Ahead of the theatrical release this week of the long-awaited movie sequel The Matrix Resurrections, Epic Games has released The Matrix Awakens: An Unreal Engine 5 Experience for PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X/S.
The free tech demo is an original concept that’s part philosophy, part metafiction, part gameplay and all kinds of awesome. Written and cinematically directed by the movie’s director Lana Wachowski, it features Keanu Reeves and Carrie-Anne Moss reprising their roles as Neo and Trinity, as well as also playing themselves.
The project reunited many of the crew that worked on the seminal The Matrix trilogy in collaboration with teams across Epic Games and partners such as SideFX, Evil Eye Pictures, The Coalition, and WetaFX.
Wachowski said that, “When I told them [Epic Games] I was making another Matrix film, they suggested I come and play in the Epic sandbox,” She went on to say, “And Holy Sh*t, what a sandbox it is!”
Games at the forefront
The Matrix Awakens begins with Reeves as protagonist Thomas A. Anderson addressing the camera and it’s hard to tell whether it’s live-action footage of the actor, or an example of Unreal’s Metahuman tech. He’s then joined by Carrie-Anne Moss who leads a crowd of characters all walking toward the camera in perfect synch. It’s spooky.
With The Matrix series making a long-overdue comeback and notions of the metaverse dominating tech headlines everywhere in the real world, this experience asks some very timely questions. Between them, the pair ask, ‘What would identity mean in a completely digital world?’ And, ‘What would reality mean when a world we can build feels as real as our own?’
While the inhabitants of today’s metaverses are still limited to cartoon avatars and floating, limbless torsos, Awakens is a tantalising glimpse of just how incredible it could be one day.
Wachowski said, “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 20 years”.
The Matrix Heist
For fear of losing users with short attention spans, the experience wastes no time shifting to an interactive car chase that plays like a shooter on rails. Although the experience is purely played out on the flat screen, PlayStation VR users will no doubt feel right at home if they’ve played Sony’s brilliant The London Heist from 2016.
That’s not intended as a slight on Awakens, which is a showcase for the capabilities of Unreal Engine, rather than a game demo. That said, if Warner Brothers decided to create a full game this spectacular then we have no doubt it would top the sales charts.
Gamers will be accustomed to a transition between incredible cutscenes and less impressive real-time rendering for gameplay, but Awakens serves as a signpost to a future where cinematic transitions will be seamless. Yes, the chasing cars are solid, the agents move with fluidity and sparks and muzzle flare are impressive, but it’s the little things that really sell the scene. Like the way the shattered glass on the parcel shelf slides and jostles in line with the car’s movements.
Outside of the more scripted parameters, however, users have been quick to share when they have found a glitch in the matrix, with footage of cars floating off-map or sinking through the road mesh. It has to be said that the driving physics are more arcade racer than driving simulator, too.
New ways of storytelling
The action takes place in 16 kilometres of an explorable open-world city that not only looks amazing, but it’s also populated with realistic inhabitants and traffic. Everything from the size of the roads and the height of the buildings down to the amount of debris on the sidewalks is procedurally generated. It’s a demonstration of how development teams of all sizes could use UE5 to create triple-A open-world environments.
Epic also points out that the experience is more than a chance to show off ‘teh shiny’; “It also opens the door to a completely new way of storytelling. The high-fidelity simulation capabilities of UE5 are enabling an entirely new process: cinematic creation through simulation”.
Much of the action began life with crew members driving cars around the city to capture exciting shots, before using 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. And because the car crashes are simulated in real-time, the same incident will never occur twice, making every playthrough unique.
Epic by name…
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.
Everything is bathed in real-time ray tracing, as well as upsampling in the form of Temporal Super Resolution that Epic claims delivers four times more work per pixel than would otherwise be possible, all at the same framerate.
Unreal Engine 5 is expected to ship in early 2022 and is available now in early access. As Epic says, “For consumers and players, a new universe of experiences is on the horizon. And for all of us, the future of interactive storytelling and entertainment is just beginning”.
Let’s close with the words of Lana Wachowski who said, “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.”
Want more Matrix? Here’s our Beyond Games Vision article from earlier this year.