I've heard the idea before: living film. A game that feels cinematic. This has been every PlayStation's promise since the beginning of the century.
Watching Epic Games' first peek at Unreal Engine 5 on PlayStation 5, however, ended up making me more of a believer than I thought I'd be.
The video, run on PlayStation 5 hardware according to Epic, is largely a showcase for how much detail Unreal Engine 5 can present, and how it can be lit. The whole 8-plus-minute video looks like a prerendered cutscene or part of a lush animated film.
The style, somewhere between Tomb Raider and Assassin's Creed, shows a woman exploring a cave. She finds endless elaborate statues and finally flies across a crumbling city that extends to the horizon. Unreal Engine 5's key features are an ability to bring in film-level digital assets and render them via tech called Nanite, which enables a ton of polygons to be presented at once, and a complete lighting system called Lumen that promises to dynamically light every scene detail of those polygons on the fly. Epic Games' 4K version of the video is below.
In one part of the video, in a room full of crazily ornate statues, Epic says each statue model has 33 million drawn triangles, and that the room has over 16 billion triangles. Unreal Engine 5 on the PS5 will create about 20 million triangles per frame, which ends up in "triangles the size of pixels," Epic says.
The engine's spatial audio capabilities also promise calculations of room geometry to create dynamic sound, too. It all seems amazing, but while the PS5 should launch later this year, Unreal Engine 5 won't arrive until 2021. The preview will be in early 2021, with the full version coming late next year. This video is just an extended long-term early peek.
How good could PS5 or Xbox One Series X be?
The sense of detail and scale… well, you can watch the demo video for yourself. Next-gen consoles have made big promises in the past, though, and demos don't clearly indicate what the actual games will do. Unreal Engine 5 won't even arrive until 2021, which also means that next-gen consoles including the PlayStation 5 and the Xbox One Series X will still be waiting for some of their most interesting tools when they launch, most likely, at the end of 2020.
Epic promises Unreal Engine 5 will have similar capabilities on both the PS5 and the next Xbox, but the demo video runs on a PS5, which immediately makes me wonder whether Epic thinks PS5 is the best hardware. Epic's Tim Sweeney won't make any direct performance comparisons, but during a conversation on Zoom he says that Unreal Engine 5 takes advantage of next-gen SSD storage speeds. "[Unreal Engine] Five now is optimizing for next-generation storage to make loading faster by multiples of current performance. Not just a little bit faster, but a lot faster, so that you can bring in this geometry and display it despite it not all fitting in memory, taking advantage of next generation SSD architectures and everything else. Sony's pioneering that with the PlayStation 5 architecture. It's got a god-tier storage system, which is pretty far ahead of PCs."
It'll downscale, and Fortnite gets it in 2021
While the PlayStation 5 and Xbox One Series X are clearly the main beneficiaries of Unreal Engine 5's new powers, the engine will run on PCs (obviously), older consoles, Android and iOS. Fortnite will make the move to UE5 in 2021. "Gen five works on all platforms,"Epic's Sweeney confirms. "It has to, because when Fortnite switches to Unreal Engine 5 late next year, it will continue supporting all 9 platforms."
On other platforms, it looks like Unreal Engine 5 will just scale down, although it's not clear to what degree it'll scale down on each platform. "To maintain compatibility with the older generation platforms, we have this next-generation content pipeline where you build your assets or import them at the highest level of quality — the film level of quality — that you'll run directly on next-generation consoles," Sweeney says. "And the engine will provide more scalability paths to down-resolution your content to run on everything, all the way down to iOS and Android devices from several years ago … you can build the same game for all these systems, but you just get a different level of graphical fidelity."
That same downscaling will also apply to mobile VR, which uses phone-level chipsets. "What it means for mobile VR running on a mobile chipset, that's going to be the same sort of answer … as getting Nanite content to work on a phone," Epic's CTO, Kim Libreri, confirmed in a Zoom chat.
Ultra-real VR, immersive attractions
All of this power, and specifically the ways that cinematic assets can be rendered real-time, leads me to think not necessarily of gaming, but of VR.
Epic's Tim Sweeney agrees. "Certainly, all the technology we're demonstrating will be able to run on the high end PC-based VR systems, which means a new generation of graphical fidelity, particularly in geometry. I don't have anything specific to announce for VR here, but I think it's going to create a really interesting march towards photorealism … and as you see devices improve their resolution and other system parameters it's going to be very interesting."
Epic's Libreri points to enterprise VR in particular as a big target, where the extra capabilities could matter even more. That would also extend to creative studios and could be used in film production. "This resolution of geometry is very important to our enterprise customers, whether they're designing a car, or an aircraft, or making a movie. VR is a very big part of the enterprise space … almost everyone that's using Unreal Engine in the design space is using virtual reality to assess their spaces and collaborate together."
Is this the cinema-gaming crossover?
What Epic's showing off most in the video, it seems, is that crazy draw distance, and the way so many polygons can appear at once and be lighted on the fly. The most interesting promise from Epic is that cinematic assets can be popped right in and used in games. It sounds like the frequently promised goal of games meeting films in one weird interactive blend.
"Absolutely," Libreri says, pointing out that this is the way productions such as Disney's The Mandalorian already work. "The way that these newfangled LED virtual productions out there work is they build an art department pretty much as a games art department, and they build content up before principal photography … I always use the car chase analogy: what about driving the cars around the terrain like you would do in a video game and then filming that? And then you can put cinematic cameras around stuff."
"I think over this next year, you'll see some awesome TV shows and movies that are starting to feel a little bit more like the stuff that we do when we play games all the time."
My mind leaped to immersive theme park attractions in the future, specifically to Star Wars Galaxy's Edge and its living video game Falcon simulator ride.
"I guarantee you our friends at Lucasfilm wish they'd had this technology when they were building the Millennium Falcon ride," Libreri says.