If you play any next-gen games, it’s very likely that you’ve encountered content created with Unreal Engine. “Over half of all announced next-gen games are being created with Unreal Engine,” and there are a ton of updates to explore. Unreal Engine 5.1 is available to download now and is free to use for films and custom projects. It’s even free to use for most game development projects up until the title earns over $1 USD. The updates are scattered across different industries, but for this article, we’ll focus on the gaming industry. So what can you expect?
There have been some updates to the main features of Unreal Engine 5, including the Nanite system, the Lumen system, and the Virtual Shadow Maps (VSM). These core features are what give artists the ability to create insane levels of detail on commercially available computers. “These improvements will enable fast-paced competition and detailed simulations without latency.”
To give a little more background on these three features, Nanite is a virtualized micropolygon geometry system that allows developers to efficiently render triangles on the screen to create multiple Level of Details (LODs) by using Cluster Culling. Basically, you can get millions of triangles on the screen without frying your computer because as these clusters of triangles move offscreen, they are culled. The Nanite system also added a Programmable Rasterizer “to allow for material-driven animations and deformations.” This is done with the World Position Offset and opacity masks.
Meanwhile, the Lumen system is the “dynamic global illumination and reflections system” that allows for such detailed lighting that we find in newer games. Finally, the Virtual Shadow Maps (VSM) lay the “groundwork for games and experiences running at 60 fps on next-gen consoles and capable PCs.”
Some of the other added features are meant to improve efficiency for game developers as they move forward on projects in Unreal Engine 5. Features such as Virtual Assets, the Pipeline State Object (PSO), and on-demand shader compilation have been added to save time and increase interactivity.
Virtual Assets “decouple the metadata from the object data.” This lets the developers sync only what they need and create smaller workspaces that are faster to update. The Pipeline State Object simplifies the shipping process for a completed game, and the on-demand shader compilation “compiles only the shaders needed to render what is seen on screen while working in the Unreal Editor.”
There are also a few updates in Unreal Engine 5.1 that are made specifically for developers creating large open worlds. The World Partition “now supports Large World Coordinates” and accelerated source control workflows. Large World Coordinates does exactly what the name implies. For massive open worlds, there won’t be a loss of precision due to this addition. The accelerated source control workflows are also self-explanatory, as they allow developers to find their content in the world and files much more easily. The Hierarchical Level of Detail (HLOD) has also been added for water rendering and streaming, which will allow large open worlds to exhibit large bodies of water with a “smaller memory footprint.”
It’s amazing that this technology is free to play around with!