an entire studio title. However, as developers become fluent with Unreal Engine 5, likely within a year or two, Libreri notes that it is certainly possible.

Stunning Light Show

While polygons are important, another feature has drawn a lot of attention as the gaming world prepares to make the leap into a new generation of hardware and software—ray tracing. The way that digital worlds render and respond to light has a huge impact on what a scene looks like. Side-by-side comparisons of a game that uses the lifelike effects of raytracing next to one that doesn’t attest to that.

Although it’s a bit different, Unreal Engine 5 also has some nifty lighting features. Epic calls the tech Lumen. It notes that the software is able to dynamically light details of every triangle in a scene on the fly.

Epic team members Brian Karis and Jerome Platteaux explained how it works in the demo video. They showed how impactful Lumen is by turning it off momentarily. In an instant, the scene lost its vitality. Then, when it was turned back on, the animated cave looked lifelike once again.

It’s already known that next-gen consoles are going to have the hardware necessary to support features like ray tracing. The fact that the Unreal Engine can produce such stunning effects in this demo without it speaks volumes. It will be incredibly interesting to see how the two collide in next-gen titles.

Meanwhile, the team at Epic Games wants to ensure that next-gen developers feel they have the freedom to make games on non-console platforms. Specifically mentioning the multiplatform success of Fortnite, Sweeney says, “You can build a high-end console game and it can look fantastic and you can also make it work on smartphones, and you can build an audience far bigger than just the hardcore gaming audience by shipping it on more platforms.”

When it launches next year, Unreal Engine 5 will support both current and next-gen consoles, PC, Mac, iOS, and Android. That versatility is good for both the engine a beautiful future for gaming.

Integrating with New Consoles

Interestingly, Epic notes that its latest game engine won’t’ release until next year. It will become available as a preview in the early half of 2021 but the full version won’t be available until the latter half. This means that it will miss the launch of next-gen consoles by almost a year.

The team at Epic Games claims that it’s nothing to worry about. It says, “Epic is designing for forward compatibility, so developers can get started with next-gen development now in UE4 and move projects to UE5 when ready.”

For developers that choose to use the new engine, the royalties structure will be a bit different. Epic will now let developers use Unreal Engine 5 for free and won’t start collecting its five percent royalty payments until after the first $1 million in sales. Notably, it is also waiving all fees from sales generated through its Steam competitor, the Epic Game Store.

As far as integrating with the new consoles, things should be seamless, Epic wasn’t shy about praising Sony for the PS5’s architecture. Sweeney says, “The storage architecture on the PS5 is far ahead of anything you can buy on anything on PC for any amount of money right now. It’s going to help drive future PCs. They’re going to see this thing ship and say, ‘Oh wow, SSDs are going to need to catch up with this.’”

Of course, he is referring to the console’s ultra-fast M.2 solid-state drive. Sony claims that it will help games load almost instantly and let developers devote more resources to visual quality.

On both the PS5 and Xbox Series X, Unreal Engine 5 will certainly power many of the most beautiful games that release in the next several years.

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