So Many Graphics: Epic Reveals Unreal Engine 4

By Nathan Grayson on May 18th, 2012 at 9:00 am.

A monstrous fiery hell demon, huh? If only someone would design a game around one of these.
Hey, you there. Yes, you! Do you have eyes? Do you enjoy looking at things? Well then, your precious peepers might’ve crossed paths with Epic’s Unreal Engine – for instance, in every game ever. Eyes, though, are perhaps the most treacherous of all face real estate tenants. They sight a new object of affection, cause your heart to palpitate and your mouth to transform into a sloppy stew of saliva, and then – five minutes later – it’s all old hat. Fortunately, then, there are always new graphics, as Epic explained…

Wired got to sit in on a special demo of the new tech, and it apparently drew quite a few “oooos” and “aaaaahs” from the crowd. The demo – which, as is always the case with these things, is not necessarily indicative of an upcoming game – featured a heavily armored demon knight stirring from his volcano fortress as lava surged all around. And the whole thing was completely playable running on an in-room machine powered by a single Nvidia Kepler GTX 680.

Apparently, the resulting torrent of particles would’ve caused any other engine to sputter, choke, and long for the heyday of text adventures, but this one can do millions without breaking a sweat. Environmental destruction, long-distance detail, natural-looking movement for fluids like lava, and general photorealism are also major focuses. So basically, this has more graphics than you can count – even if you use your hands and toes.

This bit, however, might be even more important:

“‘Call of Duty was a game that a team of a few dozen could develop on PlayStation 2,’ Sweeney says. ‘Now Activision has hundreds of people working on Call of Duty for the current-gen consoles. What’s supposed to happen in the next generation? Are they going to have 4,000 people?’ To combat the bloat, Sweeney has stuffed UE4 with tools that promise shortened production pipelines and lower production costs… It will streamline game development, allowing studios to do in 12 months what can take two years or more today.”

Given that sustainability of these things has been a constant worry since Sony and Microsoft’s previous, now ancient consoleboxes launched, that’s a pretty big deal. It’s also incredibly big talk, so all eyes are now on Epic to back it up.

Admittedly, there are other worries as well. The new shots – while nice – aren’t really impressive in a jaw-dropping, “I have to show this to everyone I know” sense. I imagine it’s all much more impressive in motion, but frankly, last year’s “Samaritan” Unreal Engine 3 demo almost looks more immediately impressive to me.

Then again, modern videogame graphics have sort of hit a bar in terms of general beauty, and hoisting oneself noticeably above it has become an exercise in grunting, straining attrition. I suppose that’s another reason why these things don’t wow me as much as they used to: most “photorealistic” games look solid, at the very least. There aren’t really giant gulfs between mid-range and top-of-the-line titles anymore. It’s all simply – as I said earlier – normal.

I wonder, though: is that such a bad thing? Me, I mostly want to play games and avoid feeling like I just lost an up-close-and-personal staring contest with a cactus. I’m definitely not calling for a halt to progress, but it won’t be the end of my world if graphical leaps continue to be incredibly gradual instead of almost unbelievably pronounced, ala the Good Old Days.

For now, though, why not judge for yourself? There are a bunch of Unreal Engine 4 screens through the Wired link.

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74 Comments »

  1. Toberoth says:

    It does look rather pretty, but as you say, not enormously prettier than the previous iteration. A bit cleaner and sharper, perhaps. I was surprised to see no tessellation though…

    • Orija says:

      Other than the particle effects and post processing, this looks the same as UE3.

      • MiKHEILL says:

        From the article, it sounds like UE4 is all about the special effects. That, and making development of massive projects significantly more efficient to try and counter the complaints of development studios that games are getting too expensive to make as the graphical capabilities of hardware (and thus the expectations of consumers) build to new highs.

    • Premium User Badge Smashbox says:

      More polygons than regular game models, certainly.

    • skittles says:

      I think the major issue is, that it is a fair bit prettier, however they use exactly the same texture work pretty much as UE3, so it is hard to tell the difference.

      The only thing this reminds me of is that I wished they made a game based off “Samaritan” =(

    • The Doge says:

      It is quite odd considering how metro 2033 showed the immersion of effective tessellation, also im sorry if my comment popped in a little too late….

  2. wodin says:

    Yes graphics look that good now the WOW factor is wearing off. They should concentrate on things like animations and most important of all some kind of AI breakthrough. Start putting more development resources into AI and gameplay than concentrating to much on trying to make the graphic more photoreal, they already look amazing eventually they will look like real life and that will be the end of that, it will also I think end up feeling like your playing a film rather than a game. Also there seems to be a link between how good graphics got and how immersion in games started to become a rare thing for a game to possess. Maybe back in the day your imaginations was just as important really helped with games, as your imagination will always be better than a computer graphic on screen.

    • mickygor says:

      Game AI should be developed by people who research in computational intelligence as opposed to game developers :)

      http://overmind.cs.berkeley.edu/

      • OrangyTang says:

        “Research” AI is vastly different from game AI. They’re usually interested in getting the most optimal result as quickly as possible. Meanwhile most game AI these days is about creating a believable opponent – ones that make exploitable mistakes, and have a personality (eg. a preferred attack strategy even when technically better ones exist). Or ones that can be faked out and bluffed like an actual person.

        Making the “best” Starcraft AI is an interesting technical challenge, but I wouldn’t want to play against it in a game.

        • MrTambourineMan says:

          They are interested in getting optimal result, not most optimal, since word “optimal” means the best, it’s a superlative of word bonus(good) hence optimus is the best, get it, get it?

        • Premium User Badge FriendlyFire says:

          Optimality is far from the sole area of research, actually. Many universities team up with game developers specifically to work on things like computer graphics, physics simulation and AI.

          Lest you forget, the Turing test was specifically conceived to test believability, not optimality.

        • mickygor says:

          Not true. I study AI at university :) Games are one of the best challenges for developing robust AI – they require complex thought patterns and observations in which to develop complex intelligent systems. That games don’t tend to use more advanced techniques does not mean that they could not benefit from them (and a lot of games do anyway!)

    • byteCrunch says:

      Developers would sooner waste time on fancy shader effects, you can see a shader effect, AI is something that you have play against. So it is easier just to show off some nice effects to draw people in.

      • MordeaniisChaos says:

        Which is why this is a good thing, because it does a lot of that work for the dev, and allows them to focus on other things.

        I’d also like to say that it’s really hard to tell why this is so impressive, but you know what no game has done in real time in any meaningful way? Light bouncing from one surface and illuminating another. I’m sure there are games out there that have done it, I know real time radiosity engines exist out there, but no one’s made gears of war were that REALLY happened in any meaningful and more importantly, dynamic and real time sense. This means that the developer doesn’t have to worry about avoiding movement or destruction or major changes in an environment, because all of that stuff is dynamic, rather than baked on. It means time of day isn’t going to require the game to sacrifice things like indirect illumination.

        And those particles, those ARE impressive. Try looking up Dark Void using PhysX. It looks a bit tech demo-y and is more fantastical than embers, but it makes a MASSIVE difference, and looks cool as fuck. So imagine that on an even grander level.

        Another good thing to think of is the lava. If that lava is dynamic, it means a new level of physics in the game, yet another level of dynamics that not only immerses the player greatly, but also reduces some of the work the developer has to do.

        And then just think of how dynamic and more believable all of this is going to be in motion. Look at how much clearer it looks, how much smoother the models are.

        • byteCrunch says:

          My point was that pushing polygons is all well and good but it does not account for everything, games have to do literally 1000s of things in 1/60th of second (if not less), as soon as you start adding AI, pathfinding and other crucial systems performance begins to drop rapidly, all Epic are showing is graphics and nothing more, and it was the same with the Samaritan demo.

          In terms of lighting, I would sooner see games move towards object based lighting, that is where realism in terms of lighting is.

          Also I very much doubt that the lava is any king of simulation, it is probably just a series of perlin noise layers that alternate, if your reffering to the particles of lava on the mace though, I suspect that is probably a simulation, though they are probably only simulating a few particles then interpolating the rest.

  3. moarage says:

    I know it’s a showcase demo but can their art-direction be even more generic and boring?

    • felisc says:

      Agreed.
      Although i think i still prefer this to that fish thingy from cryengine demo.

      • MordeaniisChaos says:

        Oh god, the dreams are going to come back, you asshole!

    • michailnenkov says:

      this. btw everything lately is dark and gloomy and yellowish-red. deus ex, diablo 3. I’m not 14 anymore, I don’t indulge in romantic and industrial fantasies anymore. but that might be a problem of my own.

  4. Premium User Badge The Sombrero Kid says:

    For the record the video those shots are from are a prerender they made, they said so in the article these shots came with & that it’d take a PC 1000x more powerful than the most powerful PC today to run it, which makes me think it must be a production version of a next gen voxel-esque engine & they’re just as stumped at getting massive data sets to move as everyone else.

    • Baboonanza says:

      I think the RPS article is misleading, but I can see why because the Wired article is terribly written. At various points they refer to it running cinematics that aren’t possible on current hardware on a Kepler. I have no idea what was actually demo’s from my quick reading of it.

      I would guess that the writer had no clue what he was writing about.

    • MiKHEILL says:

      Correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe the thousand or so times power pc reference was regarding graphics that present in real-life quality:

      Creating a game that operates on a level of fidelity comparable to human vision, Sweeney says, will require hardware at least 2,000 times as powerful as today’s highest-end graphics processors.

      Everything is the demo reel which was reportedly the same as the pictures shown was rendered in real time in the Unreal Engine editor on a pc with a GTX 680:

      Then the twist: Willard reveals that both the cinematic scene and the following tech demo haven’t been running off a game file but in real time from within UE4′s game editor.

      • Baboonanza says:

        Thanks for clearing that up, it does sound pretty impressive.

  5. Simon Hawthorne says:

    It’s always easier to display how good the graphics are in a trailer, it’s much harder to accurately show off how good your AI is, how good the story is, etc. Therefore, graphics will probably continue to receive a disproportionate amount of investment.

    It’s also an arms race; none of us are really bothered about what the graphics are like in any particular game, but we do want to see that game which has the very best graphics.

    For example, Assassin’s Creed Revelations still has very similar graphics to Assasin’s Creed 2, and actually, they’re pretty amazing. I doubt anyone played Revelations for the graphics.

    Contrast that with Battlefield 3 where many people who aren’t even interested in First Person Shooters still bought that game just to look at. It was similar with the original Crysis.

    Finally, whether graphics are ‘good’ tends to be objective, at least relative to storyline and gameplay. You’re taking far less of a gamble by putting your money on graphics as opposed to storyline.

    I may prefer storyline and gameplay took more of a front seat but graphics are here to stay.

    • ankh says:

      I believe BF3 has many many more graphics than Crysis 1.

      • P7uen says:

        Unlimited Detail(tm) has infinite graphics though, which is much better than BF3 (which has about a hundred and twenty).

        • Simon Hawthorne says:

          These are good points. I withdraw my original point.

        • ankh says:

          Surely by infinite you mean maybe three hundred and fifty max?

          • BarneyL says:

            I don’t believe there are any numbers after 350 so it’s effectively infinity.

  6. Text_Fish says:

    Games like TF2 have offered the most important graphical leaps in the last decade, if you ask me. They may not feature as much fancy jargon as Unreal tech but they ooze at least 786432 times more style-per-polygon. Epic games are the vajazzled tarts of the games world, and it shows in the dull conversation.

    • byteCrunch says:

      Indeed, all this power and instead of trying to take an original art style, they just churn out the most generic rubbish. Realism is good but it is not the only use for more graphical power.

      In any case, good job Epic lots of polygons, now maintain that polygon count whilst doing the 1000s of other things an engine has to do in 1/60th of a second, otherwise this is not at all impressive.

      • MordeaniisChaos says:

        It’s a TECH DEMO, of course it’s generic. I think Gears 2 and 3 looked great, they didn’t look like other games, the style wasn’t as “artsy” as something like TF2, but the world and the designs within it certainly had a flourish, if in a totally different direction. Being cartoony, while sometimes great, isn’t the only way to have style. And you know what? Less stylized visuals aren’t always bad. And come on, imagine how fantastic something in the Borderlands style could look running this engine.

        • byteCrunch says:

          Stylisation does not mean cartoony. Stylisation just means that you can easily distinguish games, but instead most games are just brown, if I showed you a screenshot of Mirrors Edge, you would know right away what it was, whilst say a screenshot of CoD it could be more or less any modern shooter.

          • Premium User Badge FriendlyFire says:

            If there’s an obnoxious amount of lens flares or dust on the “camera”, then you know it’s BF3.

            See? Easy.

  7. Premium User Badge JB says:

    Staring (burning?) eyes tag?

    • Text_Fish says:

      Just once I’d like the Sauron-inspired burney-eye horny-head pointy-clothes character to actually turn out to be quite a caring and sensitive guy — maybe he longs to arrange flowers in his spare time but they wilt under his furious gaze, so the only way he can do it is blindfolded and then his botched arrangements get laughed out of the church fete by Deidre the pastor’s wife. Epic should challenge more preconceptions.

  8. roryok says:

    This screenshot looks like it’s from a 10 year old engine. Not impressed at all. I’m sure it looks better when it moves

    Maybe it’s just dreadful image compression or something. Look at it!

    • caddyB says:

      Reminds me of Arx Fatalis.

    • Text_Fish says:

      Yeah, the lighting’s all over the place in that one. The hammer and the sauron guy seem superimposed.

    • MordeaniisChaos says:

      It’s compressed. That, and it looks like that object is really emitting light, not just having an attached lamp , but I’m not sure. Hard to tell. But yeah, the compression stands out a million miles away. This is a much more tech-demo-y shot, clearly. The reason the demon knight dude looks off is because he’s not textured. I don’t think it’s fair to judge the engine on that particular screenshot, because it is compressed all to hell, and these are already small shots, and tech demo shots aren’t always going to look amazing, sometimes they will look odd, but demonstrate an impressive feature or effect none-the-less. Hard to know what’s being shown off there, but everything but everything in that scene that is shown elsewhere looks super sharp and clean.

      • H77 says:

        It is emitting light: «Emissive materials, such as the one used on this hammer, give off light that bounces accurately and dynamically.»

    • badoli says:

      Great work, mate, you pick the ugliest screenshot and already you know the whole story from that.

      This screenshot on the other hand has quite some interesting details: Can you see the reflection of the golden statue in the floor…? This is a diffuse reflection, an effect no game has so far.

      Furthermore this is supposedly 100% realtime rendered lighting. No baking, no tricks, just realtime global illumination. No game features something like that yet as current gen console can’t do it.

      But yea, the demo was aimed at developers, not at gamers. So it’s no surprise the eyecandy here is rather limited, devs deal in facts…

  9. Alexandros says:

    Meh.

  10. Premium User Badge Revisor says:

    Ok, devs.
    That’s enough.

    The graphics are great already.

    Now start working on
    - meaningful choices,
    - a world that reflects these choices,
    - a gripping story where all characters have hidden motives, multilayered personality (you know, like each of us) and are not one-dimensional
    OR as an alternative to a story
    - gameplay full of smaller systems that create interesting emergent gameplay and personal stories

    - feel of physicality, still almost unexplored since Condemned
    - appropriate sound design. Thief? You know that ancient game? I’d like to see this much sound effort and understanding of the audio landscape. Hire the Brosiuses again if you must.

    Thank you,
    your ever more demanding and unsatisfied player :)

  11. ShadowBlade says:

    This sounds more impressive from a developers standpoint. No more baked lighting? Yes please!
    Those screenshots don’t look all that amazing, but I’m certain that in motion, it probably looks very good. These are also no indication that it can’t do really amazing looking things. The mountains do look very good though.

    Mostly, I hope they do a UDK version of this, if the tools are really that much quicker to iterate with.

    • hamburger_cheesedoodle says:

      “Mostly, I hope they do a UDK version of this, if the tools are really that much quicker to iterate with.”

      Yes, this! I would like to level the playing field a little, make it maybe not so hard for a guy in his basement to compete with the 400 members of the CoD team. If the guy in his basement and Activision can make a game that looks as good, then the guy in his basement stands a pretty good chance of being able to beat CoD at the gameplay game.

  12. Shivoa says:

    Unreal Engine 3 can do DX11 next gen visuals (see Samaritan demo with the real-time light bounce calculations and plenty of DX11 effects) and has been described as being built for a 10 year life-cycle (no risk of hitting a hard-cap coded into the core of the engine to require it to be replaced, unlike UE2). So the interesting thing about UE4 (details next month being made public by the sound of it, I wonder how long until we get a free taste with UE4 SDK for non-commercial use) is what they’ve built differently for this new engine.

    The call to a new workflow (better visual scripting tools for non-coders to implement data structures and scripts which have traditionally required code input is called out) is what’s new here. The rendering engine will be competent, but UE3′s DX11 release from a year ago is competent already. What has been throw away and changed to require a whole new engine? Dynamic worlds (if the editor is all real-time with final lighting then we’re seeing the end of pre-calc lighting and even occlusions?) would be an interesting move and would certainly make sense to build a new engine (or a rebrand on a radical update to several core systems, obviously there will be UE3 code in UE4, they’re unlikely to have replaced every single line of code just so they can say this is a 100% new code base).

    • badoli says:

      The Samaritan demo needed 3 highend graphic cards. UE4 runs from one future graphic card, which features the architecture to make it work.

      Of course not all lines of code have been changed. I’m pretty sure that more than 80% of the codebase is UE3. Still from a dev level this is quite an impressive update (as far as i can say from that wired article). Hence they only showed it to developers and the wired magazine, not like everybody. Of course they can’t stop people to repost the wired-article and focusing on the most irrelevant facts… :(

      • SXO says:

        The Samaritan demo didn’t “require” those 3 GTX 580′s to run. They simply went overkill on the setup because it was as yet unoptimized and they did not want to risk any hitching when showing it off. They actually showed off the same demo again this year using only a single GTX 680. I’m sure without AA, a 580 could achieve “playable” framerates on the same demo.

  13. vodka and cookies says:

    I do wonder who can afford to produce such visuals in the future, I hope Epic’s “lower cost better graphics” claims are true but the way things are going it does not bode well.

    • badoli says:

      That was actually a part of the presentation: The dev tools in UE4 supposedly make it possible for non-programmers to influence extensively far more than before. That alone already would spare dev teams weeks and months of work…

  14. Stevostin says:

    I think you’re missing the point of this demo which was playable, here and now, on a rig some people already have. So I think that this one, actually, is actually close to what you’ll get ingame. Which means you can’t expect a leap coming by itself “just because it’s the new Unreal engine”. Memory, polycount, those roofs are still here.

    And while I thought we would stop to see the graphic ware waging in the video game industry, I have changed my mind on this. I recently seen photographies of landscape, 1 meter per 1 meter, but with very intensive detail (50000 * 50000 pixel, I think. Yuck !). And well, it showed. This can of precision, no display can get close right now, but they will eventually. And so the news is, it will show, and with greater pixel accuracy comes overall improvement in every aspect of CG, FX, etc. Blue Ray is just a stone on the road to some video storage support that exhausts what our eyes can reall enjoy, there will be several other after that one, and you can expect the same amount of cycles in video game CG.

    The point on the workflow is the key, thus. It’s clear it will be more and more the barrier. I feel like ID and Rage had trouble with that one.

  15. tomeoftom says:

    GUYS. Please, stop whining that the graphics aren’t that good. Graphics are good enough right now. The fluid dynamics and physics is absolutely a great thing – as far as engine tech goes this is where things should be headed.

  16. Network Crayon says:

    Based on the screenshots, i agree with a few other people, it doesn’t seem that revolutionary so far. hopefully it’ll be sharper than UE3, less bloom orientated.

  17. pilouuuu says:

    Not impressed. It looks similar to Skyrim with ESB mod. And will developers start using colours this next generation? If you want realistic, well, life HAS colours! It’s ridiculous that SVGA age graphics were more colourful.

    Also whoever says that graphics are good enough is crazy. But realistic is not always good. Art direction is what matters. I’d be happy to have Toy Story graphics at least. I’m afraid we’ll get similar looking games again with this new engine.

  18. Moni says:

    Something that annoys me whenever a discussion about graphics comes up: A lot of people speak as if graphics development and gameplay development are mutually exclusive.

    The Tim Sweeneys and the Peter Molyneuxs of the industry aren’t the same people, technology and design are separate jobs.

    • Harvey says:

      my brain kinda hurts… did you mean to say “…aren’t mutually exclusive” ?

  19. rocketman71 says:

    Bah. Engines developed toward consoles, again. Graphics are good enough already. What Epic can’t simply provide anymore is fun, good gameplay; at least until they boot CliffyB.

    Also:

    “The thing that separates consoles from FarmVille is the fact that consoles define the high-end gaming experience,” he said. “When you look for the best graphics available in the whole game industry today, you look at Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, and those games are the best out there, bar none.”

    Wow. I used to think of Tim Sweeney as a nice chap, more grounded than Carmack ever was, but this is just ridiculous. How can you be a star programmer and spew such huge bullshit?.

    Ok, I guess next month it’s “we love the PC, truly!” again.

    Edit: the quote comes from this interview

    • NeuralNet says:

      Yes Epic is mostly full of shit. When I saw the Samaritan demo I had some hope that we may see a substantial leap forward, but that’s looking less likely now.

      • Phantoon says:

        Funny enough, they shaft PC gamers regularly, then wonder why no one cares that they released a shoddy port on the platform.

    • alundra says:

      You’re late to the party, Sweeney has been deprecating PC platform for a while now. At least be thankful PC is going to be allowed to move forward, a little, when the UE4 gets released to consoles.

  20. cHeal says:

    The plateau in graphics will lead to more pressure on art direction. The only way to make your game stand out graphically will be with strong art direction, which can be easily bought. It is a very positive development because if everyone has the same access to essentially the same graphical power and tools then it makes it yet more possible for small indie developers to produce not only innovative products, but great looking products too. The next decade will be fascinating in this regard.

    • Walter Heisenberg says:

      I doubt it, publishers haven’t put any pressure on their studios to make their brown military shooters and Save the Earth TM sci-fi games look unique from each other there will have to be massive drop in sales before that happens. I suspect they will put out the exact same looking and playing games on the next consoles and people will immediately act like it’s refreshing and exciting, the tone I got from sites like Giant Bomb last year is that they would have enjoyed games like Arkham City and Uncharted 3 more if they were told they were playing it on a PS4. The tendacy of people in this industry to value new shiny expensive boxes over games continues to trouble me.

  21. RagingLion says:

    “Eyes, though, are perhaps the most treacherous of all face real estate tenants.”

    A beautiful piece of writing, that.

    That thing about shortening the pipeline is really significant. It’s the bog worry I feel many have had when considering whether graphics can really step up much.

    • Sirbolt says:

      I can’t imagine Epic being able to shorten the pipeline as much as they are trying to claim. Today it takes ages to churn out the fidelity we have been accustomed to and it’s not the engine or level editor that is being the bottle neck, it’s the bloated work flow involved with creating the 3d content itself. Unless they’ve created something that combines 3dsmax/zbrush/photoshop and xnormal (optional, but nice) into one, which is incredibly unlikely.

      • H77 says:

        It will have a significant impact. As it’s written on the piece: “[today] when lighting elements are altered, computers have to parse the data and figure out how to render the changes. Depending on the extent of those edits, this process, sometimes called baking, can take half an hour or more. UE4 removes that bake time entirely.”

        • Sirbolt says:

          That won’t really shorten the development process that much though. Real-time instead of baked lighting isn’t that significant of a hurdle to shorten development time with a whole year, or more. The brunt of the time consuming work has nothing to do with the engine or level editor, it has to do with bloated design practices.

  22. Kestilla says:

    Indie!

  23. Shooop says:

    If only Epic would just devote themselves to making graphics engines and give up making games entirely. Then they’d make an engine that doesn’t fall apart at the seams and spare us from their shitty generic games.

    Now Activision has hundreds of people working on Call of Duty for the current-gen consoles.

    I’d bet over half of them are the marketing team. Because they’re sure not working on AI, graphics, sound, or core game mechanics.

  24. Phantoon says:

    Nathan, you are a million years old.

    A MEELEEON!

    I want new things, all the times, sometimes in terrifying ways. We have jetpacks, railguns, electron teleportation, and holograms. These are all in their infancy and they are not enough.

  25. Brun says:

    Thank you, Epic. I know we’ve had our disagreements over Gears of War in the past, but SOMEONE needs to drag developers out of the Seventh Generation.

    Also, the streamlined developer tools are EXACTLY what the industry needs. All we hear about is how games are too expensive to make, how used sales and piracy are killing the industry and spawning terrible DRM, stupid amounts of DLC, and tacked-on multiplayer. Reducing development costs is the answer to those problems.

  26. tehfish says:

    As long as it doesn’t have the horrible texture pop-in problems that plague UE3 titles i’ll be happy