Epic's Project Sword, the star of last night's Apple press conference, is the first Unreal Engine 3-powered game for the iOS platform, and what many believe is a quantum leap in the quality of 3D visuals running on Apple's handheld devices.
Little has been seen of the iOS rendition of UE3 since the initial reveal, where an old Unreal Tournament level was demonstrated running on an iPhone 3GS. Back at GDC 2010, we attended a session where Epic's Josh Adams described the process by which the development framework was ported across to the platform, how it integrated with Apple's XCode and how artwork and lighting were convincingly downsampled to run effectively on the system.
iPhone 3GS, iPad and iPhone 4 owners can get their first taste of Project Sword and Unreal Engine 3 running on their systems by visiting iTunes now, or alternatively you can check out our screenshot gallery plus the video below.
It's worth pointing out that getting a direct-feed output from any iOS device is a bit of an arcane art (the GPU has to serve two screens, effectively) so while the vid gives a great impression of the level of technical and artistic quality Epic has achieved, the frame-rate in the actual demo is smoother than what you see here. Gameplay reaches 30FPS consistently, and only the flyby "guided tour" - showing a range of different perspectives on the citadel environment - tends to drop frames regularly.
It's worth pointing out that the older iPod Touches and iPhones can't run any game using Unreal Engine 3 on iOS: the tech relies on the OpenGL ES 2.0 support only available on later hardware. The demo certainly runs well enough on the iPhone 4 and iPad, and the higher pixel density in the former gives the impression of higher-resolution textures.
The demo itself is light on gameplay, but does demonstrate an intriguing control system over and above the hugely impressive graphics. You simply touch the screen to move to the point on the game map where you want to go, and dragging your finger across the screen allows you to look around (even while you're walking). Additionally, the dynamic control pads seen in Geometry Wars Touch re-appear here - virtual joysticks for movement that replace themselves according to where you rest your thumbs on-screen.
Epic's aim with Project Sword isn't to compete with the unparalleled range of casual and concept-driven titles available on the iTunes App Store, but it expects to see a lot of take-up from gamers used to the more technologically driven approach seen on the HD consoles.
"It would not be smart for us to try to get in and compete with the Bejeweleds and Angry Birds of the world on the iPhone," Epic's Mike Capps told Gamasutra. "They're doing a great job. For me it's about, can we take the gaming experiences - not just Gears, but like Shadow Complex that we've done on other platforms, and bring that kind of quality to the mobile devices, and right now I feel like we can."
Capps also revealed that a UDK-style approach to licensing will be implemented, whereby Epic takes no money upfront but will ask for a percentage depending on sales, though vice president Mark Rein was quick to point out that multiple licensing models will be in place when the firm is ready to roll out the tools to developers.
The extent to which indie game-makers will take advantage of the platform remains to be seen. To match the level of visuals seen in the Epic Citadel demo will require not only paying Epic for the tech and Apple for the platform, but it's easy to see that much higher art budgets will be required adding further to the expense. That said, innovative uses of the technology may not require that level of investment, while bigger publishers could conceivably downscale some of their PC/PS3/Xbox 360 titles already running on the Epic middleware.