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Tuesday, January 23, 2001

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Unreal Engine Evolves
10:56 AM | Michael Eilers | Comment on this story

An article posted by FGN Online features details on the continuously-evolving 3D engine created by Epic for Unreal and Unreal Tournament. The next generation of this engine is known as the "Warfare" build, and is supposedly capable of handling levels with 150 to 200 times as much detail as the levels in UT -- a concept that is difficult to even imagine, and which will only be possible on next-generation hardware.

Amid rumors of Unreal 2 and an UT sequel code named Unreal Warfare, Mark Rein of Epic spoke to FGN about the modifications they are making to this engine to bring it up to speed with the tremendous pace of 3D hardware. It is a commonly-known fact in the industry that current and future graphics chipsets have actually outpaced the games designed to run on them, introducing dozens of new features and abilities (hardware transform, clipping and lighting, 3D textures, bump mapping, etc) that games have yet to take advantage of. Thus the Unreal engine is being retooled to exploit the power of these top-end chips, and the chips promised in the future, such as the fabled NVIDIA NV20 chip that will reside at the heart of Microsoft's X-box console.

Some of the new features being added to the Unreal engine include support for large-scale terrain maps (such as the ones seen in Tribes 2 and Q3 Team Arena), better AI behavior and support for absolutely colossal texture sizes (up to 2048x2048!). Here's an excerpt from the interview with Mark Rein:

FGN Online: Do you continually evolve the engine's technology and what is the Warfare engine?

Mark Rein: Yes, the Unreal Engine is a constantly evolving product. The technology you're seeing in this build of the engine is the basis of what will power future Epic games including Unreal 2 (being developed by Legend Entertainment), an unannounced Xbox title and then eventually a game codenamed Unreal Warfare way down the road.

This is why you'll occasionally hear us or licensees refer to the 'Warfare' version just as we referred to the 'Tournament' version of the engine to represent the feature set of the engine built between the releases of Unreal and Unreal Tournament. The name of the engine is still the Unreal Engine but internally we'll refer to Warfare build xxx where xxx is the latest actual version number.

The interview is followed by a detailed list of the new features in development by Epic. Included in this list is a very interesting claim that they can increase the number of polygons in a scene by 150 to 200 times and keep the same level of performance -- the very idea takes one's breath away. Supposedly this will be handled by "hardware brushes," a radical retooling of the way the engine renders that takes full advantage of 'hardware transform and lighting,' a special ability built into next-gen graphics cards such as the ATI Radeon and the NVIDIA GeForce 2 Ultra. The 3D geometry of a level is defined as thousands of "brushes" when a level is created, which are then converted to 3D polygons for actual rendering by the graphics card; currently this process takes place in software. Using hardware brushes would move this 'tesselation' step to the graphics card's Geometry Processing Unit, relieving the burden on your CPU and obviously processing the data tremendously faster than before, as the chip itself is specifically designed for the task. For more details and two very impressive screen shots, be sure and read the rest of this interview.

Not to be outdone, VoodooExtreme has published a report on the engine, as given by Mark Rein (again). This is just a more detailed version of the information given at the end of the FGN online interview, with the same screen shots.

Of course, for all of these changes to matter to Mac users, the 'evolved' version of this engine will have to be ported (again) to the Mac OS. Considering the popularity of Unreal-engine based titles on the Mac (including Unreal Tournament and Rune, and soon DS9: The Fallen), we consider this to be an inevitability rather than a possibility. In any case it will be quite some time before games based on this new version of the engine arrive; Unreal 2 itself isn't due until early 2002. By that time the next-generation chipset powering the X-box will have an equivalent on the home PC -- and on the Mac as well, if Apple and NVIDIA's relationship remains healthy and sound.

Unreal Engine Report at VoodooExtreme
Mark Rein Interview at FGN

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