On May 26, 2021, the “Early Access” version of Unreal Engine 5 was released. Game developers all over the world finally got to tinker with the long-awaited platform and see all it had to offer. As you might know, Unreal Engine is one of the most popular game engines available today, with UE4 (released in 2014) being used for millions of projects, and not just games.
Though there have been plenty of updates to Unreal Engine 4 over the years, none were as large in scale as version 5 – a giant leap forward in game design. For anyone curious about this new release, how it compares to the previous one, and what it means for the industry, we are breaking it all down for you.
What are the main changes in Unreal Engine 5?
Unreal Engine 5 was in development for several years (and you could say is still being perfected), but many of the additions were conceptualized 7-8 years ago. Thus, many of the new features are truly groundbreaking and designed with the proper care and time. Let’s examine some of the changes:
UE4 had a pretty great rendering system based on Direct X 11 & 12, but it was quite a chore to manually set up levels of detail (LOD) for each mesh. UE5 completely changes the mesh system from a static to a dynamic one. In other words, it allows you to maintain a very high poly count in each scene, only processing the details that you can perceive.
This new system (called Nanite) largely eliminates loss of quality during LOD transitions, and also supports the import of high-detail 3D sculpts as well as photogrammetry scans. Finally, in terms of performance monitoring, version 5 mostly keeps the existing system (Unreal Insights) intact, while adding oft-requested features like memory leak detection and profiling support.
At first glance, you might think that UE5 has the same physics system as the previous version. This is partly true, especially when it comes to rigid-body mechanics, collisions, and friction. However, the devil is in the details, and there are a few goodies that are sure to make the work of developers easier.
Firstly, we can point to new support for Asynchronous Physics Simulation, a feature that allows individual physics systems to function separately from the overarching game physics. This is best exemplified in the new Physics Fields system, which you can use to create many physics simulations in the game, each with its own rules and properties. These features are considered helpful for receiving predictable results in game situations (so the player avoids absurd scenarios).
One of the issues with UE4 and other current-gen engines is that there are hard limits to the size of the maps you want to create, connected with memory and performance issues that occur as you scale up. While version 5 does not remove these limits, it pushes them much farther, thanks to optimization and compression.
With the new World Partition system, you can make gigantic levels without splitting them up into sublevels and hundreds of load points. Now, you get a much smoother loading system based on distance, and the file system for actors has been streamlined to single files instead of a whole jumbled mess.
The things that UE5 has accomplished with lighting and shadow are spectacular, and certainly worthy of their own article. The new Lumen illumination system is at the very center of these accomplishments. For one thing, it is incredibly responsive, immediately reacting to scene and light changes. The same thoughtful and realistic approach has been applied to shadows, with major improvements to shadow resolution.
While UE4 had nice features like Screen Space Illumination and Ray Tracing Illumination, they were not very reliable. This has been fixed in the new version, providing truly next-gen visuals. At the same time, we must mention that the Lumen system is very demanding, and can be successfully deployed on only powerful PCs and next-gen video game consoles.
For those who love the Blueprints scripting system, don’t worry! It is still around in Unreal Engine 5. While most of the gameplay settings like input have been carried over from v 4, there are some bright new additions, including support for radial dead zones, contextual input, and chorded actions.
It has become much easier to develop standalone, encapsulated features, which should reduce the number of bugs and let developers learn the new workings of the system faster. The security of game frameworks has also been strengthened, and it has become near-effortless for developers to share completed features among one another.
There is a lot more to cover on the topic, and we took a skimming approach. If you want to go more in depth regarding the additions and systems introduced in UE5, you can start with this guide from the creators of the engine Epic Games.
How Unreal Engine 5 will impact the gaming world
UE5 is slated for release in early 2022, and we expect it to have a massive impact on the gaming industry:
High poly counts in nearly every game
UE5 ends the decades-long belief that there are only so many high-poly models you can fit in a level/game, and that the use of many such models is reserved for AAA titles. With its groundbreaking geometry system, the floodgates for creating unlimited geometry have been opened, and this is something small and indie studios will surely take advantage of.
Old hardware gets left behind
It is inevitable for engines as powerful as this one to require powerful hardware, and the specs truly are a doozy: a GTX 1080/Vega 64 graphics card or higher, 8 GB of VRAM, and 32 GB of system RAM. Thus, many developers working from their basement or with some outdated hardware will need to upgrade to take advantage of the new version.
Finally, a worthy tool for next-gen consoles
2020 was a big year for Xbox and Sony, as they both released their next-gen consoles, which promised to make gaming substantially better and more convenient for users. While the consoles are spectacular, the big story of the year was the shortage of games that take advantage of the powerful hardware. Now, with UE5 at the disposal of developers, we can expect many truly next-gen titles to begin popping up.
More incentive for UE moviemaking
We have already seen Unreal Engine used in TV shows like The Mandalorian and movies like Rogue One. This trend should continue as the engine becomes friendlier for filmmakers. The tools for cinematic levels of lighting, detail, and VFX are now available, and we’ll see how many of our favorite shows and films take advantage of them in the years to come.
Takeaways: Is it time to upgrade?
As excited as you may be to upgrade to the newest version of Unreal, you should consider the needs of your project first. Keep in mind that the full functionality of the engine will become available in 2022, so if you prime it for release based on UE5 in 2021, your game may miss out on some amazing stuff. Additionally, the current “Early Access” stage is much like a beta – full of bugs, underdeveloped options, inconvenient interfaces.
It will take some time for the engine to become fully usable, but you can already start introducing your developers to it and begin planning projects that will use it. If you have no developers or they are unfamiliar with this engine, you can always hire a capable partner to help. Even if you start your project with UE4, it should be possible to upgrade following a few simple guidelines.