Last night in Assassin's Creed Odyssey I scaled a cliff to attack a fort. I'd already used my magic eagle to scout ahead and pick out my target within the castle walls. I plotted a route to my victim, and equipped a long spear to counter the guards wielding short swords.
At no point during this process did I think, 'wow the geometry of this cliff lacks detail'. I didn't question the fidelity of the global lighting. Odyssey is one of many games this generation that have given us huge, extraordinary open worlds to explore.
The Unreal Engine 5 demo is amazing, don't get me wrong. There is a clear leap in fidelity and the dynamic lighting is gorgeous. The demo wasn't a game trailer. Its purpose is to show off the new engine's visual capabilities, but once I'd unpacked the new features I was left wondering what about the tech is actually going to enable developers to create new experiences.
It doesn't help that the demo slavishly emulates features we've come to expect from current gen third-person games like Tomb Raider and Uncharted. It even featured a loading cranny—a bit where you squeeze your character slowly through a small crack so the game world beyond can stream in. In a future where all games will be optimised to run on SSDs, such tricks surely won't be needed.
(Update: Epic has been in touch to confirm that this was not a loading moment. "The actual goal of that part was to force the player camera to be really close to the wall to show how much detail there is in the scene. We were not trying to hide any loading but actually show good looking assets in close-up, and you can actually already see the level through the crack before she gets in.")
The demo presents developers with new ways to achieve effects we're already familiar with. Developers' ingenuity this generation has already given us gorgeous caves and dazzling open worlds. As a player, static 'baked in' lighting conditions can look fantastic. It might be an amazing technical achievement to produce the lighting conditions in the Unreal Engine 5 demo, but from a player experience perspective it's a small thing that I probably won't notice in the middle of a platforming sequence.
In some ways that incredibly craggy cave interior creates extra problems. With each leap in fidelity, art teams have to spend more time producing more intricate assets. Beautiful uneven surfaces are lovely to look at, but imagine having to animate a character to navigate them realistically. Team sizes at big budget studios are already enormous. Can studios scale up to achieve this new standard? Is this a standard that players are really even asking for? Think of the most popular games in the world: Fortnite, Minecraft, CS:GO, PUBG, League of Legends. More detailed geometry wouldn't improve their appeal.
The demo is a marketing exercise, of course. As such these new features aren't necessarily created with the player in mind, but it goes to show that the most meaningful advances of the next generation will probably be invisible. Games loading from SSDs is a big deal. The end of the Unreal Engine 5 demo almost demonstrates why. In the demo's most spectacular sequence, our hero swoops through a crumbling city to reach a distant portal. Solid state drives should allow characters to move at such speeds through detailed environments without textures popping. But is that what the demo shows? It's hard to tell, as most of the city is reduced to a smudge by aggressive motion blur.
One thing's for sure: we're all going to need to buy some massive solid state drives next year.