Check out the new features in Unreal Engine 4.21
Epic Games has released Unreal Engine 4.21, the latest four-monthly update to the game engine.
Highlights for games artists include support for new data sources in the Niagara FX framework, and workflow improvements to the animation toolset and Sequencer cinematics editor.
Architectural visualisation professionals get a 3ds Max-style geographically accurate sun positioning system and better handling of physical lighting units.
Broadcast and VFX artists get better handling of SDI video feeds, including a new Blackmagic Media Player plugin designed to support Blackmagic Design’s SDI cards.
In addition, the update introduces an experimental new ‘Pixel Streaming’ system, enabling users to broadcast UE4 applications online and have viewers to interact with them via their web browsers.
Niagara: new data sampling options, constraints and extended GPU support
As usual with Unreal Engine, the 4.21 update introduces a huge number of changes – the release notes run to just under 40,000 words of text – so below, we’ve tried to pick out features relevant to artists.
Of those, many affect Niagara, the node-based visual effects framework introduced in Unreal Engine 4.20, and ultimately intended to replace UE4’s old Cascade particle editor.
The update makes it possible to sample a wider range of data sources in Niagara particle systems, including vertex data from Skeletal Meshes, and any 2D texture or pseudo-volume 2D texture.
Texture sampling can be seen in action in the demo video above, to create a holographic display effect.
There is also a new Pendulum constraint, which solves with physics forces and optional spring drivers – among other things, making it possible to create motion-graphics-style effects.
GPU support has been extended – geometry for ribbon particles is now calculated on the GPU, and GPU simulation is supported on all non-mobile platforms – and Niagara FX are supported on Nintendo Switch.
In addition, there are a number of quality of life improvements, including more user-friendly dialogs when creating Niagara emitters and systems, and a set of readymade best-practice Niagara templates.
Animation: more Notify options, new CCDIK solver, better animation compression
For animators, the Animation Notification system – used to trigger events at a given point in an animation sequence – has been updated, with new Notifies for pausing, resuming or resetting cloth and dynamics sims.
It is also now possible to add Notifies by right-clicking on a track in the UI, as shown in the video above.
The update also adds CCDIK, a new lightweight IK solver with support for defining angular constraints, intended for use on short bone chains like arms.
There are also a number of workflow improvements – among them, animation framerate is now displayed in the Animation Tools viewport – and animation compression times have been “significantly reduced”.
Sequencer: scrub through and render out simulation caches
The Sequencer cinematics editor gets an experimental new Geometry Cache Track, enabling users to scrub through and render out the geometry cache for a simulation in Sequencer, as shown in the video above.
Workflow improvements include the option to add vertical guide marks to the timeline to identify frames of interest, and to snap to them when scrubbing through footage.
In addition, the Sequencer Event Track has been “completely refactored” so that Events are now more tightly coupled to Blueprint graphs, making for a “much more familiar user experience”.
Visualisation tools: new sun positioning system and better handling of physical lighting units
Artists using Unreal Engine for architectural visualisation get an experimental new geographically accurate sun positioning system.
It works along similar lines to 3ds Max’s Daylight system, enabling users to automatically generate sun and sky lighting matching a specific latitude, longitude, date and time of day in the real world.
In addition, workflow has been improved when using physical lighting units.
All light types now display the units used next to their Intensity value in the UI, and the auto-exposure settings for eye adaptation can now be expressed in EV100 for a wider range of scene luminance.
Broadcast and virtual production: better support for SDI video feeds
For artists working in broadcast graphics or in virtual production for animation or VFX, the options for getting SDI video feeds in and out of the Unreal Editor have been extended.
The update adds a new Blackmagic Media Player plugin designed to support Blackmagic Design’s SDI cards, alongside the existing AJA Media Player plugin.
Users can also now set up Media Profiles to make it possible to work on the same Unreal Engine project across multiple computers with different hardware set-ups.
In addition, Unreal Engine now supports 10-bit input, audio I/O and interlaced/PsF inputs.
Pixel Streaming: broadcast UE4 applications to web browsers for game streaming or design reviews
Unreal Engine 4.21 also marks the debut of Pixel Streaming: an experimental new system that enables users to broadcast Unreal Engine applications live to viewers’ web browsers.
The application being broadcast is installed on a standard desktop PC – you don’t need a cloud instance – along with a “small stack of web services that are included with Unreal Engine”.
Viewers can then view rendered frames and audio from the Unreal Engine viewport via any modern web browser, interacting with the application via keyboard, mouse or touch input.
As well as broadcasting game sessions, the system has obvious applications for design and visualisation workflows: Epic has also developed a project template for VR-enabled multi-user design reviews.
For programmers: Gauntlet automation framework, better network replication and cooking speed
Other major new features in Unreal Engine 4.21 include the Gauntlet automation framework: an experimental system designed to automate the process of deploying a UE4 application to multiple hardware platforms.
There is also a new Replication Graph Plugin for customising network replication, intended to reduce the hit on server CPU performance when updating scene objects in large-scale online multiplayer games.
Both tools were developed by Epic Games for its own work on Fortnite’s Battle Royale mode.
In addition, the process of cooking assets into the file formats used internally by Unreal Engine has been optimised, leading to “up to 60% reductions in cook times”.
There are further performance improvements when deploying to mobile devices, including improved GPU particle simulation and improved Vulkan support on Android.
The update also officially introduces native support for Windows Mixed Reality and Magic Leap One: Creator Edition headsets, previously available as an experimental feature.
Pricing and availability
Unreal Engine 4.21 is available for 64-bit Windows 10, macOS 10.13.5 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.