Written and cinematically directed by Lana Wachowski, The Matrix Awakens: An Unreal Engine 5 Experience, showcases the technology from Epic Games available to all creative teams.
It’s not a game, although you can play it on the Xbox Series X/S or PlayStation 5 console. The Matrix Awakens: An Unreal Engine 5 is a tech demo, but what a tech demo it is! If you’re impressed after seeing the video, check the demo. I had the chance to see it running on the PlayStation 5 and it’s mind-boggling, not because it can be the base for an exciting game, but because it shows in which direction the future of interactive storytelling and entertainment are going.
The Matrix Awakens: An Unreal Engine 5 Experience project started when director Lana Wachowski told friends John Gaeta and Kim Libreri that a new Matrix movie was in the works. Wachowski, Libreri, and Gaeta have been friends since the days of the trilogy. “When I told them I was making another Matrix film, they suggested I come and play in the Epic sandbox,” says Wachowski. “And Holy Sh*t, what a sandbox it is!”
The result is a boundary-pushing technical demo, an original concept set within the world of Warner Bros’ The Matrix. Written and cinematically directed by Lana Wachowski, it features Keanu Reeves and Carrie-Anne Moss reprising their roles as Neo and Trinity and—in a reality-flipping twist—also playing themselves. The video now available introduces viewers to the experience, but believe me, you’ve to watch and play the demo available for consoles to really grasp what technology can do. Once you’ve seen the demo, your perception of what game engines can and should do will change forever.
Paving the way for cinematic storytelling
With the release of Unreal Engine 5, creators will have the power to build rich and varied worlds. For consumers and players, a new universe of experiences is on the horizon. This tech demo, which takes place in a huge, bustling, and explorable open-world city that—like the simulated world of The Matrix—is incredibly rich and complex. Sixteen kilometers square, photoreal, and quickly traversable, it’s populated with realistic inhabitants and traffic. The experience is a tangible demonstration that UE5 offers all the components you need to build immersive, ultra-high-fidelity environments.
The project reunited many of the crew that worked on the seminal The Matrix trilogy, including James McTeigue, Kym Barrett, John Gaeta, Kim Libreri, Jerome Platteaux, George Borshukov, and Michael F Gay, in collaboration with teams across both Epic Games and partners, such as SideFX, Evil Eye Pictures, The Coalition, WetaFX (formerly Weta Digital), and many others.
“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 twenty years” said Lana Wachowski, adding “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.”
Tech-demo assets will be free with UE5
With Wachowski and many of the original crew onboard, the team set out to create something with Unreal Engine 5 that’s nothing short of spectacular: an experience that merges artforms in exciting new ways. The demo starts out with a cinematic that features exceptionally realistic digital humans, before morphing into a fast-paced interactive experience of car chases and third-person shooter action.
While Epic Games previous project Valley of the Ancient gave a glimpse at some of the new technology available in UE5, The Matrix Awakens: An Unreal Engine 5 Experience goes a step further: it’s an interactive experience running in real time that you can download on your Xbox Series X/S or PlayStation 5 today. Although Unreal Engine was developed as a game engine for PC, the tech-demo now available is only for consoles, probably because Epic Games wants to show how its engine can be used to build worlds and narratives in any platform.
PC users, though, will get access to the tech-demo assets in the future, as Epic Games announced that the huge city created for the demo will be available to developers using Unreal Engine 5. 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.
Despite the city’s complexity, a relatively small core team was able to create the experience thanks to a set of procedural tools including SideFX’s Houdini. Procedural rules define how the world is generated: from the size of the roads and the height of the buildings, all the way down to the amount of debris on the sidewalks.
Using this workflow, you can modify the input rules and the whole city will change, redefined by those new instructions. For small teams looking to build open worlds, that is incredibly powerful. It means you can regenerate the entire city, right up until the last day of delivery, and continue to adjust and improve it. This opens up so many creative possibilities—and proves that any team can make a triple-A-game-quality open world in UE5, irrespective of size.
The tech used in the virtual city
The Matrix Awakens: An Unreal Engine 5 Experience project is a tech-demo that continues to show, before UE5’s release, on the Spring of 2022, what’s possible to create with all the technologies available from Epic Games. Here are some of the highlights of Unreal Engine 5:
AI systems drive the characters and vehicles, while procedural systems built using Houdini generate the city. Unreal Engine 5’s World Partition system makes the development of the vast environment more manageable.
The movement of vehicles, character clothing, and the destruction of buildings are all simulated in engine using Unreal Engine’s Chaos physics system. During the chase experience, because the car crashes are simulated in real time with Chaos, the same crash will never occur twice. It’s unique at every run.
The technical demo also puts previously showcased UE5 features Nanite and Lumen through their paces. In a dense, open-world city environment, UE5’s virtualized micropolygon geometry system comes into its own. Nanite intelligently streams and processes those billions of polygons, rendering everything at film quality, super fast.
Unreal Engine 5’s fully dynamic global illumination system Lumen leverages real-time ray tracing to deliver incredibly realistic lighting and reflections throughout the interactive parts of the demo. Real-time ray tracing is also used for the cinematic element to generate the beautiful, realistic soft shadows of the characters.
Temporal Super Resolution, UE5’s next-gen upsampling algorithm, delivers four times more work per pixel than would otherwise be possible, all at the same framerate. That brings more geometric detail, better lighting, and richer effects at higher resolutions to the experience.
More about The Matrix tech-demo
The demo features the performance and likeness of Keanu Reeves and Carrie-Anne Moss as incredibly realistic digital humans. To achieve this, Epic’s 3Lateral team captured high-fidelity 3D scans of the actor’s faces and 4D captures of their performances in their Novi Sad studio.
The open-world city environment includes hero character IO, who was the launch character for MetaHuman Creator, as well as thousands of MetaHuman agents, demonstrating exciting new possibilities for high-fidelity in-game characters at scale.
The city in The Matrix Awakens: An Unreal Engine 5 Experience, is a living, breathing environment that never stops. Because the systems that drive its actors are part of a global simulation that is evaluated continuously, the activity that takes place in the city is far more consistent and believable. Block after block, it ticks with photorealistic AI-driven characters and vehicles—whether you’re looking at them or not.
Many of the action scenes in the demo originated with crew members driving cars around the city to capture exciting shots. The team was able to use 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.
Cinematic creation through simulation
The ability to take these technologies and build vast open worlds presents thrilling possibilities as we enter the era of the Metaverse. The Matrix Awakens: An Unreal Engine 5 Experience offers a glimpse at what those worlds could look like. They could be highly stylized like the environments in Fortnite—or they could look almost as real as the physical world.
The UE5 tech demo offers a vision for what the future of interactive content could be; from incredibly rich and complex cities and environments, to photoreal, visually arresting cinematic spectacles. As Epic Games notes, this isn’t just a demonstration of the visually stunning environments it’s now possible to build, 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.