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Epic Games shows off Unreal Engine 5 with stunning simulated city in The Matrix Awakens demo

IO is a simulated person built with Epic Games' MetaHuman Creator.

IO is a simulated person built with Epic Games' MetaHuman Creator.

Image Credit: Epic Games

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Epic Games showed off the realism of Unreal Engine 5 with The Matrix Awakens demo amid a huge computer-generated city.

It looked phenomenal, with a completely CG actress Carrie-Ann Moss and a version of actor Keanu Reeves that’s indistinguishable from a computer creation or the real thing. The Matrix Awakens: An Unreal Engine 5 Experience was shown at The Game Awards, and it’s a preview of The Matrix Resurrections film debuting on December 22.

It’s also a pretty good sign that Epic Games is serious about building its own metaverse, or enabling the customers of its game engine to build their version of the metaverse, the universe of virtual worlds that are all interconnected, like in novels such as Snow Crash and Ready Player One.

One of the coolest parts of the demo is that Epic Games’ team spent the better part of the past year creating a virtual city that looks like a real city. And Epic Games is going to give that city away for free (with The Matrix parts removed) to the developers who use Unreal Engine 5. The city is 4.138 kilometers wide and 4.968 kilometers long, slightly larger than the size of downtown Los Angeles.

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Above: This is not a picture. It’s a simulation in Unreal Engine 5.

Image Credit: Epic Games

Kim Libreri, chief technology officer at Epic Games, said in an interview with GamesBeat that the idea was to show people a glimpse of the future of interactive entertainment and storytelling that is possible with Unreal Engine 5.

“We built a whole city for this, as we’ve been working on new techniques, new streaming, new world management systems that allow you to build a whole city,” Libreri said. “All this exists in the engine.”

The simulation of the city — the 35,000 walking pedestrians who look like real people — just keeps functioning in a procedural way as you move the camera through the 3D space. There is a freeway chase scene where you can shoot the tires out of Agent Smith cars chasing you.

“We’re giving away that city without Neo and Trinity,” Libreri said. “It’s a full, living, playable city. If anybody wants to do a racing game in that city, they will be able to use all the blueprints, all the gameplay logic, all the AI, all the destructible cars. When you see the cars exploring, that’s not us adding explosions, where we animate it by hand. It’s all procedurally exploding because when a car gets impacted, it gets deformed, it will shatter its glass. This is all procedural. So what we wanted to really lean into this concept of The Matrix is about the simulated universe. It’s all simulation.”

The demo

Above: The older Keanu Reeves looks real here, but all of this is simulated in Unreal Engine 5.

Image Credit: Epic Games

The eight-minute demo shows the first scene from the original movie starting with a young Thomas “Neo” Anderson (Reeves) with his face lying on a desk. It looks like video from the movie, but it is entirely computer-generated, as Epic’s team painstakingly re-created that scene. It shifts to the “bullet time” video from the original movie, and the older Reeves of today walks into the scene. And then we shift to a scene of Morpheus, young Neo, and the modern Reeves. Again, this scene if entirely animated, but I thought it was video of the real actors.

It goes on like this, showing action scenes in a city, but it’s all animated. The actors joke that it was thrown in to have something sexy for the marketing people. There were plenty of times I did a double-take and thought I was seeing reality, only to have Libreri say it was animated. As Moss says in the video, faces and bodies change as easily as we change clothes.

“Everybody loves games. Everybody loves movies. Some of it is live-action. Some of it is computer generated,” Libreri said. “Everybody is looking at the teaser and debating what’s real or not.”

Libreri proceeded to show the polygons behind the scenes to show what was real or not, like the opening scene.

“When Neo opens his eye, that’s Unreal,” he said.

And it runs on consoles, not a supercomputer. The Matrix Awakens: An Unreal Engine 5 Experience is now available to download for free on PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X/S.

The Matrix crew

Above: A gameplay scene in the demo.

Image Credit: Epic Games

This boundary-pushing technical demo is an original concept set within the world of Warner Bros’ The Matrix. Written and cinematically directed by Lana Wachowski, it features Reeves and Moss reprising their roles as Neo and Trinity and — in a reality-flipping twist — also playing themselves.

The project reunited many of the crew that worked on the seminal The Matrix trilogy, including James McTeigue, Kym Barrett, John Gaeta, Libreri, Jerome Platteaux, George Borshukov, and Michael F Gay, in collaboration with teams across both Epic Games and partners, such as SideFX, Evil Eye Pictures, The Coalition, WetaFX (formerly Weta Digital), and many others.

Wachowski, Libreri, and Gaeta have been friends since the days of the original trilogy of The Matrix.

“When I told them I was making another Matrix film, they suggested I come and play in the Epic sandbox,” said Wachowski, in a statement. “And holy shit, what a sandbox it is! I imagine the first company to build an actual Matrix — a fully immersive, persistent world — will be a game company and Epic is certainly paving the way there. It’s mind-boggling how far games have come in twenty years.”

He added, “Keanu, Carrie, and I had a blast making this demo. The Epic sandbox is pretty special because they love experimenting and dreaming big. Whatever the future of cinematic storytelling, Epic will play no small part in its evolution.”

Building the demo

Above: A real Keanu Reeves walks into a simulated scene.

Image Credit: Epic Games

While the movie doesn’t use Unreal Engine 5, there is a small scene (with a dojo) in the film that was built with the engine.

With Wachowski and many of the original crew on board, the team set out to create a demo with Unreal Engine 5 that’s nothing short of spectacular: an experience that merges art forms in exciting new ways. The demo starts out with a cinematic that features exceptionally realistic digital humans, before morphing into a fast-paced interactive experience of car chases and third-person shooter action.

All of this takes place in a huge, bustling, and explorable open-world city that — like the simulated world of The Matrix — is incredibly rich and complex, Epic said. Sixteen kilometers square, photoreal, and quickly traversable, it’s populated with realistic inhabitants and traffic. Many of the characters are built with Epic’s MetaHuman tool, which creates characters with real human faces.

The experience is a tangible demonstration that UE5 offers all the components you need to build immersive, ultra-high-fidelity environments. And that’s Epic’s sales pitch.

A realistic simulated city

Above: There are 7,000 simulated buildings in the Unreal Engine 5 demo.

Image Credit: Epic Games

The city is inspired by parts of San Francisco, New York, and Chicago, but it isn’t an exact copy of anything. It has global illumination (like the sun shining down and casting shadows) and ray tracing for reflections and shadows.

Asked how hard it was to build the city, Libreri said, ‘It took us a while to get our heads into it. But it’s pretty sustainable. And we’re actually going to put out tutorials for all customers. How do you use side effects today to do procedural layout? How do you bring stuff in the engine?”

Despite the city’s complexity, a relatively small core team was able to create the experience thanks to a set of procedural tools including SideFX’s Houdini. Procedural rules define how the world is generated: from the size of the roads and the height of the buildings, all the way down to the amount of debris on the sidewalks, Epic said.

Using this workflow, you can modify the input rules and the whole city will change, redefined by those new instructions. For small teams looking to build open worlds, that is incredibly powerful, Epic said. It means you can regenerate the entire city, right up until the last day of delivery, and continue to adjust and improve it. This opens up so many creative possibilities — and proves that any team can make a triple-A-game-quality open world in UE5, irrespective of size, Epic said.

As for the city in The Matrix Awakens: An Unreal Engine 5 Experience, it’s a living, breathing environment that never stops. Because the systems that drive its actors are part of a global simulation that is evaluated continuously, the activity that takes place in the city is far more consistent and believable. Block after block, it ticks with photorealistic AI-driven characters and vehicles — whether you’re looking at them or not, Epic said.

This isn’t opens the door to a completely new way of storytelling, Epic said. The high-fidelity simulation capabilities of UE5 are enabling an entirely new process: cinematic creation through simulation.

Many of the action scenes in the demo originated with crew members driving cars around the city to capture exciting shots. The team was able to use the simulated universe to author cinematic content, like live-action moviemakers scouting a city to find the best streets to tell their story — but without the physical constraints of the real world.

Above: Crossing the uncanny valley?

Image Credit: Epic Games

Where the sample project Valley of the Ancient gave a glimpse at some of the new technology available in UE5, The Matrix Awakens: An Unreal Engine 5 Experience goes a step further: It’s an interactive experience running in real time that you can download on your Xbox Series X/S or PlayStation 5 today.

The demo features the performance and likeness of Reeves and Moss as realistic digital humans. To achieve this, Epic’s 3Lateral team captured high-fidelity 3D scans of the actor’s faces and 4D captures of their performances in their Novi Sad studio.

The open-world city environment includes hero character IO, who was the launch character for MetaHuman Creator, as well as thousands of MetaHuman agents, demonstrating exciting new possibilities for high-fidelity in-game characters at scale, Epic said.

AI systems drive the characters and vehicles, while procedural systems built using Houdini generate the city. Unreal Engine 5’s World Partition system makes the development of the vast environment more manageable.

The movement of vehicles, character clothing, and the destruction of buildings are all simulated in-engine using Unreal Engine’s Chaos physics system. During the chase experience, because the car crashes are simulated in real time with Chaos, the same crash will never occur twice. It’s unique at every run, Epic said.

The technical demo also puts previously showcased UE5 features Nanite and Lumen through their paces. In a dense, open-world city environment, UE5’s virtualized micropolygon geometry system comes into its own.

The city comprises seven million instanced assets, made up of millions of polygons each. There are seven thousand buildings made of thousands of modular pieces, 45,073 parked cars (of which 38,146 are drivable), over 260 km of roads, 512 km of sidewalk, 1,248 intersections, 27,848 lamp posts, and 12,422 manholes. Nanite intelligently streams and processes those billions of polygons, rendering everything at film quality, super fast, Epic said.

Above: Agent Smiths in a car chase in the Unreal Engine 5 demo.

Image Credit: Epic Games

Unreal Engine 5’s fully dynamic global illumination system Lumen leverages real-time ray tracing to deliver incredibly realistic lighting and reflections throughout the interactive parts of the demo. Real-time ray tracing is also used for the cinematic element to generate the beautiful, realistic soft shadows of the characters, Epic said.

Temporal Super Resolution, UE5’s next-gen upsampling algorithm, keeps up with vast amounts of geometric detail to create sharper, more stable images than before, outputting high-resolution images at a low processing cost. That brings more geometric detail, better lighting, and richer effects at higher resolutions.

Epic said the ability to take these technologies and build vast open worlds presents thrilling possibilities as we enter the era of the metaverse. The Matrix Awakens: An Unreal Engine 5 Experience offers a glimpse at what those worlds could look like. They could be highly stylized like the environments in Fortnite — or they could look almost as real as the physical world.

The Matrix Awakens: An Unreal Engine 5 Experience is not a game, but this tech demo offers a vision for what the future of interactive content could be; from incredibly rich and complex cities and environments, to photoreal, visually arresting cinematic spectacles.

City details

Above: Is The Matrix real?

Image Credit: Epic Games

Here’s a recap on some details on the city:

  • The city surface is 15.79 km²
  • The city perimeter is 14.519 km long
  • There are 260 km of roads in the city
  • There are 512 km of sidewalk in the city
  • There are 1,248 intersections in the city
  • There are 45,073 parked cars, of which 38,146 are drivable and destructible
  • There are 17,000 simulated traffic vehicles on the road that are destructible
  • 7,000 buildings
  • 27,848 lamp posts on the street side only
  • 12,422 sewer holes
  • Almost 10 million unique and duplicated assets were created to make the city
  • The entire world is lit by only the sun, sky and emissive materials on meshes. No light sources were placed for the tens of thousands of street lights and headlights. In night mode, nearly all lighting comes from the millions of emissive building windows.
  • 35,000 simulated MetaHuman pedestrians
  • Average polygon count? 7,000 buildings made of thousands of assets and each asset could be up to millions of polygons so there are several billions of polygons to make up just the buildings of the city.

Asked if it’s part of a game, Libreri said, “It’s purely a technology demo just to show what our customers can expect to be able to do when they’re using Unreal Engine 5. And in fact, when we ship the engine, for real next year, this entire city with all the AI for the traffic, all the building blocks, every air conditioning unit, every little piece of that will be made available.”

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