Unreal Engine 4 will bring us beautiful games faster than ever

Unreal Engine 4 will bring us beautiful games faster than everA select group of people got a private demo of Epic Games' Unreal Engine 4 at the Game Developers Conference in March, and Stu Horvath of Ars Technica's sister publication Wired was one of the lucky few. UE4 has many new features that will let it continue to sit on the Throne of Games (Engines), though Wired hints that old console hardware may hinder its crack at progress.

The most recently released version of Epic Games' engine, Unreal Engine 3, powered the game Gears of War released in 2006. Since then, it's been an unstoppable force behind over 150 games, including the Mass Effect trilogy, Batman: Arkham Asylum, Mirror's Edge, and Borderlands.

One of the distinct properties of UE4 is its ability to create and display effects based on the inherent properties of an environment, rather than displaying pre-programmed ones based on anticipated scenarios. For example, light that travels through water would refract, and a character that stands in a mirror would see a reflection of themselves, not a pre-programmed image or pre-rendered character standing on the other side. This natural behavior presumably creates much less work for developers—rather than having to explicitly teach everything how to react to every individual stimulus, objects have inherent behaviors and know what to do.

Unreal Engine 4

Another one of UE4's desirable new features is its particle effects, or the ability to render hordes of tiny objects and all of their erratic motions. In the demo shown at GDC, onlookers saw the engine's ability to render many pieces of ash floating in the air, and dust particles floating in the light of a flashlight in a dark room. Normally, having to render the odd and easily affected paths of particles brings processors to their knees, but with UE4 running on an NVIDIA Kepler GTX 680, they drifted without effort.

Developers will also see a lot to like in UE4. Wired notes that the new engine lets devs see some of the more minor visual changes in the game implemented instantly, without the usual hours of rendering time needed. UE4 also adds a new version of the engine's scripting tool, called Kismet 2. Kismet the first, used in UE3, was notable for its visual interface that let level designers drop in elements and relate the actions of objects to one another from a palette instead of using lines of code (for instance, telling the game that the reaction of a door to a character bumping into it should be "swing open"). Kismet 2 is the same sort of object-based flowchart, but the processes it controls can be set into place immediately and used right away, making the tool more effortless to use.

Unreal Engine 4. Pic.2

While Horvath couldn't say enough about the beauty of the UE4 demo, there is a faint shadow on its horizon: consoles. Epic Games is in constant contact with companies that make consoles, and is pushing for them to make the devices as powerful as possible in order to support the many wonders of UE4. The seven-year-old Xbox 360 and the six-year-old PlayStation 3 are now easily outstripped by PCs in terms of performance; Epic Games wants to make sure that the next generation brings the console side up to speed.

Part of Epic Games' case for UE4 is not only better games, but highly streamlined development. With tools like Kismet 2 and the lack of rendering needed for minor changes, huge and impressive blockbuster games will take less time to accomplish the usual feats, and could conceivably relieve development studios of some financial and time pressure.

UE4 has no concrete launch date set, but its demo will be revealed to the public in June.

Tags: computer games

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