Matrix Awakens: an Unreal Engine 5 Experience is a free demonstration of the capabilities of Epic’s next-generation graphics engine. Available for PlayStation 5 (PS5) and Xbox Series S/X, the demo is not a full game, and although it has simple gameplay, it impresses by offering an extremely detailed open-world and impressive graphics. The title is set in a fictional city that takes advantage of architectural traits from New York, Chicago, and San Francisco, USA.
At least officially, there are no plans to turn Matrix Awakens into a full game. However, Epic has already confirmed that it will release access to all the material that makes up the demo to developers at the release of the final version of Unreal 5.
What is a “tech demo”?
A demo classified in these terms is something a bit more stripped down than a final version, like the ones you find to get to know a game. The term “tech” refers to the technology and helps explain why productions like Matrix Awakens can be so innovative in technology, yet simple in gameplay. The function of a tech demo is solely to test and display the capabilities of new technologies available to developers.
From Epic’s point of view, this is quite important: more than the developer behind Fortnite or the creator of the Epic Games Store, the US corporation is responsible for the creation and development of the Unreal Engine, the industry benchmark graphics engine.
By creating a high-quality tech demo showcasing the new Unreal Engine 5’s arsenal of features, Epic is advertising its tools to developers and the public. In addition, the fact that a new movie in the Matrix series is coming soon contributes to the project, lending a big name to attract a lot of people.
What can you do in Matrix Awakens?
The demo consists of two modes, and the player can access them whenever they want. The first of these will be played on the first run of the “game”: it starts with scenes that mix video and Unreal Engine simulations in such a way that it is hard to tell how much of the material is real or not. This duality – also found in the Matrix trilogy – serves as the common thread in this introduction.
In a short time, the player is taken on a high-speed chase through the streets of a city and must deal with eliminating agents. The controls are simple and everything looks like a common adventure sequence in games like Uncharted. What is shown on the screen is reproduced in real-time, on the same map that the player can explore later, even with a sophisticated physics simulation that guarantees unique explosions on the screen.
After enjoying the brief introduction and seeing the end of the chase, the player has access to the exploration mode, where the huge city is open to the user’s curiosity. It is possible to walk through the streets and fly with a free camera similar to a drone. In addition, the game allows you to drive any parked vehicle (there is no way to steal cars in traffic, but there will be no shortage of options among the 38,146 drivable vehicles available in the city). Finally, there is the option to play around with photo modes and filters that show the difference in demo graphics with or without Unreal’s technologies turned on.
Why only for PS5 and Xbox Series S/X?
Epic’s demo aims to show what is possible to offer with the hardware of the next-gen consoles, which explains why there is no version available for PlayStation 4 (PS4) and Xbox One. One aspect that becomes apparent throughout the experience is that Matrix Awakens doesn’t need any stops to load any of the city bits or in the action sequences, signaling the importance of the SSDs found in the new consoles.
The high read speeds of the SSDs in today’s consoles allow the entire city to be loaded without transitions. There are no interruptions to present the city (a total area of 15.7 km²) and even objects and buildings in the distance are placed instantly, without the pop-in problem.
It is worth remembering that pop-in is a very common problem in games installed on HDs and consists of seeing objects being loaded too quickly near the character.
In addition, the system that creates the lighting technique for the entire map works using the new consoles’ dedicated hardware for Ray Tracing, a technology that did not exist in the previous generation. The tool allows you to display sunlight effects, shadows, and reflections much more realistically, technology that did not exist in the previous generation.
Another relevant aspect is the Artificial Intelligence in the demo: the behavior of drivers and pedestrians on the map is simple, yet looks very natural. However, perhaps more than the complexity itself, what is most impressive is the density. According to Epic, there are 35,000 dynamically simulated pedestrians, something that would not be feasible on 2013 processors, a technological profile that corresponds to the PS4 and Xbox One CPUs.
How does Unreal Engine 5 work and what is it?
Given the relevance of graphics, the industry has grown accustomed to referring to technologies such as Unreal Engine as a “graphics engine. However, today the tool has more comprehensive capabilities than that and goes beyond what a simple intermediator for generating screen images can offer.
Engines such as Unreal or Unity are tools that promise to make developing a game easier. If you know programming or have some good ideas about 3D modeling, you can create your own game by doing the whole process from scratch. But for big-budget and complex productions, this approach is not viable, as it makes the production as a whole more expensive (and difficult). The solution, therefore, is to look for ready-made frameworks and tools that provide access to the basics and take care of the more in-depth and complex processes.
Instead of having to create a whole complex set of software to render 3D images and, who knows, apply a sophisticated and fancy lighting system, the developer can use Epic’s – or any other engine’s – ready-made framework. With this, the development team is free to devote itself to the creation of specific features of each game, such as AI, mechanics, game modes, among others.
Technologies in use
Epic’s demo shows how several technologies available to developers in Unreal Engine 5 work. Among them, two are most impactful: Nanite and Lumen. The former is a system that virtualizes the geometry of objects in the scene, allowing them to have a seemingly infinite scale of detail. This means that no matter how close you move the camera to an object, it will always resolve more detail.
In Matrix Awakens, for example, shooting close to asphalt reveals the tiny pebbles that make up the sidewalk, just as taking a picture of an architectural detail shows the details of the concrete surface and a trash can shows marks, rust, scratches, and unevenness between layers.
In the previous image, you can see how the graphics engine fractions the elements on the screen into smaller and smaller triangles. As you move closer or move the camera, these calculations are made in real-time, changing the appearance of each item and giving the impression that the level of detail of each object is “infinite.
Lumen is the system responsible for simulating the behavior of light in scenes. The feature, standard in Unreal 5, relates to the overall lighting in the scene or the behavior of the light emitted by the sun, as is the case in Matrix. However, it also performs simulations that consider the effect of light as it falls on surfaces, generating indirect lighting, precise shadows, and also reflections.
The Lumen system can work with hardware acceleration, as is the case with the implementation in Matrix Awakens, or also display good quality results using only software for devices that do not have the physical capability, such as dedicated Ray Tracing cores.
Other systems in evidence in the demo are Chaos, a physics simulation engine that appears in the vehicle collisions and action sequence at the start of the demo. The system is so sophisticated that if you play the high-speed chase more than once, the explosions and vehicle rollovers in the sequence will never be the same.
The simulation that shows Keanu Reaves and other characters with a high level of detail is done through Metahuman, a mechanism that allows the generation of realistic characters being used in each of the 35,000 pedestrians that are part of the simulation. Another tool is Mass AI, which allows for high-density traffic, with hundreds of vehicles and people visible on the screen.
Temporal Super Resolution (TSR) is another technique present and quite relevant: the mechanism allows the scenery to be reproduced on your screen in 4K from a much lower native resolution, all without loss of quality.
The solution is not as advanced as Nvidia’s exclusive DLSS, but it generates amazing results if you consider that both Xbox and PS5 can go below native 1080p when it comes to reproducing the Matrix Awakens scenes without making the drops apparent.