After its game-changing reveal on PlayStation 5 and following a period of early access, Unreal Engine 5 is finally available for general download. In combination with the release, Epic is releasing a cut-down, Keanu-free rendition of the remarkable The Matrix Awakens demo alongside a sample game project to experiment with, called Lyra. UE5's release takes centre stage in today's State of Unreal virtual event, and we're told to expect a range of tech deep dives surrounding the technology alongside the launch of the engine itself.
UE5 takes the established Unreal Engine 4.27 and adds full support for a number of key next generation technologies. We've already seen these in action, of course. Lumen is Epic's take on a fully real-time global illumination solution, eliminating the need to rely on static, pre-calculated 'baked' lighting, leaning into hardware accelerated ray tracing where appropriate. Nanite is UE5's virtualised micro-polygon technology, delivering incredibly granular detail from assets of motion picture quality and the elimination of geometry 'pop-in'.
The demands of these systems are such that native rendering at 4K resolution is not feasible on today's game consoles and that ties into another key feature: Temporal Super Resolution. Recently seen for the first time in a non-UE5 title – Ghostwire: Tokyo – TSR is the best software-based temporal upscaling solution we've seen to date. In upscaling from a native 1080p to 4K – a 2x resolution boost on both axes – the quality is comparable (if not quite as good as) Nvidia's DLSS.
Another interesting new feature is a fully procedural audio engine, dubbed MetaSounds, which Epic describes as "analogous to a fully programmable material and rendering pipeline, bringing all the benefits of procedural content creation to audio that the Material Editor brings to shaders: dynamic data-driven assets, the ability to map game parameters to sound playback, huge workflow improvements, and much more."
December's launch of The Matrix Awakens effectively showcased the features Epic is talking about today – including further technologies including a world partition system for optimised open world streaming, data layers for different world variations, plus procedural generation tools for helping to make these environments in more resource-constrained environments, a continuation of Epic's stated mission in democratising high-end triple-A features and making them available to all developers. Animation and editing options are also improved in UE5, while the Quixel Bridge feature allows for easy integration of the complete range of assets from the Quixel Megascans library.
Epic is promising a range of UE5 content arriving on its marketplace, but it's going to be the arrival of the Lyra sample game and The Matrix Awakens that'll be the focus for Digital Foundry as we take a look at Unreal Engine 5 in the coming days. However, for the end user looking to download UE5 and compile the demo, we should point out that it's not the full experience as seen on consoles. As predicted, all the Warner Bros Matrix assets have been stripped out, meaning that we're left with the procedurally generated city at the end of the console release.
There's no guarantees on this but we're also hoping to revisit the older UE5 demo – Valley of the Ancient – in the hope that we'll get some visibility on optimisation improvements from the early access UE5 compared to this new release. The demo had some pervasive stuttering issues owing to CPU challenges in processing big chunks of Nanite geometry – an area much improved in The Matrix Awakens.
Another point worth stressing is that while this is the first full release of Unreal Engine 5 (with games already in development), the engine itself remains in a continual state of evolution and there are still key challenges to resolve. As discussed in a recent article on CD Projekt RED's move to UE5, it's clear that the next Witcher game stands to benefit from workflow and features – so for example, Nanite and Lumen could revolutionise the open world. However, Nanite's support for non-opaque objects – eg foliage – and skinned geometry is still very much on the 'to do' list. The building blocks are there to more easily create phenomenal game worlds, but we're still far from the finished article.
Despite this, Epic still deserves kudos – UE5 remains the first mainstream engine to comprehensively deliver a vision for the future of 'next generation' graphics, backing up the core rendering technology with profound improvements in workflow – games are getting larger and more complex. Epic's vision isn't just in democratising triple-A features and making them available to all developers, but to also provide underlying assets and procedural generation techniques to speed up the creation of game worlds. For full games tapping into Lumen and Nanite, we should be patient – emerging technologies take some time to arrive in big budget games. However, in the shorter term, we may see some smaller projects based on the Matrix Awakens city and the Lyra game sample, which developers are free to customise. Expect our closer look at UE5 to arrive soon.
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