Gearbox Software previews an Unreal Engine 4 demo for Borderlands 3

The 2017 Game Developer’s Conference was held in San Francisco last week, and a number of recorded shows and presentations from the event are popping up on Youtube now. The most exciting and anticipated one for me was the Gearbox presentation by Randy Pitchford, where he details what work Gearbox is doing in Unreal Engine 4.0 for the next Borderlands game and shows off a preview of all the cool effects they’re working on to bring Pandora to life. Hit the jump to see more!

There aren’t too many spoilers or hints in the demo itself, but Pitchford did hint at some things to come to the game in future, like the ability to explore other worlds with different atmospheres or different levels of gravity, where the light sources might come from two or more suns, or a moon. Without spoiling the storyline for anyone who hasn’t played Borderlands 2, the ending revealed the existence of other planets with vaults just like Pandora (it turns out that Hyperion was, like, SUPER BUSY all across the galaxy). There are also some assets in this demo that will make it into the game, such as a model for a turbine jet engine that might be ridden, and a returning character (possibly Tiny Tina) whose face is intentionally obscured.

The tweaked Unreal Engine 4 for Borderlands 3 is much more advanced than the versions that powered Borderlands, Borderlands 2, and The Pre-Sequel. In those engines, shadowing individual objects was a very computationally expensive task, and since it was done for individual objects, turning shadowing off gave you a framerate boost up to two times your average with shadowing on. Gearbox is now including a mesh on objects as part of their texturing, and the mesh is what gives an object shadowing properties, as well as complementing its overall look. The mesh can be made darker to make the object appear darker and dirtier, or it can be turned shiny, to produce the illusion that the object is metallic.

Instead of doing ray tracing for the light sources in other engines, in Borderlands 3 this mesh will interact with the light shining on it, and distorting the mesh will shadow an area, and reducing the mesh’s size will take away any graininess to the surface.

Here you can see a direct comparison of that. In the scene on the left, the light source is made big and bright, and hovers just in front of the stacked barrel. On the right, the light source is reduced so it only glows faintly. In both images, the shadowing mesh is distorted to give the scene atmosphere without dragging performance down too much. This will be really useful for day-night cycles, and in the demo there’s some examples shown of the same mesh being used to help shadow complex objects like a sphere of water floating in the air.

Unreal Engine 4 in Borderlands 3 also supports subsurface scattering, where the light rays penetrate the shaded geometry and give it a softened, more realistic look. Gearbox employs subsurface scattering on materials in their engine, and this allows them to do neat visuals like this one, where the character’s shadow falls on to the fabric, without requiring too much CPU horsepower. Parts of the fabric also have a sharper shadow cast on them than others when the wind is whipping it about, and this makes for a very cool visual style that hasn’t been in a Borderlands game before.

On the subject of horsepower, Pitchford was careful to mention their hardware targets when showing off the lighting and mesh engine interacting with a spherical object. In his own words, “this is really incredible technology, and this is only accessible to us with Unreal Engine 4 and the current and future hardware specifications that we are targeting with this technology.” This hints at two things; one being that Borderlands 3 is likely going to mainly be a DirectX 12 title, and two, that this game isn’t going to look good or run well on older hardware, or on older operating systems. If you’re on a modern AMD GCN-based graphics card from the Fiji and Polaris families, you’re probably covered. On the NVIDIA side, Gearbox is probably targeting the Maxwell and Pascal family of graphics cards with all these advanced effects.

You can check out the video linked above, and start boarding the hype train for Borderlands 3 hopefully later this year. Gearbox has confirmed that it is in the works, but they haven’t mentioned when they’ll be ready to release it. Maybe we’ll see something from them at E3 this year?