GDC 11: Epic Unreal Engine 3 Rollout

Epic ushered us all into a darkened room on Thursday and proceeded to show us a hell of tech demo. Mark Rein’s excitement was palpable as they fired it up, and the camera slunk into a gorgeous, Blade Runner-like world of dirty neon and sordid Sci-Fi, set improbably in the shadow of the Nation Capitol Building.

This was no cinematic, Rein was quick to point out, and he asked the Epic employee at the helm to switch briefly to wireframe to prove it. The quality of what was on offer certainly rivaled the most sophisticated movie, however, abandoning the street scene for the clip’s protagonist, crouched over in alley as he attempted to sever a chain with an acetylene torch, pausing only to use the torch to light his cigarette.

Suddenly, the Tomorrow Police show up, and our hero reveals himself as some kind of mutant ass-kicker (natch), turning his skin to stone (a lusciously rendered transformation) and putting paid to the lawmen in a balletic sequence of immaculate, Unreal violence. Just when you think he’s in the clear, however, a gigantic robot shows up, and the sequence ends on a cliffhanger.

Though I love games, I am not a developer, or even a graphics savant, and the discussion that ensued began with a flurry of technical terms that mostly flew over my head. For those interested, this new version of Unreal Engine 3 (described as “more like Unreal Engine 3.975) will boast a “Bokeh Depth of Field Effect,” “image-based reflection depending on surfaces,” “subsurface scattering,” “dynamic tessellation and displacement,” and “skeleton-based motion blur.” There were also a few more layman-friendly improvements, including better lens flair, better smoke, and better hair.

The pride on the faces of the Epic team was evident, and it was well-deserved. The demonstration, which will be available on video next week (check back at Gamefront to watch it!) contained some of the most exciting, evocative, and impressive game visuals I’ve ever seen. Moreover, it was rendered on commercially available hardware, albeit on three expensive nVidia GPU’s linked together.

The assembled journalists were keen to press Rein on his prognosis for the future of games, which he clearly considers Unreal Engine 3 in the vanguard of. Though the full range of technological bells and whistles unveiled at GDC will probably have to wait, according to his cryptic comments, until the next generation of consoles, he made much of the engine’s scalability, babbling enthusiastically about its application in a range of iPhone and iPad games, literally pulling out handheld devices from an array of unseen pockets to prove his point.

Sympathetically, also, he was eager to emphasize Epic’s status as a sort of gaming patron of the arts, developing useful, cutting-edge tools and then making them available to licensees like some kind of jolly developer Santa Claus: “That’s how Epic works,” Rein enthused. “We spend way too much time on tools, which helps our level designers and also our middlewear people…We work really hard so that what we learn in our games, we can share.”

I managed to get one question in edgewise, inquiring about the new engine’s ability to rescue current and next-gen game characters from the uncanny valley, but I was met with a blank wall. Save for some praise for the Mass Effect team, and a promise that Gears of War 3 would boast impressive facial rendering, Rein would not be drawn on Unreal Engine 3′s ability to create convincing emotions or speech.

Despite being stymied, I left the demo excited for the future of gaming, at least from a visual standpoint. The news that powerful tools are being put in the hands are being put in the hands of developers can only be good for gamers, and I look forward to see what they come up with.

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