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Unreal Engine 4 preview – Epic Games sheds light on the future of graphics

Ever since Epic Games first teased the Unreal Engine 4’s capabilities with a handful of screens, we’ve been aching to see this graphics engine in motion. Could it really be that much more powerful? Would it be a standard-shattering leap forward for videogame visuals, or a minor upgrade to the existing tech? We decided to let the E3 2012 demo of the engine speak for itself – having seen what UE4 is capable of, we think it’ll have a colossal impact on consumers and developers alike.

Guided by Alan Willard, Epic’s senior technical artist, the demo started with a viewing of the “Elemental” concept trailer in its entirety. The intimidating, armor-clad warrior was no doubt impressive looking, though we found ourselves most transfixed by the way the engine simulating molten magma flowing down the side of the volcano-castle hybrid. It seemed our imaginations had done a fairly good job of filling in the gaps between the previously-available screens, so we were anxious to get to the new stuff.

With that, Willard ventured into the in-engine portion of the demo, plopping himself into the same throne room from the Elemental cinematic – only this version was filled with props that would demonstrate UE4’s new features. Light, and the effects that come with it, were central to this Unreal Engine’s capabilities; Willard stressed that all the light in the room was casting reflections that were rendered in real time. Each surface, as in real life, has a degree of reflectivity to it – and unlike previous graphics engines, UE4 is able to render that reflected light on the fly.

 

It doesn’t sound like that big of a deal – until you see what the graphics look like with the lighting effects turned off. Without the real-time reflections, the surroundings looked flat and artificial; with them, the room seemed to glow with a palpable authenticity. Metal statues shined light in every direction (with silver bouncing more radiance than copper), and Willard amplified the effect by rolling around a “ball” of water that coated the ground in an extra-reflective dampness. Even the most minute graphical details, like dust particles, caught sunlight as it beamed through the roof.

Willard continued through a series of rooms, each demonstrating the power of these light-rendering capabilities. Objects emit light due to heat; a hammer (the same one wielding by the Elemental knight) that had been heating in a hearth cast a warm orange glow across the ground – not because it had a light source within the object, but because the hot metal logically gave off its own light. Other vistas demonstrated the way sunlight refracts through billowing smoke, per-pixel lens flares shine off of bright objects, and jade statues had a lifelike luminosity to their texture.

 

The hype about particle effects in UE4 is no joke, either – when the screen bloomed with over a million particles red sparks of light (with nary a lag spike), we were astonished by how plainly pretty the sight was. On the opposite end of the light spectrum, plunging into darkness also has a convincing authenticity to it: UE4 also simulates eye adaptation, so your vision will slowly but surely adjust to pitch-black darkness after prolonged exposure to sunlight.

To the amazement of the group, Willard revealed that everything had been running in the engine’s development kit the entire time; this was no pre-rendered video, but actual striking visuals being rendered in the blink of an eye. Willard also used this opportunity to show off the new-and-improved Unreal Kismet, the gameplay scripting tool seen in previous Unreal Engine releases. The overhauled Kismet looks to be a bonafide boon to developers: you can “translate” what’s happening in the engine to an easy-to-read blueprint of all the scripts that are going on at any given time.

By observing the engine rendering each individual piece of your program, you can literally watch code as its “happening” in real time. It’s as if a director could simultaneously view each line of script and stage direction while the actors perform their roles. If anything’s going wrong with the coding of a dev’s game, the blueprint should do wonders for axing the bug faster and more efficiently. As if that weren’t enough to help devs, you can see the source code within the engine at any time.

Unreal Engine 4 is a standalone product; Willard made it clear that one couldn’t simply “port over” existing UE3 code and expect it to look better (let alone function). Though it shares the same sleek visual style as the most advanced UE3 games, UE4’s lighting effects are no doubt awe-inspiring. It’s a kind of awe that creeps up on you; from what we saw, there’s no one effect that will stun your sense of sight on the spot.

It’s only when you stand back and look at the bigger picture and potential possibilities do you realize how huge UE4 will be for next-gen gaming, by making each and every environment feel utterly real and believable. We’re eager to see how the engine handles character models; until then, all we can do is wait with giddy anticipation for how goddang good games will look in the coming years.

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22 comments

  • Fox_Mulder - June 10, 2012 11:09 p.m.

    Wait.... this isn't the new Skyrim expansion? Could've fooled me.
  • Sovtek - June 9, 2012 9:46 p.m.

    Sorry, you lost me at "lens flare". Hate that crap. Try focusing on the way stuff looks to the human eye, rather than gimmicky camera emulation tomfoolery.
  • NullG7 - June 8, 2012 10:22 p.m.

    Common guys, despite all the inconsistencies you gotta admit it looks pretty cool.
  • robotdickens - June 8, 2012 7:24 p.m.

    Nice. I wonder which company will try to use it first in one of their games.
  • EwoksTasteLikeChicken - June 8, 2012 4:46 p.m.

    I'm sure it would've looked better if the video resolution had been better.
  • shawksta - June 8, 2012 2:46 p.m.

    Looks great but im gonna be looking forward to Devs who will use it Uniquely then what we ALWAYS see Unreal be used for, pretty much like How Retro Used 2 to make Metroid Prime
  • bilstar - June 8, 2012 2:43 p.m.

    Looked pretty good. I don't think the fire and brimstone thing really did it for me though. Nice sparks and red/orange lighting and stuff...
  • I'maCanadian! - June 8, 2012 1:56 p.m.

    Real time blah, blah, blah Rendered shadow reflector blah, blah Show a close up of a human face talking and show the human moving with this engine. Show something familiar from the real world and even a lay person could be impressed. Interesting to note how Radar was most impressed with the molten rock. Likely as many people know what lava should look like.
  • alexgm711 - June 8, 2012 10:37 a.m.

    I guess people don´t understand that next gen won´t run this, unless you are willing to pay 800 bucks for a console. Ask any pc gamer, I´m not exaggerating with the price.
  • alexgm711 - June 8, 2012 10:46 a.m.

    Let alone that the price of games would sky rocket. The development cost for games would at least double. Games would need to sell at at least 80 bucks... Nobody would want to take a risk and create new and innovating gaming ideas, they would only develop generic fps games that would surely sell, but would be the same, over and over.
  • Travia220 - June 8, 2012 10:57 a.m.

    Exactly, Tech Demos are about hype. It gives some insight into shaders and technology that will run the games. However, it would be impossible to achieve that graphic fidelity with Console Makers wanting to keep the price of consoles down.
  • Lucstanfa - June 8, 2012 noon

    Thats where you're wrong. The games are not only better but so is the software to make them. The new engine was created to make games better and easier to reach. Undeniably the next console will break the bank, but games will be as easy to make as they are better. I've dabbled in PC gaming before, and its just straightup expensive. Consoles were always and always will be cheaper. No need to constantly have to buy new hardware when you can be buying new games instead.
  • CrashmanX - June 8, 2012 12:14 p.m.

    Debatable. I've had to repair/fix consoles more than I've had to upgrade parts on my PC in recent years. Yea it used to be a constant upgrade for the PC but with consoles causing a stagnation on graphics it doesn't have to be. My old 9800GT is still rocking games like Skyrim and I only paid like $30 for it a few years ago. Hell this whole PC cost about as much as my PS3 and it's controllers did. $60 for a controller ain't cheap.
  • redRAID3R - June 8, 2012 12:03 p.m.

    If we are talking about the new xbox 360? No not at all, in 2 years graphics would be even better than this tech demo, thus it would cost less. And I don't think game prices would sky rocket, pretty sure new N64 games were around $60-50 and so were xbox games when they came out?
  • ultimatepunchrod - June 8, 2012 9:49 a.m.

    If this kind of stuff will be achievable in game, then the next gen is justified for me. But if it's anything like this gen, get ready for a lot of games to look like this since Unreal Engine seems to be an easy to use tool.
  • Travia220 - June 8, 2012 7:10 a.m.

    I saw the video.. Basically it's Unreal catching up to CryTek. A lot of these features were in CryEngine 3 and it's development kit long before Unreal 4. It's to bad that Epic is still playing catchup.. Although like all Tech Demos, never assume that's what games will look like. Epic has voiced their concern that nextgen hardware isn't going to be powerful enough. Coupled with the fact development costs would sky rocket. It's definitely a sneak peak but will games look like this? I doubt it.
  • angelusdlion - June 8, 2012 8 a.m.

    And that's why everyone uses Crytek's engine rather than Unreal. Oh wait, they don't?
  • CrashmanX - June 8, 2012 12:08 p.m.

    Sooo CryTek has intelligent particle effects and truly dynamic lighting like THAT? I mean I know CryTek is pretty damn impressive. The CryEngine is incredibly good but I don't think I've seen it quite THAT good.
  • MasterBhater - June 8, 2012 2:37 p.m.

    If you think the CryEngine 3 is able to best this, you get your facts from the wrong people
  • jackthemenace - June 8, 2012 6:57 a.m.

    Well, those screenshots definitely look amazing, and I can't wait for the video to be up, but there's still something that looks not-ruite-real-life about them. Don't get me wrong, it's fantastic, I never expected video games to look THIS amazing- but, just like Final Fantasy: Advent Children a few years ago, while it's almost perfect, that tiny little bit of 'not-perfect' really shows- to me, at least and it quite frankly creeps me the hell out. Also, I'm pretty sure the tech that got shown at last years E3- the cool, cyber-punky style video- looked almost as good as this, but I've not really noticed any game since last year look that good, not even Epic's own games. And I get that, on PC, it's probably perfectly possible that they can look that good, but I don't want to get excited about a new engine until they can look just as perfect on consoles.

Showing 1-20 of 22 comments

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