Watch Epic Games' Mind-Blowing Unreal Engine 5.2 Photorealistic Tech Demo

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At this stage, we probably don't need to tell an audience of technology enthusiasts that Unreal Engine is capable of mind-blowing photorealistic visuals. Indeed, that's really not even what Epic's demo at GDC was all about. Unreal Engine has reached its 5.2-nd version, and with this latest release comes two very important technologies: the Substrate material framework as well as a suite of procedural content generation tools.

The demo opens with a rich foliage scene lit by the sun. A common joke among graphics programmers, when another developer is revealing their brand-new graphics technology, is to say "yeah, but does it work on foliage?" Natural environments are the hardest to render, and that's why Epic is showing it off here. Unreal Engine's Nanite virtual geometry system did not work with foliage initially, but updates since its launch have improved that capability to the point that plants can deform and move in response to stimulus in the game world.

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Epic says this truck is physically simulated down to the individual suspension components.

The demo centers on a Rivian electric truck that moves through the natural rainforest environment. Epic says that all of the physics interactions here are realistically-modeled down to individual rocks that tumble under the truck's tires as well as advanced water simulation. The truck itself was apparently provided to Epic by Rivian itself, and the model supposedly features 71 million polygons, which Epic was able to slap right into the game environment thanks to Nanite's virtualized geometry.

The Rivian truck primarily serves as a demonstration for the new Substrate material framework. This is essentially a modification of Unreal Engine's existing material system such that it can now simulate multiple layered materials, even on the same surface.

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It looks cooler in motion, we promise.

The presenters change the painted metal surface of the Rivian's body to a material that simulates an opal gemstone, complete with sub-surface refractions that change realistically as the camera moves around. It's an impressive demo, especially when the presenters re-apply the mud layer on top of the gemstone. It all looks shockingly realistic throughout.

Moving ahead, the Rivian travels under a fallen log, and then we see a small, muddy open area; this is the beginning of the more impressive part of the demo. The presenter states that only a small part of the environment was hand-crafted; an area about 200x200 meters. The rest of the environment, including everything past the fallen log, was apparently procedurally-generated based on the hand-crafted zone.

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Change the scene from left to right in one second by dragging a prefab asset in.

Given the advancements in all kinds of AI over just the last few months, this sort of thing probably shouldn't be as impressive as it is, but seeing it all in action is pretty unreal—no pun intended. The presenters drop a prefab crag structure into the environment and the whole thing rejiggers itself automagically to add log bridges for the upper area and to look natural below. Moving the prefab causes Unreal Engine to fill in the gaps with realistic puddles of water, small rocks, and light foliage.

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Top: carefully crafted jungle area. Bottom: procedural expansion.

The full area of the demo, including the small hand-crafted portion, apparently extends out by about four kilometers in either direction. That's pretty crazy considering how little of the scene was hand-crafted, and how diverse the environment is. If it were just copy-pasting the bespoke parts, that would be one thing, but that doesn't look to be the case; it all looks really organic.

This kind of technology, in combination with generative AIs, could really accelerate game development. That's a good thing in a world where the biggest games are costing more than even the biggest movies. It's very difficult to be profitable when your game costs hundreds of millions of dollars to make, but looks like this sort of thing could put the latest graphics tech in the hands of even indie developers.

If you're an Unreal Engine game dev and looking to get your hands on these new tools, you apparently don't have to wait at all. The presenters said that Unreal Engine 5.2 Preview is available right now.