11 PREVIEW: Unreal Engine 4

We huddled around a glowing laptop screen in a slightly too-small hotel room. We’d been watching video game trailers all week, the latest and greatest from this developer, that publisher, and while we hated to admit it, they were all starting to blur together. Kingsley smiled and tapped “play”, and we settled in for yet another dose of same-ol.

…but that’s not what we got. From the opening pan across the ruined castle to the swirling, glowing particles and motes of dust – the flowing lava and falling snow – this was something different. I instantly regretted watching it on such a small screen.

What set this one apart? The fact that – unlike all the others – it wasn’t advertising a game. It didn’t have to cram hours of plot into one 3-minute clip. There were no platforms to advertise, genre to illustrate or characters to introduce. It just had to look good. And, in true Epic Games fashion, it looked very, very good indeed.

The video – titled Elemental – has been designed purely to show off what the shiny new Unreal Engine 4 is capable of. The footage is running in real time, and it’s actually being exported from within the engine’s built-in editor, running on a single Nvidia GPU and never touching any additional applications.

And sure, you may scoff that Epic has a handy team of graphical artists, designers and animators, but the truth is: The basic tools you need to create a work like Elemental are available to anyone with a free copy of the UDK. “While it’s possible to achieve very high-end visuals using UE4,” says Epic, “The new engine scales quite well when it comes to making games for low-spec PCs.”

Unreal Engine 4 gives programmers and artists alike even more power than ever before, with features like the Unreal Kismet visual scripting system meaning that artists and designers are able to implement their ideas directly into the game – without bothering busy programmers.

This means that the programmers are able to concentrate on their own work, core gameplay features and complicated systems, while artists and designers don’t need to learn how to speak in code. Less to get lost in translation, less frustration, better outcome for all!

…Kismet’s not just for artsy folks, either: It can quickly identify specific C++ code and provide a direct editor, a super-handy feature for programmers. (More super-handy bits and pieces: Fully dynamic lighting features, less iteration on creative ideas and no waiting for code compiling, among others.)

Significant new visual features include dynamic global illumination, real-time reflections, GPU particles, per-pixel lighting and shadowing, better translucency and more sophisticated post-process effects, such as improved lens flares. UE4 has a fully deferred renderer, so reflective decals interact with environment lighting in real time, for example.

[img_big]center,5971,2012-06-14/UE4_Elemental_Knight_wireframe.jpg,Wireframe of the Elemental Knight[/img_big]

Some of the other cool features include:
Code View sees gameplay programmers able to jump straight to source code lines in Visual Studio and browse C++ functions on game actors with a single click.

This is particularly handy when combined with Hot Reload, which lets you edit and compile C++ code in the Unreal Editor on the fly, making changes which are almost immediately visible in the game without needing to pause a thing.

Also without pausing, Live Kismet Debugging means the gameplay code is happily visualised while you are live-testing your work in progress. Set breakpoints or watches to help with debugging, or pause and inspect the state of the game at any time.

Instant Game Preview sees you able to hop in and out of a game with just one keypress – spawn a player anywhere and jump straight into the action, rather than waiting for endless files to save and populate.

Immersive View makes things even easier, by showing off your game in full-screen within the editing environment. Make your gameplay changes all without UI clutter and distractions, but bring all your editing tools back at the touch of a button.

You can even go deeper, with Simulate Mode running your game logic directly in the editor viewport. Pick each individual AI element, debut and tweak gameplay behaviours, or move things around – while they’re running!

And if the player’s eye view just isn’t working for you, try Possess or Eject – jump out of the player’s body in order to grab control of the camera, selecting and inspecting objects before jumping back in to continue gameplay.

[img_big]center,5971,2012-06-14/UE4_Elemental_castle_exit.jpg,Unreal Engine 4[/img_big]

Just last year, gamers were blown away by the Samaritan video for Unreal Engine 3, which showed a gritty, urban setting complete with neon lights and glowing cigarette butts. Versions of that engine have powered some of this generation’s most striking video games – including Borderlands, Mass Effect 3, Batman: Arkham City, BioShock 2, and of course, the Gears of War series.

Now though, we have Elemental, yet another a giant leap forward from Epic. The studio has already claimed that it will be setting the benchmark for the next-next generation of video gaming entertainment – the PS4, Xbox 720 and whatever other codenames we throw at it – and with a taste like this, a video that stunned a jaded gamers’ hotel room into silence, who can really argue?

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