Today, Epic Games gave everyone their first look at the next iteration of the Unreal Engine, and the next PlayStation to boot. The engine developer showed off "Lumen in the Land of Nanite", a live demo reportedly running on PlayStation 5 hardware. The demo illustrates some of the new technologies in Unreal Engine 5, but also the power of Sony's upcoming console.
The real-time demo takes its name from two of those core technologies. The first is Nanite, a feature that allows developers to directly import film-quality models and art into Unreal Engine 5, whether that's sculpts from Zbrush, CAD data, or photogrammetry scans. (Capcom's Resident Evil team squeals with delight.) Geometry imported through Nanite is streamed, drawn, and scaled into the game in real-time. It allows for real-time changes in level of detail without any visible pop-in. The second feature is Lumen, a global illumination system that allows game artists to create more dynamic and realistic lighting. Those new additions come part and parcel with existing Unreal Engine 4 features like Chaos physics and Niagara VFX.
Nanite and Lumen seem to be related to key features of both next-gen consoles. Nanite's description mentions asset streaming, which is likely related to the proprietary solid-state drives (SSDs) on the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X. The storage architecture for both prioritizes bandwidth over pure size, allowing developers to transfer game assets much faster than previous generations while lessening the need for load times.
"One of the big efforts that's been done and is ongoing in Unreal Engine 5 now is optimising for next generation storage to make loading faster by multiples of current performance. Not just a little bit faster but a lot faster, so that you can bring in this geometry and display it, despite it not all fitting and memory, you know, taking advantage of next generation SSD architectures and everything else," Epic Games CEO Tim Sweeney told Eurogamer's Digital Foundry. "Sony is pioneering here with the PlayStation 5 architecture. It's got a God-tier storage system which is pretty far ahead of PCs, on a high-end PC with an SSD and especially with NVMe, you get awesome performance too."
Lumen seems to be related to ray tracing, a new feature that Nvidia has been pushing on PC that allows for more realistic lightning as well as reflections. Both Sony and Microsoft have said their systems will support hardware-enhanced ray tracing, which can be used for improved lighting or more realistic sound.
This is What PlayStation 5 Games Can Look Like
This is what PlayStation 5 games can look like. Well, it's what they can look like with no real "game" running, though Epic Games went to great lengths to make "Lumen" work like a game. The real-time demo is running on PlayStation 5 hardware with what looks to be player input, sure, but that's a far cry from a full game with AI, physics, and sound all running under the hood. I applaud Epic for making "Lumen" walk like a real game—it is playable apparently—but I'll believe it when there's a released UE5 game and a controller in my hands. Developers have done some impressive things with Unreal Engine 4, but they're generally a step removed from Elemental or Infiltrator, the original Unreal Engine 4 demos showcased back in 2013. As stunning as the latest games look these days, you can usually tell the difference between a cinematic and the part of the game with action, boss fights, and the rest.
Within Epic's announcement is also the acknowledgement that Unreal Engine 5 is a ways off. Unreal Engine 5 goes into preview in early 2021, with a subsequent full release later that same year. Developers making games now have to work in Unreal Engine 4, without the added features. Epic Games says that it's designing with forward compatibility in mind, so developers can start work with Unreal Engine 4 and move those projects onto Unreal Engine 5. That means you're likely not seeing UE5 games until 2022 or further.
That's not a huge problem though, because the truth is that the next generation isn't going to start when the Xbox Series X and PS5 launch later this year. The need to support previous systems means that multiplatform developers and publishers have to hold back. There's no need to go bleeding edge with full support PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X, when most of your customers are banging around with original PlayStation 4 and Xbox One systems, or a 1080p-1440p video card like the Nvidia GeForce GTX 1060.
Even without the looming specter of COVID-19 hanging over game development, we're looking at games made for current platforms with some extra features. Many of the games shown at the Inside Xbox event, which were supposed to be representative of Xbox Series X gameplay, looked like they could run on Xbox One X. Even Assassin's Creed Valhalla, which was a showcase title for the digital event, will only run at "a minimum of 30 FPS" on the Series X, leaning on graphics enhancements and faster loading times.
Platform exclusives are generally where developers go all out. In previous generations, Sony and Microsoft used their first-party games to show consumers why they needed to upgrade. The Xbox One and PlayStation 4 relied on games like Ryse: Son of Rome, Forza Motorsport 5, and Killzone Shadow Fall at launch, with further stunners like Infamous: Second Son and Forza Horizon 2 coming months later. But this generation, Microsoft is blurring the line between generations with Xbox Smart Delivery and cross-gen exclusives like Halo Infinite. Right now, if you want to see what the near-future "next-gen" will look like, you're better off finding a high-end PC title, like this version of Resident Evil 3 on PC at Ultra Settings and modded ray tracing.
We're still waiting to see what Sony has to offer on PlayStation 5, and the truth is we're still no closer even a glimpse. The platform holder is more likely than the increasingly platform agnostic Microsoft to go all-in with new titles specifically for its next system. But in the meantime, Sony still has to sell its current generation releases like The Last of Us Part 2 and Ghost of Tsushima. Ultimately, this Unreal Engine 5 demo is more aspirational than anything. Like Elemental and Infiltrator were for our current generation, "Lumen in the Land of Nanite" is more dream than gaming reality.
Back to counting the days until Sony gives us a proper look at the PlayStation 5.