Epic’s stunning new Unreal demos show off high-end ray tracing and photorealism

By Andrew Webster

At its annual GDC showcase for the widely used Unreal Engine, Epic Games revealed a pair of gorgeous demos featuring a haunting future and an eerie fantasy realm. For developers, the two shorts demonstrate various new possibilities for the engine, but they also stand alone as beautiful — albeit brief — pieces of work.

The first, called Rebirth (embedded above), was designed by studio Quixel as an example of photorealism. It depicts a harsh terrain at an indeterminate point in the future, with eye-catching landscapes full of jagged rocks and dusty fields. The clip slowly leads to a huge, angular structure jutting out of a hill with a flying car speeding toward it. At times, the incredibly detailed video could be mistaken for a live-action movie. Even more impressive, Epic says that only three artists worked on the short, using an unmodified version of Unreal.

Later on in the keynote, we caught a glimpse of Troll. It’s actually a teaser for a full movie created in collaboration between Goodbye Kansas Studios and Deep Forest Films, but even the quick look on display was impressive. The trailer shows a woman — played by Tomb Raider star Alicia Vikander — by a pond dealing with some playful fairies. When the sprites make off with her crown, an unseen being growls in the distance, hinting at a darker story. Epic used the trailer as an example of the power of Unreal’s new ray-tracing tools. Troll has been in development for a few months, according to its creators, though there’s no word on when the full version will debut.

It’s been a good GDC for stunning technical demos. Earlier this week, Unity revealed a teaser for The Heretic, an animated short designed to showcase lifelike virtual humans.