The Matrix Awakens has been with us for a week now and slowly we're gaining much more of an understanding on the scale of the technological achievement in Epic Games' work - such as the fact that several segments in the demo's opening are actual real-time 3D recreations of scenes from the movie. Armed with a UHD Blu-ray copy of the film (a widely acclaimed 4K transfer, by the way), we're in a good position to see how next-gen consoles can replicate the look of the source material. The results are remarkable, highlighting the advances in fidelity provided by more GPU horsepower working in combination with hardware-accelerated ray tracing.
In the video below you'll see how the various scenes compare, starting with the Construct. In the demo, this sees a virtualised contemporary Keanu Reeves walking around the classic scene from The Matrix. While Morpheus is a billboard - a flat sprite, effectively - everything else is generated in real-time. We're also getting, dare I say it, the best chair rendering seen a video game since the RT Chesterfield armchair in Control! Epic has also managed to capture ambient studio lighting effectively, making me wonder if Epic had reference photos of the original set in order to understand exactly how lights were placed out of frame.
But it's the scene of Neo being woken by his computer that is the shot I find most impressive in the entire demo. There are slight differences in terms of placement of objects - and the nature of the objects themselves, but the note-perfect lighting absolutely showcases the power of ray-traced visuals delivered by this new iteration of Epic's Lumen global illumination system, particularly in how the few lights of the scene interact with the materials. In the case of the Construct scene, you'd be forgiven for thinking that Epic was overlaying its own CG over the original movie. With the scene of Neo awakening, this look flat-out like a simple BD rip, but that's not the case. Welcome to the real world.
The final scene I want to talk about is the close-up of Keanu Reeves waking - another real-time render. All of the detail in his skin is captured and more, the real stinger being him peering into the camera with the reflection of on-screen text in his eye. On the face of it, it's the most remarkable shot of all, but stacked up against the original, it's the one comparison that doesn't quite match up. For example, the specular response on Keanu's skin is good, but still rather different from Keanu's real face, the light diffusing a little too much in the real-time version running on consoles. That's not to diminish the achievement though: getting complex materials to run with good performance in scenes driven by real-time ray tracing is an enormous challenge - one that may only be fully addressed by the next generation of console hardware.
Beyond the movie comparisons, there's another interesting comparison point. Alongside The Matrix Awakens, Epic shared press shots of the cinematic aspects of the demo that appear to be delivering cinema 4K resolution, with pristine quality that looks almost super-sampled in nature, but lacking motion blur and film grain - elements that the original motion picture obviously had. Shots inside the Construct in the first part of the demo really come alive with the extra resolution showing off just how detailed Epic's recreations of Keanu Reeves and Carrie-Anne Moss are, with the hair rendering another highlight. Higher resolution and a lack of aliasing clearly make a big difference here compared against PlayStation 5.
However, outside of the sterile lighting of the construct and inside the chase sequence material itself, the pristine nature of the assets and the rendering actually brings us closer to the uncanny valley. The lack of film grain and motion blur on character close-ups seems to emphasise limitations in skin rendering - elements that are far better obscured in the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X real-time rendered demos. I think it emphasises that achieving realism in real-time sometimes means obfuscating elements that still look imperfect.
I also wanted to spend my remaining time with The Matrix Awakens to study elements like platform comparisons and solid-state storage requirements in a little more depth. With the latter, Unreal Engine 5's Lumen and Nanite systems were first demonstrated on PlayStation 5, with this platform-specific showcase leading many to think that it leant exclusively into the high performance storage on the Sony machine. Obviously, the fact that the demo runs on all current-gen consoles and has even greater variety and camera speed than the original Lumen in the Land of Nanite demo should put paid to this idea, but I wanted to put some actual numbers on this.
Epic itself has already stated that the demo typically requires 10MB of data per frame rendered, suggesting a 300MB/s data throughput rate at 30 frames per second. While we cannot confirm this independently on a console owing to its closed nature, we did take the Western Digital SN750 SE 250GB - the slowest PCIe Gen 4.0 x4 SSD on the market - and then limited its capabilities still further by taping up most of its pins on the PCIe interface, effectively limiting it to PCIe Gen 4.0 x1 spec, with the PS5 only rating it for 1.7GB/s of read performance - far lower than the base spec 5.5GB/s Sony recommends and the 7GB/s mooted by Mark Cerny. The result? As expected, performance and pop-in is exactly the same because the demo is not inherently storage-bound.
There is a PC UE5 demo available - Valley of the Ancient - which I tested at 1080p resolution (with temporal upscaling to 2160p) and capped at 30fps. I noticed a peak throughput of 200MB/s on a scene change, but otherwise the speeds were in the region of 80MB/s on fast traversal across the scene. Additionally, UE5's data caching systems saw throughput drop tremendously when accessing previously accessed data. What this tells us is that Nanite streaming in Unreal Engine 5 is remarkably efficient - with the Nanite visualisation within The Matrix Awaken showing you how it's broken down.
Platform comparisons? In the wake of our initial head-to-head screenshots, isolated scenarios were highlighted in social media to show geometric detail favouring PlayStation 5 over Xbox Series X. Revisiting The Matrix Awakens, there appears to be a certain level of dynamism here: some scenes saw Xbox Series X resolving more far-off detail, something that may even change on a run-by-run nature. It's Xbox Series S where there's a real story here - just how did the junior Xbox with just four teraflops of compute power pull this off?
First of all, Epic enlisted the aid of The Coalition - a studio that seems capable of achieving results from Unreal Engine quite unlike any other developer. Various optimisations were delivered that improved performance, many of which were more general in nature, meaning that yes, a Microsoft first-party studio would have helped in improving the PlayStation 5 version too. Multi-core and bloom optimisations were noted as specific enhancements from The Coalition, but this team has experience in getting great results from Series S too, so don't be surprised if they helped in what is a gargantuan effort.
Series S obviously runs at a lower resolution (533p to 648p in the scenarios we've checked), using Epic's impressive Temporal Super Resolution technique to resolve a 1080p output. Due to how motion blue resolution scales on consoles, this effect fares relatively poorly here, often presenting like video compression macroblocks. Additionally, due to a sub-720p native resolution, the ray count on RT effects is also reined in, producing very different reflective effects, for example. Objects within reflections also appear to be using a pared back detail level, while geometric detail and texture quality is also reduced. Particle effects and lighting can also be subject to some cuts compared to the Series X and PS5 versions. What we're looking at seems to be the result of a lot of fine-tuned optimisation work but the overall effect is still impressive bearing in mind the power of the hardware. Lumen and Nanite are taxing even on the top-end consoles, but now we know that Series S can handle it - and also, what the trades may be in making that happen.
We now have a greater understanding of how The Matrix Awakens works and even more appreciation for what it achieves - but what we don't have is a PC version. Epic wants to use this work as an example or a template for developers to work from, surely referring to the open world segment at the end of the demo - free of Warner Bros IP - so while we won't get to see how the more Matrix-y elements render on PC, at least we'll be able get to grips with a more modern UE5 and to gauge hardware RT performance via the new, improved Lumen. And there's also the question of Nvidia's DLSS and potentially Intel's XeSS AI super-scalers: can they improve on the already impressive upscaling delivered by Epic's own TSR? We look forward to finding out in Spring 2022.