Unreal Engine 4: prepare yourselves for next-gen

Tuesday, 2 April 2013 18:33 GMT By Stephany Nunneley

Epic Games showed off its gorgeous Unreal Engine 4 during GDC. VG247′s technologically inept Stephany Nunneley witnessed and felt the hotness in the standing-room only mini-theater.

After viewing the UE4 demo I’m finally starting to get excited about what’s to come, and I’m now ready and willing to upgrade my PC. Just give me the gameplay to go along with the visuals, please.

I am probably not the best person to send to engine tech demos, as you probably gleaned from my FOX Engine and Battlefield 4/Frostbite 3 reports. It’s hard enough for me to program my DVR, let alone understand what’s going on with shaders, Javascript, HTML, or WebGL. The only thing I know about C++ is that it’s used to run some of my games – and I only know this because I see listed in the program files on my PC’s control panel.

While I may not have a grasp of what constitutes development, I can appreciate the hard work which goes into creating games. And I definitely came away impressed with the demo Epic showed of UE4 at GDC last week.

The main point I walked away with was that of ease of use. The tools on show made me think – just for a moment – that anyone could create an awesome looking game using this engine. If you have a basic understanding of code and can read a menu and drag a mouse, you should be able to use UE4. Epic makes it sound so simple.

It probably isn’t. But if I had the slightest idea of how to make a game, I would probably use Epic’s engine due to its Blueprint editor. This allows developers to create games with ease and speed. It also has this neat animation tool and the ability to generate landscapes by clicking and dragging. Trees, flowers, grass, and other flora can be added with the click of a mouse, and if you want to add mountains you just drag your mouse around using the Unreal Landscape terrain editor. The lighting modules shown? Impressive. Very impressive.

Not only has Epic made it easier to create games for virtually any platform with UE4, but it has made the engine more developer friendly all around. I recall a conversation I had with the firm’s former director of production, Rod Fergusson, at GDC in 2010. I mentioned that a lot of the time you can just look at a game and tell it was made using Unreal Engine 3. While he agreed with me, he said his favorite games were the ones where you couldn’t tell were using the engine.

As the current console generation aged, it became harder to tell whether a game was UE3 or not. It doesn’t look as though this will be the case with UE4: straight out of the gate, everything will look different.

This was confirmed when Mark Rein announced the engine runs on C++, which will allow developers to create games for mobile, browser and next-gen consoles. Showing just how gorgeous games can look on next-gen using UE4, Epic showed off a damn impressive demo called Infiltrator running on PC, along with last year’s Elemental demo running on PS4 hardware.

Elemental looks fabulous on PS4, but I play games predominately on PC, so I came away with healthy dose of admiration for Infiltrator which was shown running in real-time by the firm’s Alan Willard.

During the demo, Willard played around with various game layers and lighting by turning the latter on and off, showing the actual outlines of everything included in the scene with a slight watercolor hue. While the on-screen visuals were impressive, it was mindblowing to see the actual scope of the objects involved from a design standpoint.

Plus, the engine unifies the physics and collision systems using NVIDIA’s latest PhysX technology, meaning UE4 PC games should make your screens scream with joy. The Persona animation system, which includes state support and the power of Blueprint scripting for animation adjustments and previews during setup, will allow for more realistic movement and visuals in character creation.

All rather lovely, and mentally impressive for someone without any grasp of engineering, design, or development.

The tech demos I saw at GDC reinforced what we all knew anyway: next-gen games are going to be visually stunning. What remains to be seen, though, is whether developers will be able to scale new engines to create something different from what’s being offered on current hardware.

For months now, I have not been excited over next-gen. Sure, better visuals are always nice, but pretty is as pretty does; and without the next-gen gameplay to go along with the graphics, we’ll just be playing the same things we are now. Only “prettier.” At GDC I was given a look at three next-gen engines, and while I was impressed with FOX Engine’s photorealism, and Frostbite 3′s lighting and destructible environment abilities, I preferred the UE4 demo – not only because it was explained in layman’s terms to me, but because, to me, it honestly “looked” next-gen.

All three demos were impressive, but after viewing the UE4 demo I’m finally starting to get excited about what’s to come, and I’m now ready and willing to upgrade my PC. Just give me the gameplay to go along with the visuals, please.

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