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Reality Bites

Shane Bettenhausen

Shockingly, the most-talked-about event of 2004’s Game Developers Conference wasn’t John Carmack’s inspiring keynote address on “Entropy in the Development Process.” Hell, it wasn’t even when American Idol reject William Hung butchered “YMCA” at a Sony presentation. In the nerd-packed halls of the San Jose McEnery Convention Center, one question was repeated over and over: “Have you seen the Unreal Engine 3 demo?” Opinions ranged from “It looks better than Half-Life 2” to “It looks like Lord of the Rings…as in, the movies.”

So I, a humble console magazine editor, simply had to see it firsthand.

Now bear in mind, I’m not exactly a tech-savvy PC user (spec-heads, scope the sidebar for the jargon you crave), but seeing both Doom 3 and Half-Life 2 in action gave me hope for the future of all gaming. They’re proof that the graphical ceiling isn’t even close to being reached.

After I’d been ushered into the behind-closed-doors tech demo, Epic Games’ outspoken wunderkind Cliff Bleszinski prefaced the showing by saying, “This takes a big ol’ dump on Doom!” Turns out that was a fairly prophetic statement—in terms of raw graphical brilliance, Unreal Engine 3 (set to debut with a new product in early 2006) completely blows away anything previously seen.

As expected, the engine (running on Nvidia’s new GeForce 6800 cards at the demo) excels at rendering environments. The two shown—a gothic town square and an idyllic, windswept field complete with individual blades of swaying grass—both revealed what millions of polygons and talented artists can achieve. The stunning level of detail seriously blurred the line between what you’d expect from CG cut-scenes and in-game visuals. The character models shown were similarly impressive. Normal mapping has allowed for incredibly complex-looking creatures originally composed of 8.5 million polygons to be constructed using far fewer polygons—just 8,000, to be precise—and the resulting monstrosities still look breathtakingly realistic. Or would that make them unrealistic?

Blinded by the light

Even more impressive, however, are the engine’s fantastic lighting capabilities and groundbreaking visual-displacement effects. A lantern was thrown around a dank, cavelike room, casting utterly realistic diffuse shadows on surfaces and through permeable textures. This area also utilized a new graphical technique that allows completely flat polygons to appear, instead of being comprised of wildly complex structures combining normal mapping and crazy texture tricks. Seriously, a wall constructed of only one piece of geometry looked exactly like a rough-hewn stone wall that you can view in three dimensions from any angle.

“Graphics have been awful until just last year,” says the ever-so-timid Cliffy B. “When you look at a brick wall in Unreal Engine 3, it really looks like you can reach your hand in the cracks and climb up it, slip, and feel the mortar scraping against the underside of your chin as gravity has its way with you and drags you back to reality.” The mind boggles.

Engine Highlights

o Realistic per-pixel lighting

o Soft, dynamic shadows

o Robust physics system with IK

o Holographic texture mapping

o Spherical harmonic lighting

o High-dynamic-range lighting

o Visual-displacement normal mapping

Copyright © 2004 Ziff Davis Media Inc. All Rights Reserved. Originally appearing in Computer Gaming World.





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