Epic's Unreal Engine 3 owns this generation of action games: of that, there can be little doubt. But will the company's Unreal Engine 4 become the Xbox 720 developer's middleware of choice? The answer, on the strength of new demo screenshots released today, appears to be a qualified yes.
Wired's published a massive, thoroughly readable feature on Unreal Engine 4, bundled with captures from a privately shown demo reel. If you thought last year's throwdown with Samaritan robots was sweet, this year's vaguely Dark-Souls-flavoured endeavour should staple-gun your eyebrows to the ceiling.
"There is a huge responsibility on the shoulders of our engine team and our studio to drag this industry into the next generation," Epic's Cliff Bleszinski told the site. "It is up to Epic, and [technology boss] Tim Sweeney in particular, to motivate Sony and Microsoft not to phone in what these next consoles are going to be. It needs to be a quantum leap. They need to damn near render Avatar in real time, because I want it and gamers want it-even if they don't know they want it."
A shade less excitably, Sweeney noted that "we're much more in sync with the console makers than any other developer is. That means we can give detailed recommendations with a complete understanding of what is going to be commercially possible."
So what does Unreal Engine 4 offer? How does it trump all that's come before? Well, take the particle system for example. Present day game engines struggle to render one of them without cramping performance; the new Unreal can generate millions, providing the hardware's up to the challenge. Bleszinski's pretty happy about this. "Mark my words, those particles are going to be whored by developers." Good stuff.
But the engine's appeal isn't purely a question of power. As we've heard frequently in the past, Epic is conscious that the more sizzling eye candy you offer, the larger and better-funded the team you need. "Call of Duty was a game that a team of a few dozen could develop on PlayStation 2," Sweeney reflected. "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?"
With that in mind, Unreal Engine 4 will ship with the new Kismet 2 tool, which renders complex matters of level scripting in simple visual terms. Thus, designers will be able to experiment with scenarios without obliging programmers to fiddle with the underlying code.
"There were people who weren't programmers but who still wanted to create and script things," commented James Golding, senior engine programmer. "When we got them a visual system, they just went completely bananas with it. We're turning our level designers into godlike creatures who can walk into a world and create with a swipe of their hand."
What do you think of the demo captures? Epic's planning to showcase the video itself at this year's Game Developer Conference. For more on the Gears studio's next generation vision, read our feature Xbox 360 2: what Epic wants.