First of all, let’s describe what a game engine is and what purpose it aims to serve in today’s world of gaming. Basically, a game engine is a type of platform that allows developers to use various tools and gives multiple desirable options so that the creative process flows in its purest state (read – effective and efficient), unperturbed by the environment. Speaking of environment, that is the second most basic goal of the game engine. To create the most realistic environment while using the least amount of resources, so that any games using said engine can reach the widest possible audience of gamers and let them enjoy beautiful, smooth and thus immersive visuals.
With the release of UE4.16 Epic is aiming to improve on all of these aspects. There are changes introduced to the way the engine handles physics, brought together in the virtual reality editor.
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One such change is the lightweight physics simulator with a state-of-the-art PhysX interface – permitting a multitude of characters and objects to interact with this virtual reality and serving as a test bed for how such interactions work themselves out, making prevention of varios glitches much easier, a first time for this project.
Speaking of first times, DirectX 12 now also comes as the standard renderer for Microsoft’s Xbox One, a positive change for the better in the Xbox ecosystem indeed.
Among the more specific differences are the changes within the engine’s handling of volumetric fog – clouds of miniature particles such as smoke or dust or fog don’t need to flow through a fixed number of light sources anymore, it’s all dynamic allowing for an infinite number of light/particle interactions – bringing us closer to those life-like visuals. What’s more, this feature can be enabled automatically.
Further improvements on how lighting is perceived are also brought to light by the so-called “image-based fast-Fourier transform” or FFT convolution feature, which not only affects light sources but also reflections. However, Epic warns that this feature is very demanding on the CPU and only high-end hardware is suited for handling it.
A boost of a hefty 30-50% on mid-range hardware as claimed by Epic comes in the form of improvements to the distance field ambient occlusion and ray-traced shadows, both of which used to be quite resource-intensive previously.
Since developers also happen to build various web-based UE games, Epic has improved upon this functionality as well, adding the new WebAssembly standard as well as support for the WebGL 2.0 which is based on the ES 3.0 OpenGL. All in all those changes account for a massive performance increase and requirements drop in their respective application fields.
Finally, for the developers focusing their work on the new Nintendo Switch (which Nintendo has ramped production of, by the way), Epic has made their jobs easier by providing them with a compatible developer platform, basically giving them the ability to produce certified Switch builds and providing, for free, the full source code for the Switch version of the engine as well. That in and of itself gives developers the freedom to apply changes and tweaks to the engine as they see fit.
The official announcement of this new release comes with a comprehensive list of changes and educational videos. As of the writing of this article, no developers have announced future titles built on this new and improved engine.