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The Matrix Awakens is a breathtaking demonstration of what Unreal Engine 5 can do

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“Hi, I’m Thomas Anderson…”

Gasp. I’m back in The Matrix. There’s young Keanu Reeves asleep in front of his computer, about to embark on his adventure. “Wake Up, Neo…”

And now it’s older Keanu talking, longer-hair, beard – Keanu as we know him today. And it’s exactly him, filmed in real-life, delivering a piece to camera – a nice get for an Unreal Engine 5 demo, with a bit of timely Matrix Resurrections marketing at the same time.

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Except, is it really him? Because now the camera has cut away and back again, he looks slightly different, he moves in a more animated way. Oh clever, I see what they’ve done there: they’ve switched real-him for rendered-him while I wasn’t looking. But hang on, now he’s back and it’s unquestionably real-him again. But – what! Now he’s suddenly young Keanu – that can’t have been real-him! And now here’s Carrie-Anne Moss doing a piece to camera and surely that’s real-her, isn’t it?

“I remember waking up and thinking that I’m supposed to come here,” says Keanu as Thomas Anderson. “That it was important for me to ask people, ‘How do we know what is real?'” Well I don’t bloody know any more, Keanu, I tell you!

Keanu Reeves / Thomas Anderson. Real or rendered?
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And that is exactly the point of this, The Matrix Awakens, a showcase by Epic Games of how realistic Unreal Engine 5 can look. But it isn’t all for-display-only appreciation. No. From here, the loading room, we go straight in, into the Matrix, into a car chase in Mega City, Trinity at the wheel, Neo in the passenger seat, both breaking the fourth-wall with Unreal jokes and quips about fan demands.

And it’s exactly now – as Neo literally flies out of the window – as I’m thinking, ‘Well this is pretty for a rendered trailer,’ that the demo surprises me by letting me play it. I don’t do much – I’m an unspecified character who appeared in the back of the car, and who has been given a gun by Trinity to shoot out the tires of the chasing cars behind, cars now crawling with body-hijacking Agents – but I am definitely real-time playing it.

Cars crumple and roll as I shoot out their wheels, tumbling into cars behind them and over the top of others behind them. It’s mayhem. But Agents are steadily climbing out of their car windows, onto their bonnets – it’s very Matrix Reloaded – and now one has leapt across to my car and onto the roof!

Then, the Agents are in front of me, and we’re in oncoming traffic, and trucks are flipping and all of a sudden I have a much bigger gun. Just in time for the helicopter. Boom! But we’re still going, somehow, until, in one precision bullet-time shot, there’s an explosion that levels a bridge and, scene! The bombastic car chase part of the demo is done. The showcase, however, has only really begun.

It’s now, as I’m thinking, ‘That was impressive for a heavily scripted, on-rails sequence, but then they usually are,’ that the demo surprises me for a third time by placing me, as the lady from the back of the car, in the city with apparent total freedom to explore.

I can walk, I can free-roam fly, and I can get in any car I find parked around me. And I can wander around and I can look at the city I just rampaged through from any angle I like. And it’s surprisingly big. And from wherever I look, it’s impressive. It’s so believable. Maybe it’s the way the sun makes those glass-clad office blocks gleam. Maybe it’s the way the buildings are squeezed together because space is at a premium. Or maybe it’s the hundreds of people there seem to be around, or the traffic that’s constantly on the roads, and the cars that are parked around them. It’s full of life, this city, so touchable, so there. And there’s barely a hiccup on my PlayStation 5 as I move around it.

The city on foot. It’s some sight.

And as if to dispel any worries of smoke and mirrors, the demo is then at pains to show you how it’s doing it all, to ensure you don’t miss the finer points. You can pull up developer tools and do things like move the sun around, turn crowds on or off, or up and down a little. Or you can turn the textures off and see the meshes, or reduce cars and people to glowing blobs – all, I think, in a demonstration of how easy it will be for developers to do this stuff. It speaks to an incredible confidence Epic must have in its new technology, to just give it to you and let you explore it from all angles like this. And what incredibly deep pockets Epic must have to pull in high-profile Hollywood partnerships like this to show it off. It’s incredibly exciting, I have to admit. A Matrix crossover is about as compelling – and thematically in-keeping – as it can get.

(Incidentally, Digital Foundry will be doing a full dive into the tech on show in The Matrix Awakens demo. There’s a piece live now about how it performs on different platforms, and it’ll be followed by a more in-depth piece tomorrow.)

The Matrix Awakens city from an aerial view
And from an aerial view.

Look a bit deeper, below the surface in the demo, and you’ll see its limitations. There’s nothing much to interact with outside of driving around, and the cars themselves aren’t very detailed drives. You can’t go into buildings (although you can look through office windows into what seem to be fully modelled rooms, which is impressive), and you can’t talk to people. But then, this isn’t a fully fleshed open world, nor is it supposed to be. Those take many people years to fill.

This, The Matrix Awakens, is a glimpse at what can potentially be. Catch it at the right moment, staring down a long boulevard flanked by skyscrapers, as the sun rebounds between them, and it’s a postcard from New York. I’ve never stood in a virtual city that looks all around me as convincing as this one. And I’ve seen first-hand, up close, that it’s not all just for show, either. And it makes me so giddy about the potential.



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