The Matrix Awakens didn’t blow my mind, but it convinced me next-gen gaming is nigh

The Matrix Awakens single-handedly proves next-gen graphics are within reach of Sony and Microsoft’s new game consoles. It’s unlike any tech demo you’ve ever tried before. When we said the next generation of gaming didn’t actually arrive with Xbox Series X and PS5, this is the kind of push that has the potential to turn that around. And it’s free to download on those consoles right now, so you should really give it a go.

Just don’t expect it to make you question your reality — the uncanny valley is still alive and well.

I jacked into The Matrix Awakens today after watching our exclusive interview with Keanu Reeves and Carrie-Anne Moss — they play Neo and Trinity, I’m sure you know — and hearing breathless praise around its Game Awards debut. At first, I was wowed by how realistic Keanu Reeves looks off the bat, but if you watch closely (in the demo or video atop this post), you’ll see that the character models get less and less impressive as time goes on.

Screenshot by Umar Shakir / The Verge

We go from a veritable doppelganger of Reeves that must have been at least partially real-life footage, to uncanny valley puppetry (what robot is wearing Keanu’s skin?) to cutscene-quality video game avatars, to finally just fairly average video game characters roaming around a world with no particular purpose. From a “digital humans” perspective, the illusion breaks pretty quick.

Getting a little more uncanny…
Screenshot by Umar Shakir / The Verge

It honestly reminds me a bit of the original Final Fantasy VII, where Cloud, Tifa, Barrett and Aerith might look quite different depending on whether you were playing a battle, watching a cutscene, or traversing the world — because even though developer Square could produce state-of-the-art graphics, there weren’t resources to give everything the same level of polish.

Image: Epic Games

But from a “is it time for photorealistic video game cities?” perspective, The Matrix Awakens is seriously convincing. It’s head-and-shoulders above the most photorealistic video game cities we’ve seen so far, including those in the Spider-Man, Grand Theft Auto and Watch Dogs series. Going back to look at videos of those games, even the most recent ones that added real-time raytracing, their cities look game-like by comparison.

Screenshot by Umar Shakir / The Verge

Despite glitches and an occasionally choppy framerate, The Matrix Awakens city feels more real, thanks to Unreal Engine’s incredible global illumination and real-time raytracing (“The entire world is lit by only the sun, sky and emissive materials on meshes,” claims Epic), the detail of the procedurally generated buildings, and how dense it all is in terms of cars and foot traffic.

Screenshot by Umar Shakir / The Verge

And the most convincing part is that it’s not just a scripted sequence running in real-time on your PS5 or Xbox like practically every other tech demo you’ve seen — you get to run, drive, and fly through it, manipulate the angle of the sun, turn on filters, and dive into a full photo mode, as soon as the scripted and on-rails shooter parts of the demo are done.

Like Neo, you can see what the world’s made of.

Not that there’s a lot to do in The Matrix Awakens except finding different ways to take in the view. You can’t land on buildings, there’s no car chases except for the scripted one, no bullets to dodge. You can crash any one of the game’s 38,146 drivable cars into any of the other cars or walls, I guess. I did a bunch of that before I got bored, though, just taking in the world. Here are some other impressive stats from the game from Epic’s press release (via Eurogamer and VentureBeat):

  • The city is 4,138 km wide and 4.968 km long, slightly larger than the size of downtown Los Angeles
  • The city surface is 15.79 km2
  • The city perimeter is 14.519 km long
  • There are 260 km of roads in the city
  • There are 512 km of sidewalk in the city
  • There are 1,248 intersections in the city
  • There are 45,073 parked cars, of which 38,146 are drivable and destructible
  • There are 17,000 simulated traffic vehicles on the road that are destructible
  • 7,000 buildings
  • 27,848 lamp posts on the street side only
  • 12,422 sewer holes
  • Almost 10 million unique and duplicated assets were created to make the city
  • The entire world is lit by only the sun, sky and emissive materials on meshes. No light sources were placed for the tens of thousands of street lights and headlights. In night mode, nearly all lighting comes from the millions of emissive building windows
  • 35,000 simulated MetaHuman pedestrians
  • Average polygon count? 7000k buildings made of 1000s of assets and each asset could be up to millions of polygons so we have several billions of polygons to make up just the buildings of the city

Epic Games’ pitch is that Unreal Engine 5 developers can do this or better with its ready-made tools at their disposal, and I can’t wait to see them try. Not that photorealistic games are necessarily my favorites, but I’ll take all the immersion I can get.

It would sure be nice to finally have a good game based on The Matrix, too, hint-hint-wink-wink. If there’s a good script, it sure sounds like Keanu and Carrie-Anne might be up for it!


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