2021 is the 25th anniversary of a gaming-related milestone: the Super Mario 64 face. This fascinating tech demo (whose creator opines about it in a May 2021 interview) is the first thing you see upon booting the N64’s signature game, and it was a declaration of the N64’s potential 3D prowess, well ahead of the likes of Sony’s first PlayStation.
Modern games rarely come with this sort of useless, whimsical tech demo, and similar tech muscle-flexes on consoles have been rare in the years since the N64’s ’90s heyday. Tonight, another unbelievable demo joins its ranks: The Matrix Awakens.
This brand-new Unreal Engine 5 showcase, now downloadable on Xbox Series X/S and PlayStation 5, is rendered almost entirely in real time on current-gen consoles. What’s more, every image in this article was not only captured on my own home Series X but is also, according to Epic Games, rendered in real time. Only a few choice snippets of the demo, now downloadable via Xbox Live and PlayStation Network, consist of premade video footage, which I skipped in favor of the impressive faces, action sequences, and cityscapes that UE5 is apparently equipped to render on the latest home consoles.
Based solely on the still images in this article, any passerby can find visual elements to nitpick or shrug at. Sunglasses cover eyes in some scenes. Or maybe there’s too much blur. While watching the demo play out on my Series X, I hunted for traces of the uncanny valley, and finding a few wasn’t hard, particularly in some slightly stilted animations.
Yet that ignores the insanity of this demo’s feature-rich contents being rendered on a consumer-grade gaming console. In all my years of covering real-time graphics on PCs and consoles, I’ve yet to see something so impressive and realistic—all opened up to the scrutiny of my controller taps.
Two parts: Narrative at first, then guns, cars, and free flight
The demo has two parts. The first is a narrative sequence that doesn’t respond to button taps, and it opens with a digital facsimile of actor Keanu Reeves—not playing a character, just Keanu being Keanu—remarking on The Matrix. He strolls through moments from the first film while pondering the original trilogy’s questions about what is and isn’t real. (Every time he passes a mirror, the bearded, long-haired Reeves who appears in it is video footage; otherwise, he’s all digital. This article doesn’t include any real-life Keanu.) Soon after, a digital facsimile of his Matrix co-star Carrie-Anne Moss appears—she only appears as a digital avatar, never as filmed footage—and their conversation eventually warps into a car chase.
At this point, the demo’s second half begins, and players take control of a digital actor whom Epic Games has used in prior demos. This character can shoot both a pistol and a machine gun out the car’s back seat at waves of oncoming cars, and the demo shows off a few things: massive explosions of particle effects; real-time ray tracing and global illumination; and a stunning amount of retained detail in the skyline beyond the highway.
As seen in this hands-on demo, UE5 delivers a combination of incredible next-gen rendering techniques and, perhaps more importantly, dynamic-scaling optimizations. In particular, the sequence’s very familiar faces (namely, Reeves and Moss) had me double- and triple-taking the fact that they’re not real in certain moments. This is primarily thanks to UE5’s new lighting pipeline, which emphasizes a combination of complex subsurface light scattering and ray-traced global illumination. In other words: the tiny light bounces that are inherent to skin, wrinkles, hair follicles, and other facial elements will look more realistic in a static-lighting void. That’s nifty, but the real “Wow!” factor emerges when the lights bouncing off of other nearby materials interact naturally with the characters’ faces and clothes. Put this demo’s Reeves next to his Cyberpunk 2077 version to really see the UE5 difference.