Earlier this year Epic games released a demo showcasing what the latest version of their Unreal game engine was capable of.
Some of the most anticipated games to be released this year have been made using the Unreal engine so for this installment of Console-Oscopy I will be writing a brief techography of the Unreal engine.
In the beginning there was Epic MegaGames, they began in 1991 and produced DOS based titles such as ZZT and Jill Of The Jungle. In 1998, rebranded as Epic, the company released a FPS called Unreal. In Unreal, you play an escaped prisoner who is stranded on an alien planet. The aim of the game is to get off the planet, along the way you encounter both friendly and hostile aliens. The game introduced gamers to the Unreal game engine. In the same way that Unreal was rival to the game Quake II, Epics Unreal Engine was rival to id Software’s id Tech2 Engine (also known as the Quake II Engine).
In fact the rivalry between Epic and id Software continues today. The id Tech engine has been behind games such as Doom, Call Of Duty, Brink, and forthcoming title; Rage. The Unreal engine has been behind the entire Unreal and Unreal Tormament series, Gears Of War, and Borderlands.
Examining the rivalry between these two companies is a good approach to understanding why the Unreal Engine became popular. Both engines were very similar with regard to how they worked, after-all they were both competing to create dynamic FPS’s in three-dimensional environments. The major difference is in the modding aspect of the Unreal and id Tech2 engine. Both engines were moddable – a user could build their own levels and share them with their friends or the world via websites such as planetquake and planetunreal. Unreal got the edge by including a level editor(UnrealEd) with the game, unlike Quake II which had the same capacity to modify the game and its contents but the user had to download 3rd party software. When you consider that in 1998 consumer computers had only just breached the 1GB mark, a game with an inline editor would be more appealing.
So I have speculated why the Unreal engine took off but what is in the Unreal Engine. Graphics engines require an API (Application Programme Interface). An API allows different pieces of software to talk to each other. At launch, the Unreal Engine used Glide API. Glide API is a 3D Graphics API developed by 3dfx, this company are also the maker of Voodoo graphics cards which were considered the best graphics cards for gaming in the late nineties. Having the same company build both the graphics card and the API for your 3D game rendering needs has obvious advantages. Later, Unreal switched to OpenGL and Direct3D APIs, the emergence of 3D graphic API’s which were not designed to work best with a specific graphics card not only impacted 3dfx’s dominance of the graphics card market but gave the Unreal engine access to more platforms and more developers.
The Unreal Engine 2 added Ragdoll physics and support for 6th generation consoles (Xbox, PS2, GameCube).
These days, gamers will be familiar with the third version of the Unreal Engine; the Unreal Engine 3. This version of the engine was unveiled at the 2003 Games Developers Conference and as well as using both DirectX (Microsoft) and OpenGL (cross-platform) 3D API’s, Unreal introduced HDRR (High Dynamic Range Rendering) and per-pixel lighting. HDRR allows for more realistic rendering of large scale environment and per-pixel lighting lights foreground pixels more realistically. The ultimate effect is more generally more realistic environments.
So how do you know if your game is using the Unreal Engine. Unreal Engine games traditionally have a ‘look’ – the character models and the way the backgrounds are rendered are very similar. Firstly, the characters have a comic book feel about them and their bodytypes are heavily stereotyped. The men are either large and muscly or small and thin. The female characters tend to have a sporty but petite bodytype. The backgrounds have a scruffy feel, although they are drawn and rendered beautifully there is a roughness. This can probably be put down to the ‘sacrifices’ that have to be made to make this engine dynamic enough to satiate fast gameplay with detailed characters and environments. Some people do not like the scruffiness of Unreal’s graphics, but I do. It is reassuring to know that regardless of the content. A game built using the Unreal Engine will play, or run, very nicely.
If we were to once again look at the demo of the improved Unreal Engine 3, it is clear to see why gamers are excited about this latest upgrade of a gaming staple. Once again, Unreal have built on what they had and just made it that little bit better. The demo at the top of this post demonstrates ‘Gemini’, their multi-threaded rendering system which can create photorealistic simulations. Below is the gameplay demo for Dust 514, which previewed at this years E3.
As game technology continues to develop so does Unreal. A brief look at Unreal’s website reveals that as well as the usual platforms of Xbox360, PS3, and Windows PC, Unreal are now introducing their engine to the SonyVita project, MacOS, the Apple (iOS) and Android mobile platforms.