Epic Games releases Unreal Engine 4.16
Epic Games has released Unreal Engine 4.16, the latest update to its industry-standard game engine and development environment, adding the customary long list of new features.
Highlights of the release include support for volumetric fog; new physics, character animation and VR editing features; and a new asset-management system and a new audio engine.
New lighting and rendering features: volumetric fog
For artists, one of the most attractive new features in Unreal Engine 4.16 will be support for volumetric fog, enabling users to mimic phenomena like ground fog or shafts of light passing through dust, as shown above.
Fog can be lit by any number of point or spot lights, with dynamic or static shadowing; by a single directional light, with static shadowing; and by a single Skylight, with shadowing from Distance Field Ambient Occlusion.
The density of the fog can be controlled globally, or via particle systems with a Volume Material applied – a fully 3D effect, with no billboards involved. Volumetric fog can also be lit by particle lights.
New lighting and rendering features: physically realistic bloom
Other new rendering features include a new, physically realistic bloom effect based on FFT convolution.
The post effect, which is generated by convolving the raw render with a source image, is capable of generating effects ranging from starburst highlights to bokeh effects, and even eyelash silhouettes.
However, it is computationally expensive, with Epic recommending it only for offline work like cinematics.
New physics features: improved cloth simulation and rigid body dynamics
Another highlight of the release is a new set of physics features, including the replacement of the old APEX cloth solver with fellow Nvidia technology NvCloth, and a new, lightweight rigid body dynamics system.
We wrote about them in detail when Nvidia previewed them at GDC 2017, so we won’t discuss them here.
New animation features: Animation Modifiers
There are also a number of interesting new animation options, including Animation Modifiers (shown above).
The technology, which is still in early access, enables artists to achieve more precise control of animations by applying modifiers to a given Animation Sequence or Skeleton.
The video above shows the system in use to identify frames on which the character’s right foot is placed on the ground, and to add Animation Sync Markers to the frames where the ball_r bone is touching the floor.
New animation features: new Spline IK solver and improved Look At node
Other animation changes include a new Spline IK solver node in Blueprints; and the option to use the Look At node relative to a bone or socket, making it possible to make characters look at their own body parts.
New options when exporting animations include support for additional data generated from a post-process graph – such as AnimDynamics for physics simulations – applied to the skeletal mesh.
It is also now possible to bake poses into LODs, making it possible to remove bones from a character rig for low-level LODs but still preserve the character’s overall pose.
Epic Games’ preview of the new VR Mode features in Unreal Engine 4.16 from GDC 2017 (starts at 01:01:00).
New VR Mode features: play dynamics or edit animation sequences within VR
Other key changes include the new options in the VR editor, including a new control system for editing scenes within virtual reality, plus the option to run physics simulations or edit animation sequences within VR.
Again, we covered the new VR Mode features in detail when Epic previewed them at GDC, so we won’t discuss them here.
New Sequencer features: animate material properties globally; new pre-roll and post-roll states
Sequencer, Unreal Engine’s built-in editor for cinematic content, also gets a number of new features, including the option to animate Material Parameter Collections, as shown in the video above.
The change makes it possible to animate the parameters of materials globally, rather than having to edit the their values for each instance of a material individually.
Tracks in the Sequencer editor also now have pre-roll and post-roll behaviours; plus the option to retain parameter values at the end of a track or to return them to their original state.
Tracks at a lower level in the level sequence hierarchy also now take precedence over those higher in the sequence – so changes made to a shot override those made to an entire sequence, for example.
Other changes: more art tools, new audio engine, new asset manager
Other changes in Unreal Engine 4.16 include the option to bake opacity values and opacity masks when generating LODs, plus improvements to mesh painting and colour grading, including a new HSV mode.
Outside the art tools, there is also a new audio engine with support for multiplatform EQ and reverb effects; a submix graph; source effects; real-time audio synthesis; and better audio plugin support.
The new engine – which is backwards-compatible with the existing one – is available in early access on Windows, Mac, iOS, Android and Nintendo Switch.
Game designers get a new Asset Manager: a “new global object that can be used to discover, load, and audit maps and game-specific asset types in the editor or at runtime”.
According to Epic, the new Asset Manager “provides a framework to make it easier to create things like quests, weapons, or heroes and load them on demand”.
There is also a corresponding new Asset Audit window, which can be used to show memory and disk space used by large sets of assets, making it easier to troubleshoot or optimise games.
Performance improvements to rendering and garbage collection
Performance improvements include a 30-50% speed boost in computing Distance Field Ambient Occlusion and Ray Traced Distance Shadows on “current-generation consoles and mid-spec PCs” and a 150% boost in Distance Field Generation.
Garbage collection – the process of deleting unused objects from game memory – is also now “more than twice as fast”
Support for WebAssembly and WebGL 2; DirectX 12 used by default for Xbox One
Changes in the platforms to which games can be published from Unreal Engine include support for the new WebAssembly and WebGL 2 standards when publishing to HTML 5.
In addition, DirectX 12 is now the default renderer when publishing to Xbox One.
Pricing and availability
Unreal Engine 4.16 is available for 64-bit Windows 7+, Mac OS X 10.10.5+ or Linux. Use of the editor is free, but Epic takes 5% of gross beyond the first $3,000 per quarter for any product you release commercially.