Is it real — or is it Unreal?

Epic Games worked with Warner Bros., “The Matrix Resurrections” director Lana Wachowski to create a “technical demo” set in the world of the Matrix, designed to show off the capabilities of Epic’s latest 3D creation tool, Unreal Engine 5. The company on Thursday released “The Matrix Awakens: An Unreal Engine 5 Experience,” available as a 29-gigabyte free download for Sony’s PlayStation 5 (at this link) and Microsoft’s Xbox Series X/S (at this link), after promoting it at the 2021 Game Awards on Thursday.

The point of the proof-of-concept is to get digital artists excited about using Unreal Engine 5, which Epic is slating for official release in 2022. “Making something look super-real should encourage storytellers for how to use [Unreal Engine 5] in a game — or a film or TV show,” said Kim Libreri, CTO at Epic Games.

Written and cinematically directed by Lana Wachowski, “The Matrix Awakens” features Keanu Reeves and Carrie-Anne Moss reprising their roles as Neo and Trinity (and also appearing as themselves). The actors provided voiceovers for the project. But with the exception of a brief video clip of Reeves, the actors and characters in “The Matrix Awakens” (including a de-aged Keanu) are entirely digital re-creations. Epic’s 3Lateral team captured high-fidelity 3D scans of Reeves and Moss’ faces and 4D captures of their performances in its studio in Novi Sad, Serbia.

“How do we know what is real?” Reeves says in the opener for “The Matrix Awakens.”

Following the cinematic intro, users can engage in gameplay — shooting at evil agents from a speeding car in a chase across in a virtual city about the size of L.A. — and then wander around the metropolis in an open-world exploration. [See screen shots from “The Matrix Awakens” below.]

Epic plans to release all the creative assets used to build the virtual Matrix city (and its AI-powered vehicles and pedestrians) next year alongside the final release of Unreal Engine 5. “We wanted to create a city that would benefit anyone who wants to reuse it,” Libreri said.

A few years ago, Libreri and John Gaeta — both of whom were part of the VFX team for the first three “Matrix” movies — met with Lana Wachowski for lunch. In a statement, she recalled, “When I told them I was making another Matrix film, they suggested I come and play in the Epic sandbox. And holy shit, what a sandbox it is! I imagine the first company to build an actual Matrix — a fully immersive, persistent world — will be a game company and Epic is certainly paving the way there.”

Wachowski added, “Whatever the future of cinematic storytelling, Epic will play no small part in its evolution.”

Libreri conceded that VFX pros will be able to tell the difference between, say, the real Keanu Reeves and the version fabricated by Unreal Engine 5. But he predicted that the platform and “The Matrix Awakens” assets will be appealing to filmmakers looking to quickly and inexpensively create metro streetscapes. “I’m sure episodic TV shows will use that,” he said.

Epic makes Unreal Engine free for filmmakers to use; it charges a licensing fee if a developer uses the content as part of interactive game or VR experience. Epic is already using Unreal Engine 5 to power the latest iteration of its massively popular “Fortnite” game.

Why didn’t Epic create a full-blown Matrix game? That either wasn’t on the table or was outside the scope of Epic Games’ ambitions. “There is enough of a framework you could build a compelling game,” Libreri said. He noted that WB has its own games development and publishing division, Warner Bros. Games (formerly Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment), which adapts the studio’s intellectual property.

“The Matrix Awakens” project reunited many of the crew that worked on the original “Matrix” trilogy, including Libreri, Gaeta, James McTeigue, Kym Barrett, Jerome Platteaux, George Borshukov and Michael F. Gay, in collaboration with teams from Epic Games and partners including SideFX, Evil Eye Pictures, The Coalition and WetaFX (the new name of Peter Jackson’s VFX shop after Weta Digital sold its tech division to Unity).

The demo showcases multiple features of Unreal Engine 5. Those include the MetaHuman Creator; the Chaos physics system, which simulates movement of vehicles, character clothing and the destruction of buildings; the Lumen dynamic global illumination system, which uses real-time ray tracing; the platform’s World Partition system, which makes the development of large environments more manageable; and Temporal Super Resolution, a next-gen upsampling algorithm that Epic says generates rich, high-resolution images at a low processing cost.

Epic released a list of stats about the virtual city it created for “The Matrix Awakens: An Unreal Engine 5 Experience”:

  • The city is 4.138 km wide and 4.968 km long, slightly larger than the size of downtown L.A. (a surface area of 15.79 square kilometers and perimeter of 14.519 km)
  • It has 260 km of roads, 512 km of sidewalks, 1,248 intersections, 17,000 simulated traffic vehicles on the road that are destructible, and 45,073 parked cars
  • It features 35,000 simulated MetaHuman pedestrians and includes 7,000 buildings and 27,848 lampposts
  • The city is lit by only the sun, sky and “emissive materials” on meshes; no light sources were placed for the streetlights or headlights. In night mode, nearly all lighting comes from the millions of emissive building windows

Here are stills from “The Matrix Awakens,” including the fully digital re-creations of Reeves and Moss: