There's a very good chance that portable gaming changed forever last night . We're talking serious vision-of-the-future stuff here, and even better, that stuff is available right now. To you. For free. Trust me, shit just got real.
Last night Epic Games, creator of Gears of War, Unreal Tournament and the is-there-a-single-HD-game-that-isn't-made-with-it Unreal Engine 3, released a free tech demo on the iPhone's App store. That demo is called Epic Citadel, and is a real-time, fully controllable, first-person look at the Unreal Engine 3 running on a device supposedly less powerful than a PSP. It looks like the screenshot above, which I took last night as I played. And that is to say, it looks like a full-sized console game.
All the rules of portable gaming have changed, and now, both myself and Mr. Towell will tell you why.
"F*ck me gently in the eye socket. Download Epic Citadel right this very second from the App Store. Genuinely speechless... well, apart from all the swearing."
"F* ck me, they've even given it brilliant controls. Carmack vs. Cliffy B: FIGHT!"
"Honestly, I'm calling witchcraft on this sh*t. Cliffy B needs burning at the stake."
So went the excitable text message conversation between myself and Meiks last night.
Above: I grabbed all these screens myself in-game last night
And a few minutes later, the following one occured between myself and Justin:
DH: "They've got Unreal 3 running on the f*cking iPhone. Get Epic Citadel now!"
JT: "Downloading now."
DH: "Seriously! I have a strange feeling everything's just changed. There is no excuse to question iPhone gaming any more."
JT: "Absolutely! My iPhone is now an Xbox 360!"
Above: The reflections are stunning and that chandelier has physics
And it is. Revealed last night at an Apple event in London, Epic Citadel is a fully interactive tech demo for Project Sword, an adventure/sword fighting game currently in development by the Epic-owned Chair Entertainment, developer of last year's Metroid-alike XBLA hit Shadow Complex. The full game is currently slated for a Q4 release, but just having played the demo, already there's a very real sense that gaming has just taken a big step forward.
Put simply, this is the Unreal Engine 3 running on a device you can fit in your pocket. The environmental models are smooth and detailed. The textures are off the chart. The bump-mapping makes things as tangible as anything in any console game you've ever played. The lighting effects, reflections, and overall ambience are gloriously immersive and affecting. And to top it all off, the simulated twin-analogue controls work better than in any game I've ever played on the iPhone. The potential for the full game is unlike anything we've ever imagined on a phone, hell, even a full-scale portable console. Frankly, I'd have loved to have seen John Carmack's reaction when this one was revealed.
Above: Even in the demo, the sense of scale is ridiculous
And now Justin's reaction, because we were both so excited this morning that we couldn't agree on who was going to write this feature:
"It's so exciting, I can't describe it. My iPhone 3GS is suddenly a handheld Xbox 360. Sure, there's nothing to actually do in this app except admire the graphics as it's just a tech demo, but the possibilities are astonishing. Basically, Oblivion on iPhone is suddenly a possibility, which makes my PSP look totally redundant. I’m especially impressed by the small file size – you could fit a game that looks like this into a single gig that wouldn’t leave your iPhone full up in one go.
I do wonder what the superior grunt of the PSP could do with this tech… which then makes me wonder what 3DS could do with it. I stop at that point because it all gets too much for me, and I have to lie down."
Above: Those shimmering effects are beautiful in motion
Oh course, there remains the question of how the iPhone's touch-screen will cope with the kind of controls needed for a full-sized title. While the simulated sticks work brilliantly in the demo, they won't do the job alone. But given that we're promised sword fighting rather than FPS, I'd guess Chair has differing control systems planned for exploration and combat. Time will tell exactly how the gameplay works, but given the fanfare Epic and Apple are giving this, I can't imagine they'll do a half-arsed job on working it out.
And of course, as Justin said, the even bigger, and far more exciting question is how far this burgeoning revolution in handheld gaming tech can take us. With Unreal 3 and id's port of Rage now running on a machine more traditionally known for the likes of Canabalt and Angry Birds, just imagine what will happen if this sort of technology is unleashed on the 3DS and a future (or even current) PSP. Whenever I try to, I just end up happily weeping for a little while, but tell me what you think. And for the love of God, go to the App Store and download Epic Citadel immediately.