Fortnite Fourth Chapter: Even though Fortnite: Chapter 4 added a new island to the long-running battle royale game, the most significant modification may be hidden from view. The update also included a switch to Unreal Engine 5.1, which may not seem like a huge deal at first, but it means that players on PS5, Xbox Series X/S, or high-end PCs will now be able to experience some of the impressive visual improvements Epic has been touting ever since UE5’s release.
It’s a mouthful, but the upshot is that a game that came out five years ago is now among the best demonstrations of next-gen hardware. Better lighting and reflections, more geometry detail, and the ability to use Virtual Shadow Maps are just some of the Unreal features that have been integrated into Fortnite as part of the update (better… well, shadows).
That’s a lot of technical terms, but it implies that Fortnite’s previously cartoonish world now has a more realistic appearance. Every brick wall and blade of grass is rendered separately, and lighting and shadows affect the environment more realistically.
There are several places on the new island where this might be displayed, such as the frozen plains and vast lakes where the sun can be seen reflecting off the water or the bunkers with skylights and openings that allow light to trickle in.
Earlier this year, development on the update reportedly began, as stated by Nick Penwarden, Unreal Engine’s vice president of engineering. According to him, the abundance of material goods is a major problem. He says, “There’s a lot of stuff already in the game,” which makes it difficult to add a graphic upgrade to a game like Fortnite.
“Having that complete library of old stuff and attempting to bring it forward,” I believe, is the greatest difficulty. Using these technologies, the artists and designers in chapter 4 were able to take risks, he adds. “We tended to stay away from anything that seemed like a smooth surface that might have a mirrored reflection,” Penwarden says.
According to the developers, “the environment art team was freer to actually put in reflective materials and know that they’re going to be accurately represented in the game that we release as part of the art revamp and thinking about how to design and set dress new places.” The world’s attention has been focused on Fortnite, making it the best advertisement for Epic’s development software.
And it’s a far cry from the photorealistic images that have typically been the emphasis of video game engine tech demos. In comparison, Fortnite is a vibrant, colourful game where bananas can use lightsabers to battle, Ariana Grande. However, Penwarden argues that Fortnite’s success belies the fact that it might serve as a showcase for some of UE5’s technology.
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The combination of a stylized aesthetic with photorealistic techniques “still allows us to create a more beautiful image that has its own style and its own look,” he says. The ever-changing nature of the game, in my opinion, also makes it an excellent application of this technology.
For instance, dynamic global lighting excels in games where the interiors are dynamic, buildings can be destroyed and rebuilt, and the time of day is continuously shifting. After demolishing a wall in Fortnite, the area suddenly becomes bathed in bright sunlight.
When you build a fortress around yourself, you plunge into the gloom. This allows us to create considerably more accurate representations of these locations. Penwarden thinks Epic (and other developers, many of whom are already using UE5) can do a lot more to improve the visual quality of their games (even if Fortnite already looks great) with the hardware available today.
We’re getting better at utilising the hardware with each push, he says. Over the next few of years, I anticipate that visual quality will continue to rise as developers polish approaches, discover new optimizations, and learn to best leverage the hardware in their content creation.