Epic Games' Unreal Engine has been the backbone for a ridiculous number of titles; everything from their own products like Gears of War and the Unreal Tournament series to titles published by companies like Atari, Ubisoft and THQ rely on their engine for the foundation of their games. It's on the PC, Xbox 360 and PS3 and at the end of 2009 it was demoed running on an iPod Touch. At Apple's music event Wednesday, they announced an upcoming action-RPG titled Project Sword that would finally put Vice President Mark Rein's comments that devices like the iPad had the same graphics capabilities as consoles to the test. Epic has certainly had a lot of nice things to say for the iPad, calling it the "console of the future," but until now it's been hard to see them quantify that comment with concrete examples.
Ahead of the holiday launch of this game for the iOS platform, Epic today made available a short tech demo called Epic Citadel. It's nothing more than eye candy, much the same way that Half Life 2: Lost Coast was a chance for Valve to show off its HDR updates to the Source Engine, but the eye candy on display is absolutely stunning.
In first person perspective you get to roam around a small level containing a medieval castle on an island of sorts. There's not much else to do, but in the end the free "game" is just a demonstration of the engine's capabilities rather than a playable title. From a graphics perspective, it's shockingly gorgeous. There's a multitude of titles on the Apple App Store, many of which that attempt to reproduce the common console/PC FPS paradigm, but none of them look anything like this. The foliage, one of the most neglected pieces of detail in any 3D scene on iOS games, look like real trees, shrubs and grasses. There's flowing water running through a small stream surrounding the castle, and spectral HDR effects bathe the scene in realistic light whenever you pan up towards the sun. Flags fly proudly in the wind, suggesting cloth physics at best and really decent animations otherwise. Most impressive of all, even though it's a bit difficult to tell for certain as there was no FPS counter on-screen to verify, the game continuously ran at a really decent frames-per-second. At a guess I would say 30 minimum and I wouldn't be surprised if it hovered around 60 at parts too — considering other game developers have hit that threshold, it's definitely possible.
A lot of that came down to level design and occlusion trickery, but it was an impressive example of what a developer can do with time and effort. If Project Sword looks anything like this in its final format, it will be one of the most visually impressive games on the iPhone or iPad hands down. Unfortunately the control scheme doesn't live up to the innovation and impressiveness of the graphics and was the only let-down about the whole demo: you can tap anywhere on the screen to automatically move towards that spot, or you can use a combination of two "virtual joysticks" to control movement with one thumb and the camera with another. iOS games like Eliminate Pro pioneered this scheme on the iPhone and while it works satisfactory on the smaller device, on my iPad it was really difficult to manage adequately and felt very clumsy. The tap-to-move method works fine, but would be suicide in any sort of combat-oriented first-person-shooter. It would appear that Epic is getting around that problem by making combat turn-based to some degree, in which case rapid-fire action wouldn't be quite as necessary as in console and PC shooters.
In the end, however, this is a gorgeous demonstration of the Unreal Engine and a shot across the bow to other game designers. It's a validation that devices like the iPad — but moreover, the iPhone and iPod Touch as well — can stand on their own next to console systems today. I hope it inspires other developers to step up to the plate and push out titles as beautiful as this is. With the plethora of hidden-object games and badly rendered "3D" titles using Unity, there's definitely room for improvement if someone cares to push the limits of the device.
Seeing it in action is always more impressive than looking at screenshots, so I've included a video below. I will give a caveat that you shouldn't mistake the stutters as indicative of the gameplay itself; this video was recorded on the iPad itself using Display Recorder, so the iPad had to handle both the game and the overhead of real-time video encoding simultaneously. It got a bit taxing for the device. In actual practice the game is amazingly fluid and has little to no hangups or stutters on my iPad.