Almost every gamer is aware that modern video games run on things called “engines,” large pieces of generalized code that handle a game’s technical underpinnings. And many of those people further understand that an engine is comprised of many constituent pieces and parts which may be grafted on, swapped out, or rewritten so as to better meet the needs of the game in development. After that, though, we’re in the land of assumption and conjecture. A group of people somehow became convinced that using the Unreal engine led to good art, resulting in previews that state things like, “the game is shaping up nicely in the visual department thanks to the Unreal Engine 3.0,” and thus the idea that specific technologies somehow inexorably lead to graphical fidelity became ever more fixed in everyone’s minds— to the point that a reviewer sometimes expresses genuine surprise when a game that doesn’t actually look very good is based around Unreal technology. I don’t mean to pick solely on one engine, though, no matter how well-marketed: we can also read that Quantum of Solace looks good because it uses the Call of Duty 4 engine, or that Left 4 Dead makes the best of what it can of Valve’s Source technology, despite the fact that it is allegedly “getting a little long in the tooth”.
The epidemic of specifically-named engines serves to muddy the waters further. Poor forum-goers stumble around in the dark trying to grasp at anything that lets them compare Unreal to CryEngine 2 to Ubisoft’s Dunia Engine to id Tech 5 to DICE’s Frostbite or Square Enix’ mysterious Crystal Tools, oblivious to the notion that some games may only use very specific pieces of the engines they are said to use; sure, Mirror’s Edge may “use Unreal” but it certainly doesn’t use Unreal’s lighting, and seeing as the substitution of lighting schemes is part of what makes Mirror’s Edge look so different and so compelling, how can one claim the look of the game is due to Unreal itself? The reality of game development is that what you play is often a combination of many different technologies that defy categorization into the usual roster of monolithic “engines,” as appealingly simple as that fiction may be.
Most people can realize intuitively that good art or design in a video game isn’t about art that looks good on its own, or design that is genius on paper— but the converse is also true: nor is a game solely about the code that brings those designs onto the screen in real-time. It’s in the combination of these elements that your experience takes shape. The best-looking and playing games arise when art, design and technology share a unified vision and each one supports the other in lock-step to achieve that vision. (This just happens to be a little easier when each of those groups is sitting under the same roof: it’s not a coincidence that the best example of the Unreal engine in its purest form is Gears of War 2, from Epic itself, or that Valve are the only ones who have used their own Source engine to really good effect, or that Bungie deliberately declines to license its technology, essentially on the grounds that its engines are its games and vice versa.) And with that in mind, the question should be: did they get there, or didn’t they?
In other words, understanding and explicating the technical details of a game is not required to successfully discuss it critically, so why try? The technological aspect of video games is a rabbit hole, an endless source of technical jargon and arcane concepts and subtle nuances that will keep cropping up as long as you can stand to look for them. If the most you’ve learned is some vague notion that this engine is powerful or that engine is flexible, you’re walking into a minefield if you try to actually use that “knowledge” to make a point. The more you try to use the lingo, the sillier it sounds (“the geometry count is low”) and the more your attempts to explain why you feel the way you do about the game are undermined. This is the kind of thing developers pick up on as one of the reasons writing about games is so poor, and why they end up criticizing reviewers for not understanding the technical aspects of their titles. Speaking to your direct experience will serve you far better than any half-baked attempt to speculate about the underlying technology.