GDC '08: Epic's beefy Unreal tech demo

Demo of latest version of Gears of War developer's toolset and technology shows 100 locust troopers onscreen at one time and the biggest meat cube of all time.

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SAN FRANCISCO--Nothing says "Game Developers Conference 2008" quite like an updated Unreal engine demo from Gears of War developer Epic. We took the opportunity to sit in and get a more in-depth look at the Unreal Engine 3 technology that was showcased at the Microsoft keynote address earlier today. This included an impressive facial animation demo featuring an excitable bald-headed character with highly expressive features, as well as the "fracture" demo running in Epic's editing tools in a level surreptitiously named "Gears of War 2." However, Epic vice president Mark Rein quickly pointed out that "none of these demos are Gears of War 2, [Epic is] not showing that."

The fracture demonstration showed Gears of War's Marcus Fenix running through a stony corridor and blasting the nearby walls and pillars into rubble. Developer Alan Willard explained that the engine supported the ability to model seemingly intact walls and structures as a series of pieced-together fragments and was capable of immediately rendering different versions of the same pillar--either fully built, partially destroyed, or stripped down to the concrete and rebar center.

The engine's updated ability to deform surfaces was also shown in a brief water demo, which showed Marcus Fenix running through a pool of waist-high water in a ruined city, distorting the surface with believable ripples while also dynamically altering the normal maps of the water's surface. Fenix then exited the shallow pool and headed near a railed-off section of seaside sprawl and fired a few rounds into the water to kick up some ripples. Willard then used the editor to toss a massive concrete pillar into the drink, which created an appropriately large splash. The ripples from the splash realistically interacted with those from Fenix's gunfire, first overpowering them entirely, then dispersing in different directions as the aftershocks from the ripples subsided.

The demo then switched to two other impressive technical features, crowd generation and soft-body modeling. The first demo showed a horde of alien marauders thundering down an abandoned street. According to Willard, the engine is currently capable of displaying about 1,000 of these fully modeled monsters onscreen, and, as we saw, is also fully capable of continuously having these characters come pouring onto the screen once the previous ones have left sight because the engine instantly reclaims the hardware memory spent to render the last group of characters as soon as they disappear from sight.

Willard then switched to a demonstration of the engine's soft-body physics in which Fenix walked down a corridor and fired a few rounds at a fleshy, jellylike cube that came tumbling down a ramp, bouncing and deforming along the way and reacting realistically to repeated gunfire. Willard also turned and fired a few rounds at a silvery blob that was supposed to be liquid mercury, which also bobbled and rolled when pushed and fired at. Both soft objects were also "sticky" and realistically stuck to Fenix's model, getting pulled in the direction of Fenix's legs while the surfaces deformed appropriately.

Epic capped the demo with a presentation for a new Unreal-powered product that seemed, according to Rein, "entirely different than you'd expect to see [the] Unreal [engine] in." The product was an online social networking client from Korean-based startup Nurien Software called MStar. This unusual product features highly detailed 3D models as customizable avatars (which can have different facial expressions, hairstyles, and many different articles of clothing) that can have their own "rooms," which act as, according to Nurien's Taehoon Kim, "like 3D versions of MySpace," where users can store photos and videos, but which can also be furnished and can serve as places for online friends to visit.

MStar also includes a built-in dancing rhythm minigame, as well as a game-show-style trivia minigame called "QuizStar," and an interactive fashion-modeling minigame called "Runway," that will apparently let users make their avatars be runway models--the winners of the fashion competition will be decided by online votes.

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