You’ve heard of software and hardware, right, but have you ever heard of middleware? As the name would suggest, it is the device that links the two, a translator of sorts that allows a program to communicate with a computer and function as a game. It is a key tool for developers in coding their game experiences across multiple formats, and multiple titles. In many cases, a single game engine can be used again and again to produce many completely different experiences, as developers use this middleware to facilitate their own unique visuals, A.I, sound, physics, storylines, and more.
Think of a game engine as a mannequin in a clothes shop: at its core it’s simply an androgenous piece of plastic, but it’s brought alive in different ways by the designers that adorn them with clothes.
When designing a game, developers can construct their own engines from scratch, or license a pre-existing engine from somewhere else. The former has the benefit of being completely mouldable into what the developer requires to get their software running just how they envisage, but the cost of development (in both time and money) plus the obvious risks in depending on something unproven, isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. For these developers the latter option is more viable. There are many engines out there that can be licensed, allowing thrifty developers to find the option which best suits their needs, albeit with a lack of flexibility in where they can ultimately take their product.
It’s a trade-off.
For years one of the leading middleware options in the marketplace has been the Unreal Engine, now in its third instalment. Created by developer Epic Games, Unreal Engine 3 has been the go-to middleware of choice thus far in this generation. Clicking wonderfully with the Xbox 360 and PC’s architecture, its ease-of-use and extensive support system, plus its sterling display in Epic Games’ own Gears of War, has seen it licensed left, right, and centre by developers all over the globe.
But then the PS3 was released and something happened: the engine, once so malleable in the hands of developers releasing games solely or predominantly for the Xbox 360, began to harden. Multi-format titles coming to the PS3 began getting delayed, and were eventually released with dodgy frame-rates and other frustrating gremlins which suggested that the lines of communication between software and hardware were suffering severe interference.
Unreal Engine 3 and the PS3’s architecture don’t seem to mix as smoothly as either party would like, and while Epic Games and Sony have both been working hard on getting things running efficiently it is clear that the industry has lost faith in the middleware. In addition, increased licensing fees and a crumbling support structure have also acted to jade potential licensees.
Perhaps Unreal Engine 3 isn’t the middleware to power the next-generation after all? With so much new IP on the roster, much of which requires new engines to be built from scratch, there is suddenly a lot more choice out there for developers seeking alternative middleware solutions. So while we’re sure Unreal Engine 3 will be fixed, fine-tuned, patched and thus remain a major player in this generation, the door is open for something else to pounce. We thought we would take a look at what else is out there: what other engines are driving this generation forward and promoting themselves as viable alternatives to the struggling Unreal Engine 3? Let’s take a look at the candidates…
NOTE: Many large publisher/developers, like Capcom and Sony use their own in-house proprietary engines across most of their games and are less likely to be shopping their engine around the marketplace.
The Goss: The tech wizards over at developer Crytek created quite a stir in 2004 with their game Far Cry. It appeared seemingly out of nowhere to be the benchmark for PC graphics, beating the then promising Half-Life 2 and S.T.AL.K.E.R to the post, and in the process shifting PC gaming forward a generation. Crytek did it again with its latest effort, Crysis, which uses an updated version of the Far Cry engine called CryEngine2. It is considered by many to be the most visually stunning game ever made: big praise in a year of pretty titles.
Viability: Currently the engine is only suited to PC games, and PC games that want to aim high on minimum spec sheets at that. However, the company is seeking help in making it viable for consoles too. If this comes to pass successfully in the recently announced Tiberium then it could be this generation’s late bloomer.
Next Seen In: Tiberium
The Goss: Far Cry 2 was always going to be a difficult ask for Ubisoft. After EA bought Crytek, the suits at Ubisoft found themselves in ownership of the brand Far Cry, but with no developer. Given Far Cry’s key place in the evolution of PC visuals, licensing Unreal Engine 3 and giving it to a side studio to develop would have been the cheap and nasty way to cash-in. Kudos then to Ubisoft for putting in the hard yards, developing the Dunia Engine from scratch for the game. We’ve seen it in action and it is very impressive, with massive, destructible environments and the best fire recreation we’ve ever seen in a game.
Viability: Ubisoft has aimed high and are looking the goods to hit their targets with Dunia. Importantly the engine has been developed with multi-format capabilities in mind, suggesting that Ubisoft will now move away from Unreal Engine 3 (seen in EndWar, and Rainbow Six: Vegas) to this in the future. Flamin’ good stuff.
Next Seen In: Far Cry 2
Pedigree: Knights of the Old Republic II
The Goss: Currently in development by legendary RPG developer BioWare, Eclipse will be the next-gen successor to the Odyssey engine seen in Neverwinter Nights and the Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic games. Its production is being kept under wraps, but its very existence would suggest that it will be a step above what was seen in the developer’s recently released Mass Effect. We would expect advanced character facial animations, increased world population and improved combat A.I to be in-demand features.
Viability: BioWare developed Mass Effect using Unreal Engine 3 presumably while putting the finishing touches on Eclipse. This would suggest that they are already preparing to give Unreal Engine 3 the flick and while we don’t know what Eclipse will feature at this stage, it should provide an attractive option for other developers looking at entering the RPG, or adventure, scene.
Next Seen In: Dragon Age
Ego (formally Neon)
Pedigree: Colin McRae: DiRT
The Goss: A stunning game engine which brought the racing genre to the next-generation in 2007 through developer Codemasters long-running Colin McRae series. Has proven excellent at handling detailed environments, particle effects, lighting and physics. We’ll know later this year when Codemasters’ own Operation Flashpoint 2: Dragon Rising is released as to whether the engine bends itself into an FPS while retaining its quality: hopefully as efficiently as it bent our Ford Focus around a tree!
Viability: It is hard to see this becoming a genuine Unreal Engine 3 alternative: at this stage Codemasters is keeping its juicy new tech in-house as far as we can tell, and it will depend on Operation Flashpoint as to whether other developers will come fishing.
Next Seen In: Race Driver: GRID
Pedigree: Company of Heroes
Creator: Relic Entertainment
The Goss: The first of the next-gen of RTS games, Company of Heroes was certainly brought to life like few RTSs before it by the power of the Essence Engine. Detailed facial animations (for an RTS!), HDR lighting and dynamic weather were just a few of its key features.
Viability: Despite the growing movement of the RTS genre towards consoles (in particular with World in Conflict, Command & Conquer 3 and Halo Wars), Relic Entertainment has given no indication of enabling their Essence Engine for titles on formats other that PC. The Outfit 2, perhaps? Either way, it is unlikely to play a major role in this generation.
Next Seen In: Possibly in Company of Heroes Online
Pedigree: that Star Wars tech demo.
The Goss: At E3 2006 LucasArts debuted their tech demo for their big next-gen Star Wars game – the seventh film, they’re calling it – which capitalised on the third-party Euphoria engine. It rocked! Its big claim to fame is being able to animate characters and models in real-time, dependent on the situation rather than calling on a set animation the game believes will suit what is happening on screen. Awesome stuff.
Viability: This is big. While we have yet to see a game on store shelves that makes use of the product, we can see it becoming a key addition to many developer’s toolkits. In its current state it will work alongside other engines (much like the Havok physics engine), but should they grow it into something larger down the track it could be in a strong place by the next decade. Its feature-set is functional across all genres.
Next Seen In: Star Wars: The Force Unleased
Creator: Digital Illusions
The Goss: A classic example of a game’s goals simply demanding an all new engine, Digital Illusions, the developers of the famed Battlefield series, has built Frostbite from the ground up for Battlefield: Bad Company. Its strength lies in environment rendering and destruction, allowing 90% of the world to not only be blown up, but done so while maintaining realistic properties. In other words, you can blow a hole in a wall anywhere, but then also walk through it.
Viability: What we have seen looks extremely impressive. Frostbite should not only allow multiple combatants on screen at once, but fill it with explosions and activity while calculating massive amounts of dynamic world destruction on the fly. And across multiple formats. That is music to the ears of developers, should Digital Illusions license the sucker out, although that will depend on the bigwigs at EA, who now own the developer. Our guess is they would rather horde it in-house.
Next Seen In: Battlefield: Bad Company
Pedigree: The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion
Creator: Emergent Game Technologies
The Goss: Staying well out of the limelight, the Gamebryo Element engine has been growing a solid reputation amongst developers, in particular Bethesda Studios who used the engine to impressive effect in the last two Elder Scrolls games. Both feature huge, detailed worlds.
Viability: The Gamebryo engine’s strengths lie in its functionality across all the major formats, including Wii, as well as proving useful across multiple genres, including FPS, third-person, MMO (the upcoming Entropia Universe) and strategy (Civilization series). Fallout 3 will be an interesting test on how it holds up to intense next-gen action, but if it passes with flying colours there is nothing stopping this from turning more heads away from Unreal Engine 3.
Next Seen In: Fallout 3
Pedigree: Hitman: Blood Money
Creator: IO Interactive
The Goss: Lots of characters doing lots of things, that has been the running theme across the IO Interactive games and the Glacier engine has proven rather robust in accomplishing that goal. One of the main ways developers are looking to harness the power of next-generation machines for better gameplay experiences is to increase crowd density while also expanding world size. As a result the strengths of the Glacier engine could prove alluring.
Viability: While the engine has functioned quite well in the slow and steady stealth gameplay of the Hitman series, IO Interactive’s recent shot at faster-paced gameplay with Kane & Lynch: Dead Men did not turn heads as expected. This could have put the bullet into any opportunity it had to compete with the likes of Unreal Engine 3.
Next Seen In: Hitman 5
ID Tech 5
Pedigree: One very impressive tech demo
Creator: id Software
The Goss: One of the leading developers in gaming over the last two decades, id Software has always been at the forefront of technological evolution. Their previous engine ID Tech 4, more commonly referred to as the Doom 3 engine, was a major competitor to Unreal Engine 2, offering multi-format viability, great graphics and a streamlined support system. Its follow-up will offer motion-blur, multi-thread CPU functionality, true multi-format capabilities, MegaTexture Rendering, and advanced lighting techniques.
Viability: The likely successor to Unreal Engine 3 should it continue to slide off the rails. The tech is respected throughout the industry, and it’s well established. Plus id Software demoed the middleware to developers at E3 2007 with the aim of licensing it around. A small part of this tech demo was released to the public as a trailer and looked very, very awesome – now all it needs is a killer app to seal the deal. The announced new IP Rage, and another instalment in the Quake series should do that.
Next Seen In: Quake 5
Creator: Monolith Productions
The Goss: Much like id Software and Epic Games’ middleware, the Lithtech engine has been evolving for a long time, beginning life way back in 1998. Primarily a FPS engine, it’s best known for the visually dazzling F.E.A.R, blessed with detailed animations, amazing lighting and great particle effects. It also gave us one of the more spectacular launch games for the Xbox 360 in Condemned, another game that used moody lighting and a noir setting to good effect.
Viability: Certainly Lithtech is portraying itself as an Unreal Engine alternative. It is constantly being worked on and updated, which should prove appealing to many developers, and Monolith’s games act as great demonstrations of what the engine could do. Like Unreal Engine 3, though, cross-platform functionality is the big question mark, with the PS3 port of F.E.A.R not holding up next to the PC and Xbox 360 iterations.
Next Seen In: Condemned 2: Bloodshot
Pedigree: Rockstar Games Presents Table Tennis
Creator: Rockstar Games
The Goss: Having debuted on the content light, but very sexy Table Tennis games on Xbox 360 and Wii, Rockstar Games is about to launch its new engine proper with GTA IV. The game is looking awesome, and the engine is shaping up to quite adept at taking on the massive scale of the GTA series. Criss-crossing multiple genres and tasks (third-person combat, driving, cut-scene driven narratives, open-world, complex levels of A.I interaction) while mining the developers legendary skills at transcending entertainment boundaries could make this the most sophisticated engine out there.
Viability: Until now, Rockstar had been licensing RenderWare for all their game creating needs, so we are not sure how the developer will handle any prospective buyers of their in-house engine. Given the intense security around products like GTA, it may be a straight out no. It would be a shame though, as the engine seems incredibly adaptable, already slotting in for racer Midnight Club: Los Angeles and thriller L.A. Noire across multiple formats.
Next Seen In: Grand Theft Auto IV
Pedigree: GTA: San Andreas
The Goss: One of the most widely used engines of the previous generation of consoles, appearing in over 60 titles, it has proven extremely adaptable across all formats and genres. In particular, Criterion’s own Burnout series and its FPS Black were famed for their amazing particle effects, while it has also proven rather adept at the popular open-world genre, thanks to the GTA series and the underrated Crackdown on Xbox 360.
Viability: Despite its massive success in the previous generation, the engine has failed to continue the winning run in recent times. A major reason for this is EA, the firm that bought Criterion and with it the engine. With the purchase, licensing of the middleware was halted, although old agreements remain in effect. Problem is, EA is reportedly asking for a lot of information in exchange for continued use of the license, in particular regarding how a game plays. This was something Rockstar Games, for example, was unwilling to do for GTA IV. As a result it’s fair to say that RenderWare will not be an Unreal Engine 3 alternative this generation.
Next Seen In: Burnout Paradise
Pedigree: Assassin’s Creed
The Goss: Regardless of your reservations around the repetitive gameplay and bugs, Assassin’s Creed is one visually stunning game. Its huge open-world, masses of NPCs and fantastic animations are just part of Scimitar’s gifts. For our money the convoluted ‘social ramifications’ of the gameplay (as in the A.I) and the free running reveal an engine of immense power. Assassin’s Creed II is going to be very special indeed.
Viability: We’re very excited about the places Ubisoft will take this engine next, but we are not so sure if its skill-set will prove particularly enticing to the majority of developers out there should it come up for licensing. There is also the issue of PS3 compatibility, with Assassin’s Creed not running as smoothly on that format as it did on the Xbox 360.
Next Seen In: An announced, but untitled Ubisoft game.
Serious Engine 3
Pedigree: Serious Sam: The First Encounter
The Goss: The simple arcade shooter fun of the Serious Sam FPS games may not jump out at you as a technological marvel, but the Serious Engine offers a lot of grunt where other options from the genre heavyweights don’t. In particular, it has the ability to host a massive amount of on-screen characters engaging in combat and allows for rather large draw-distances. This facilitated such memorable moments as thirty suicidal kamikaze enemies running at your from distant hills.
Viability: Despite the strengths mentioned above there wasn’t a whole lot to shout about in the previous Serious Sam games, but the door is open for the indie developer to make a giant splash with their third instalment. A pretty, cost-effective and multi-format friendly engine that can be easily tweaked could end up turning plenty of coin for the developer and would be a much more viable option for rookie studios trying to get cool ideas off the ground than the relatively expensive Unreal Engine 3.
Next Seen In: Serious Sam III
Pedigree: Half-Life 2
Creator: Valve Corporation
The Goss: One of the most respected engines in existence by one of the most revered developers of all time. The mighty Half-Life 2 remains the best example of its talents. The game’s gravity gun raised the bar for in-game physics, while its amazing facial animations and lip-synching did the same for storytelling. The engine was one of the first to show off HDR lighting, and it’s easily modified across multiple formats and generations, both PC and console.
Viability: The engine has been slowly evolving, as seen in the two Half-Life 2 episodic expansions, and The Orange Box proved it is more than functional on consoles, too. However it has been criticised for its outdated coding tools and while it has been licensed by a number of developers, a new iteration of the engine will be needed to push it over the line with those seeking an Unreal Engine 3 alternative.
Next Seen In: Left 4 Dead
Pedigree: Test Drive: Unlimited
Creator: Eden Games
The Goss: Although developer Eden Games hasn’t grabbed as much of the limelight as some of its peers, its games have all managed to turn critics’ heads. They made a splash in platform/adventure territory with Kya, and pulled-off the super ambitious Test Drive: Unlimited, an MMO racing game set on a GPS-accurate recreation of Hawaii’s Oahu island – some feat! It has all been powered by their Twilight engine, as will the equally as bold fifth game in the Alone in the Dark series, complete with realistic fire propagation, a recreated and fully destructible Central Park and 100 different light sources.
Viability: It was hard not to be impressed with Test Drive: Unlimited, despite some of its gameplay faults, and if the developer can take a confident next step with Alone in the Dark, with it working seamlessly across all formats, then Eden Games and their Twilight engine should be hot property. A fair way off being a full-blooded Unreal Engine 3 alternative, but still worthy of consideration.
Next Seen In: Alone in the Dark
Creator: Square Enix
The Goss: The famous RPG developer is well renowned for its visually stunning gaming experiences, and the world holds its breath in anticipation of what the next instalment of Final Fantasy, powered by this all new engine, will bring to the table. It promises spectacular battle scenes, seamless cut-scene to gameplay transition, enhanced physics, a range of special effects and full audio capabilities. This is the seventh generation of Square Enix engine – that’s a lot of experience.
Viability: With the industry seeking an easily workable PS3 alternative to Unreal Engine 3, this could play an important role in the long-term success of Sony’s console. The engine has been specifically built to make the most of the famously difficult PS3 architecture, and that mysterious Cell Processor. Realistically this is no competition for Unreal Engine 3, given that is owned by Square Enix and, possibly, is exclusive to the PS3, but it could certainly raise the bar for the industry as a whole.
Next Seen In: Final Fantasy XIII