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What Epic's State of Unreal 2024 really means for mobile

Epic's Unreal Engine 5.4 reveal showed only the tip of the iceberg of what Epic are intending to pull off in the coming year
What Epic's State of Unreal 2024 really means for mobile

Last night Epic’s top brass took to the stage to unveil their traditional State of Unreal event from GDC in San Francisco. It’s their showcase of what’s coming up in Unreal Engine - this time the 5.4 update - what’s new from Epic Games, the Epic App Store and the ever expanding world of Fortnite and its UGC spin-offs.

Top line for mobile, of course, was Epic’s upfront assertion that they will be releasing the Epic App Store on iOS and Android “later this year”. After rumours and some not-very-behind-the-scenes back and forth the company has either had the necessary confirmations delivered in adequate detail from Apple and Google or is simply riding roughshod over the debris of confusion that Apple has strewn post-DMA and on Wednesday morning promised an App Store on both main platforms featuring Fortnite and “a selection of third-party partners.”

On screen the presentation even showed an image of what the store could (and most likely will) look like, with familiar 'hero' windows and scroll bars revealing more games in similar genres etc.

The announcement was made by Steve Allison, general manager of the Epic Games Store at the event, this time hosted by Kim Liberi, the CTO of Epic Games.

Liberi stepped into the key role following ten years of Epic CEO Tim Sweeney in the hot seat as Sweeney was out of town in Australia, “fighting the good fight for all developers.”

“What we’re fighting for is a big part of why we’re here today. It’s about opening the market so you can have a fair deal when you build and distribute your games on any platform,” explained Liberi. Right now Sweeney is appearing in court waging the self same war against Apple that has recently seen the introduction of the US’s DMA and the first ‘opening up’ of Apple’s iOS, permissions and fees.

Indeed the ‘fighting’ theme continued throughout the presentation with every pro-active developer or publisher feature or tweak being couched in that same ‘fight’ motif, with Epic taking their 2024 address as an opportunity to position itself as the fair and righteous developer’s friend in a landscape of nefarious platform holders and rivals.

Fortunately, in addition to the pro-Epic rhetoric there were plenty of straight-up amazing examples of the work that the Epic team have been doing to help developers produce ever better games and features.

Let the games commence

First and foremost was a presentation from writer and director Amy Hennig, best known for her work on the Uncharted franchise at Naughty Dog and now working on Skydance Media’s premier product 1943: Rise of Hydra (with a Star Wars action adventure similarly on the way).

The demo of the game showed off Unreal 5.4 gallantly with the ability to produce stunningly detailed landscapes and textures through simple layering of geometry allowing the engine to work its magic to produce highly realistic snow, rifts in mud, puddles, water and more.

Similarly super-realistic lighting effects cast shadows on a snowy forest scene in which Black Panther and Captain America faced off for the first time while both seemingly on separate missions to defeat the Nazis.

At one point in the demo a searchlight was turned on and off illuminating a burning oil drum below. The lighting lit the volumetric smoke perfectly and cast a shadow on the ground and wall behind. Meanwhile a demo of character animations - featuring 500 new walking, running, jumping and more moves all included for free in 5.4 - set the scene for easy creation of realistic in-game character moves.

The implication throughout was very much that the artist and designer is now free to imagine the scene and position the elements of the game world and Unreal 5.4 can be trusted to take care of the heavy lifting required for superlative, photo realistic graphics.

Perhaps the most impressive of which being the material physics of the characters' costumes (driven by AI we’re told) and the super-realistic skin and facial animations. Begging the question why bother when both Captain America and Black Panther wear masks but - for the demo - Black Panther’s headgear was removed so we could see what the fuss was about.

Cross platform capable

As to how much of this power can be realised on mobile is always up for debate, but with the power of iPhone 15 Pro now established and getting long in the tooth as we ramp up for iPhone 16 later this year, platforms can only ever get more capable and with Unreal’s cross-platform skills being touted at every opportunity, the invitation and opportunity to create a great-looking game across every platform is right there in 5.4.

Fortunately a demo of Star Wars Hunters - the cross platform arena shooter that so far has had a delayed upbringing on mobile - hosted by Natural Motion Games' senior art director Rich Kemp set the record straight. The game looked great, showing four by four multi-character and weapon combat across multiple Star Wars-themed arenas featuring “new and authentic expressions of Star Wars characters.” Whisper it: think ‘Star Wars meets Fortnite’…

Speaking of which…

Elsewhere at the demo the further flexing of Fortnite was a key component of Epic’s offering with UEFN (Unreal Engine For Fortnite) features enabling ever more powerful and complex user generated content with the promise being that 2025 will see a full game season being developed via Creator Economy 2.0 and user’s content on the platform.

It all added up to a powerhouse presentation that showed all sides of Epic’s empire. The company - now more than ever - seems geared up towards helping developers achieve their best, putting the results in front of the biggest audience across multiple platforms, and then letting their makers hang onto a greater cut of the spoils.