In what has been otherwise a meager period for entertainment news, outside of fiery speculation over release date shifts and delays, Geoff Keighley, responsible for industry events such as the quickly surging Game Awards, the videogame equivalent of the annual Oscars ceremony, has brought his forte to the newly announced Summer Game Fest. A block of time between 2020’s May and August, a diverse selection of publishers and developers are scheduled to unveil their upcoming interactive releases for gamers around the world to devour and discuss wholeheartedly. Particularly with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which concurrently canceled the annual E3 convention, the largest gaming showcase of the entire year, the Summer Game Fest is a welcome change of pace with its near weekly game announcements and reveals. One of those many announcements comes from Epic Games, but it was not about their blockbuster battle royale Fortnite or even their online storefront the Epic Games Store. The announcement that took place on one May 13th of 2020 could very well be labeled a software reveal, and it comes from one of the world’s leading game development engines.
Yes, Unreal Engine 5 has finally been announced, shortly after the beta and public release of version twenty-five for the currently available Unreal Engine 4. Epic Games executives Tim Sweeney and Kim Libreri, CEO and CTO of the company respectively, discussed the upcoming release of the engine with Geoff Keighley who was moderating the Wednesday stream. Not only was a lengthy nine-minute demo of the newest iteration of Unreal Engine shown to the public, but Sweeney and Libreri further elaborated on what made this particular release so special and exciting for game developers and digital entertainment specialists across the globe. Simply put, the jaw-dropping spectacle of the demo in its lighting, visual effects, and photorealistic textures on the upcoming PlayStation 5 console signaled to fans around the world that something revolutionary is in store and not just for the next console generation.
The Resounding Success of Unreal Engine 4
Partially why the reveal of Unreal Engine 5 made such a huge splash is the resounding popularity its predecessor, Unreal Engine 4, enjoyed for the past generation of consoles, specifically on the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One hardware. Many of the recent colossal successes in the video game industry, including Final Fantasy VII Remake (Square Enix) and Star Wars: Jedi Fallen Order (Respawn Entertainment), have utilized Unreal’s powerful technologies in their development, and it does not stop at big-budget, triple-A game production.
Unreal Engine 4 is also one of the most popular tools in game development for independent developers, also fondly known as indie developers. This is in large part thanks to Epic Games’ enticing licensing options for hobbyists and indie creators, allowing them to have free, unlimited access to Unreal’s suite of tools as long as their gross revenue for any project using Unreal does not exceed one million dollars. Unreal Engine 5 looks to capitalize on its previous version’s goodwill with the industry, likely to carry over many of the policies UE4 offered. However, whilst the engine is certainly impressive technically, it is not without its flaws, areas that UE5 hopes to improve in next year’s beta release.
Lumen Lights the Unreal Way
Dynamic lighting has always been a point of contention for artists across the past generation of consoles, but the PlayStation 5 is already making strides to override that. Unreal Engine 5 introduces a flagship technology titled Lumen, a dynamic lighting system that allows for detailed reflections and indirect lighting. In Unreal Engine 4, for purely the sake of an industry-standard thirty frames per second performance, artists have to use static lighting, where every single change that artists make in a scene requires a complete rebuild, or re-rendering of the lighting, a process that can be lengthy depending on the size of the level.
Dynamic lighting eliminates this hassle for developers, allowing them to change a certain element, such as the attenuation radius of a spotlight or the angle a light bounces off, and see it instantly within the engine’s editor. With Lumen, less time will be spent by artists waiting for a build of the lighting to complete and more into enhancing the level.
Gorgeous Assets from Nanite
Another flagship feature that UE5 touts comes from Nanite, a virtualized geometry system where billions of polygons and triangles can be directly imported into the engine. For newcomers, such terms are certainly overwhelming, so let us examine what Nanite offers practically. To create objects in a game, artists use three-dimensional modeling software like Z-Brush or Autodesk Maya to sculpt and texture the objects that will be later imported into Unreal. Using this software produces assets that are usually much higher in quality than that of the objects a player may see in the game itself. Similarly to the exclusion of dynamic lighting in productions, having such high-quality assets burdened the hardware to where a game cannot perform consistently and effectively. Nanite plans to overhaul this system, allowing developers to directly import photorealistic assets from external software into Unreal Engine 5. The result is lossless and photorealistic quality in stunning, jaw-dropping environments filled to the brim in the games of the future.
A technical discussion on the elements of the newly announced software will certainly be appreciated by some, but there is undeniably the need to also discuss the results the software can produce. The Unreal team accommodated for that need by revealing the nine-minute demo that has been topping the charts in gaming trends for weeks now. The showcase, available in full 4K quality on most online streaming platforms, begins by introducing an unnamed female heroine brandishing a glowing orb in the palm of her hand. The presentation leads her down a cavern dense with stone foliage and beaming lights. The Unreal team at this moment takes time to highlight the Lumen and how they can change the angle and position of the light seamlessly in-game. As the heroine travels through the collapsed ruins of a village and soars through the air in a stunning set-piece, advanced post-processing and visual effects collide on the screen, a massive feat of visual spectacle that comes close to replicating the theatrical blockbusters of the day.
Last year, I published a post on how Unreal Engine 4 was the future of digital entertainment with its suite of tools able to transition between cinematic and interactive productions. The Disney Plus juggernaut show The Mandalorian took advantage of Unreal’s tools as well as the eight-season political fantasy epic Game of Thrones. Unreal Engine 5 is that future of digital entertainment finally arriving, alongside a swashbuckling new hardware generation for consoles. 2020 has undoubtedly been a year of change, and digital entertainment is changing just as much as, if not more than any other industry. UE5 is a decisive factor in that change, and Epic Games is ready to deliver it when the fifth iteration of the world-class software launches in 2021.