Are there any actual hard limits on how good you can make the graphics?

I mean obviously there are things you could not do without just creating an entirely new engine, but what exactly determines what the “hard limits” of making graphics with the UE4 are? Polygon count on models? Texture resolutions? What?

Let’s assume for arguments sake that money wasn’t a problem and that could build the ultimate gaming pc right now with the highest end specs possible, vastly beyond what 99% of people could afford. If you took maximum advantage of this when designing the game would the graphics be any better than any other UE4 game that dumbed down it’s visuals to play better on more average machines, or would the difference be trivial since it’s still the same engine?

A lot of the graphical quality things are the type of small improvements that people wouldn’t notice, so things like improved AO or anti-aliasing won’t be noticed by most people.
Besides that, the biggest thing is your skill in creating content, you may be limited by texture resolution but a good artist can make really nice assets work within a resolution limit.
The only real hard limits are some specific rendering effects like realtime GI or realtime particle simulations. For example the ability to simulate liquids and fluids is very limited which is outside of artistic ability.

Interesting. Does this mean that things like normal mapping have simply made high poly models pointless?

Well since 4.0 the Unreal 4 engine has continued to improve in rendering quality as well as improvements in fidelity of assets that at some point UE4 will be capable of producing a result normally expected from a high end rendering engine but at the same time maintain high real time frame rates. The cool thing is UE4 “does” not introduce hard coded limitations and I’ve been able to benchmark excessive high polycount assets, 1 million tris count for character models for example, with little decay as to the need of a quality over performance render and still able to introduce 60 fps animation with no noticeable lag in play back.

As is our budget for character models is 250k, excluding hair, not because that will be the final count but because we iterate for the final output based on design needs. Art assets for menus for example performance is not as high a requirement as to say compared to real time rendering requirements. Textures for example is another area where a close edit environment like UE4 best practice, just like in video production, where the final output can be determined by the material output rather that going with what would be fit to finish.

So no high poly models are not pointless as the Unreal 4 engine does what it’s suppose to do in that it does not limit the design process based on a engine based demand.