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‘You name it, we made it faster’—The State of Unreal keynote didn’t just show off Unreal Engine 5.4 graphical goodies, but major performance optimisations too

Epic has delivered its annual keynote at this years GDC 2024, the “State of Unreal” address, and while there were plenty of demos showing off the expected graphical improvements and the addition of new tools and features to the latest version of Unreal Engine 5, some performance improvements were also announced to help our poor, ailing machines deal with all that fidelity.

While the presentation kicked off with a surprise look at Marvel 1943: Rise of Hydra and some very impressive facial animations and Nanite-based effects, Epic’s Vice President of Engineering for Unreal Engine Simon Torangeau later took to the stage to deliver a tech talk on the upcoming optimisations to the latest version, Unreal Engine 5.4.

This included faster Lumen, shadows and ray tracing effects, improved instance culling, improved parallelism in the renderer, and variable rate shading for Nanite.

This should come as good news for those of us with less than top-tier systems, as while UE5 has certainly shown off a lot of impressive visual features since its release, it can be remarkably demanding on your hardware.

Torangeau gave an example of the city sample from The Matrix Awakens Unreal Engine 5 demo, which on UE5.4 was said to, on console at least, reduce the render thread time by 50%, and reduce the GPU render time by 25%. Given the demanding nature of the demo and the use of console hardware, that bodes well for potential major performance gains in games making use of the new version of UE5 running on PC.

Even ever-popular multiplayer builder-shooter Fortnite can be quite the resource hog if you turn up the UE5 features like Nanite and Lumen lighting effects, and while upscaling can take some of the strain, deeper engine optimisation can only be a good thing for potentially higher frame rates while keeping all the shiny settings turned up.

Elsewhere, the rest of the presentation was jam-packed with demonstrations of graphical improvements to the engine, including some impressive Nanite adaptive tessellation features, which can now dynamically layer tile textures with stunning results. Snow was shown dynamically piling up on surfaces, while new volumetric effects were shown dynamically lighting up smoke pouring from a burning barrel, making a winter scene look much more dynamic and realistic.

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Motion-matching animation was also a highlight, demonstrating the tech’s ability to select the best animation frames from a motion database rather than relying on hand-crafted states. The tech aims to closely match the pose of a character to its past and present movement, and a character was shown flipping over rooftops like Spider-Man with ants in his spidey-suit to show off the new feature.

The smoothness and fluidity of the movement on display was genuinely impressive, and the feature has apparently already been “battle-tested” in Fortnite since the launch of chapter five last December.

Ordinarily with this sort of engine upgrade announcement I’d be praying for my poor system and its ability to keep up, but hopefully these engine-wide performance improvements will mean that more of us can revel in all that fidelity, without glancing constantly at the frame rate and spending more time tweaking the settings than in-game.

Unreal Engine 5.4 is still destined to be a very system-demanding experience, but it seems like Epic has been working hard in the background to optimise all those shiny features as well as improve the effects. While a preview build launches today, the full release is scheduled for April of this year, so it shouldn’t be too long before we start experiencing these features, and hopefully better frame rates, for ourselves.

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