Unreal Engine 5 has finally released, after nearly a year of early access and nearly two years since its reveal (featuring that Tomb Raiderish tech demo). Having launched a few minutes into Epic Games’ State of Unreal event, Unreal Engine 5 is likely to be the basis of many a PC game over the next few years, in addition to a few in-development games that have already made the jump: games like S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2 and Black Myth: Wukong.
It's even been publicly playable here and there, as in The Market of Light and the console-only, Keanu Reeves-starring The Matrix Awakens demo. In fact, we’ve already had the full Unreal Engine 5 game in Fortnite, which switched from Unreal Engine 4 to 5 as part of its Season 3 mega-update. Outside of some new destruction and weather effects, though, Fortnite maybe isn’t the best showcase for what the new engine can do.
Chief among Unreal Engine 5’s upgrades is its dynamic Lumen lighting system, wherein changes to direct lighting (light that comes straight from the source, like a torch) will automatically induce changes to the indirect lighting (light that’s previously bounced off surfaces). It works with geometry changes too, so opening a door to a darkened room will more realistically flood it with light.
Unreal Engine 5’s Nanite geometry system also sounds pretty tasty. It aims to let devs worry less about polygon budgets and more about hyper-detailed models and environments: much more higher-poly objects can be placed in a scene, with the engine maintaining high performance by dynamically adjusting how much detail is actually processed and rendered. Think of how current streaming tech can show lower-quality textures and models at a distance, then switch to higher-quality versions once it becomes possible to perceive the difference; Nanite is a bit like that, only with even higher-quality visuals streaming in. The Market of Light and its lovingly, deliciously rendered food market is a good example of this that you can try right now.
The new engine also adds Virtual Shadow Maps, which by Epic’s own admission are “just very high-resolution shadow maps”, but should help ensure that Nanite’s richly detailed textures get the shadow quality to match. Temporal Super Resolution (TSR) also returns from Unreal Engine 4, having just recently made a good showing in Ghostwire: Tokyo. Like Nvidia DLSS or AMD’s upcoming FSR 2.0, TSR is an upscaling tool that boosts performance by rendering games at a lower-than-native resolution, then pulling data from recent frames to produce a sharper, upscaled image.
It may be some time before we can play games that make full use of all these tricks, but there’s plenty of promise here. It’s especially encouraging that Unreal Engine 5 appears to be balancing its desire for blindingly elaborate visuals with an interest in moderating the performance impact – ray tracing in games often looks lovely, but you do need to splurge on one of the best graphics cards to run it at decent frame rates. From what Epic have announced, and from what I’ve seen in The Market of Light, Lumen and Nanite won’t necessarily be as hard on your hardware.