Spectrum: Interactive Media & Online Developer News 12 August 2002
Reported, written and edited by David Duberman
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Today's Headlines (details below)
--The Mark of Kri
--RichFX Unveils Online Catalog Maker
--Sorceron Updates Authoring Platform
--Photoshop Plug-In Enables Flash Output --Xara Updates 3D Software
--eZedia Releases iMovie Plug-in
--OverDrive Launches Free eBook Locator
--ATI Introduces Radeon 9700 Pro Graphics Board
--SCEA Acquires Twisted Metal Developer
GAMES PEOPLE PLAY
--Icewind Dale II Goes Gold
--Activision Announces GBA Titles
--Square/Disney's Kingdom Hearts for PS2 to Ship 9/17 --Enix Announces Grandia Xtreme
--S&SI Ships Farscape PC Game
Review: The Mark of Kri
By David Duberman
This is the story of Rau, Kuzo, and you. Rau is a very large, muscular, silent young man who aches for adventure. Kuzo, Rau's closest friend, is a raven-like bird who accompanies him everywhere. And you, should you choose to accept the mission, control Rau and Kuzo in The Mark of Kri, a new 3D action title for PlayStation 2 from Sony Computer Entertainment America.
Set in an exotic, Pacific islands-style locale, The Mark of Kri takes place after the collapse of a massive, fictional civilization. As Rau progresses through the game, the rootless youth learns the cultures and myths that define his world. But really, being an action-adventure, it's all about fighting and exploration. This isn't a platform game (no jumping), nor is it a role-playing game; the only leveling up, in the form of more hit points, takes place within levels. When you start a new level, you're back to the minimum health capacity. Even the adventure aspects are minimal: the levels are highly linear, and the puzzles rudimentary.
So what makes the game special? First and foremost, for this gamer, is the art direction. Rau's world is depicted in a Disneyesque cartoon style (with a bit of Muppetry thrown in), both in the 3D levels and the 2D introductions to each level. The latter present pieces of the story with a slide show that begins with a sketch, gradually filling in visual details, as if you're looking over the artist's shoulder, and ending up with a colored drawing. This style carries over into the 3D art, with rocks, trees, ruined temples, and characters all expertly and consistently fitting into the worldview of the designers. I also like the motion blur effect used in animated sequences. Moreover, the music and sound effects, of which you can get a taste on the Website (see URL, below), subtly contribute to the atmosphere of mystery. All of the game's content is skillfully combined into a cohesive whole, creating a believable fantasy world that you're eager to explore.
Next, there's the gameplay, where the designers implemented several innovative features. Perhaps most distinctive of these is the ability to choose your battle, or rather, which enemy you're fighting at any given moment. This applies to use of the sword, the first of four weapons you receive during the game. You're often attacked by multiple foes at once; when this happens, moving the right analog stick marks up to three of them with icons corresponding to three different controller buttons. Press a button, and you attack the enemy with that mark. Adding to the strategy aspect is that designating fewer than three enemies lets you use more-powerful combo attacks. But it's a bit frustrating that pressing the same analog stick deselects all enemies, which can easily happen in the heat of battle. A similar mechanic is used with the other weapons; for instance, with the bow and arrow, you can designate multiple enemies to shoot at repeatedly, or a single enemy to hit with a killing shot.
Another important gameplay element is the use of stealth. Put away your weapon and you automatically move slowly and silently, creeping up behind enemies and putting the whammy on them in a variety of cartoon-gruesome ways (the game uses one of several scripted animations). Some foes just happen to be facing away from your approach direction, while others can be distracted by, say, disturbing a flock of birds behind them. The benefit of using stealth is that it's usually more efficient and less dangerous than fighting, and reduces the chance of alerting nearby enemies. Some players just like to fight their way through, but the game frowns upon this by assigning a quota of stealth kills per level, among other specific goals.
A moment ago, I mentioned that you could create a disturbance behind a group of enemies. The way this is achieved brings up a third interesting gameplay aspect: the use of Kuzo, Rau's avian pal. At various points throughout the game, you see a spinning bird icon surrounded by a vertical beam of light. By sending Kuzo to an icon, you can perform reconnaissance, retrieve power-ups, and even solve puzzles such as bringing a ladder within reach. This refreshing feature adds variety to the gameplay and gives you the sense that an ally is looking out for you.
There's more to The Mark of Kri, but I don't want to spoil all the surprises. In sum, this is a fairly average action-adventure, but with the above-cited distinctions that lift it above the roiling mob of similar games. I don't usually provide point scores, but if I had to, I'd give this game a solid 4 out of 5. If you're looking for a fun, tasty bit of eye candy that offers a challenge but not too much frustration, this is the game for you.
Review: Movie Maestro
By David Duberman
The prosumer videographer population is growing rapidly, thanks to the recent proliferation of cheap, high-quality digital camcorders. Not content simply to enrich the Hollywood moguls by attending the latest blockbuster releases, Joe and Jane Everyperson are mounting their own backyard video productions, starring the kids, the dog, and Claude from down the block.
Of course, shooting the video is just the first step. Plenty of easy-to-use editing tools are available, so creating a coherent whole from your footage is a no-brainer, more or less. But for pro-level production values, you've got to have a soundtrack. You might use a snappy number for the opening credits, something sinister for suspenseful moments, or a happy tune to accompany little Jimmy splashing about in the wading pool.
Not many of us have the chops to create professional-sounding music from scratch, so it's nice that Sonic Desktop Software has recently published SmartSound Movie Maestro. This reasonably priced ($50) program lets you add soundtracks to existing movies, using a library of music also provided by Sonic Desktop. A varied assortment of music tracks is included, and more are available as add-ons, but you can't provide your own music (because it's not smart!).
Movie Maestro comes with 26 songs in 11 different styles. If you've got a few hundred MB of hard-disk space free, you can opt to install these; otherwise, it's not inconvenient to use them straight off the program CD.
The included styles are:
* New Age/Easy
* Production Elements
Here's how it works: First, you optionally load a movie. The software supports the standard formats, including AVI, QuickTime, and MPEG, and provides standard VCR playback controls. Incidentally, I tested the Windows version; Movie Maestro is also available for Macintosh.
Next, you choose a category of music, such as one of the add-on libraries, or you can browse by title or style. For example, the included Jazz/Fusion style contains four musical numbers: Boulevard Funk; It's Cool; New Vistas; and Swing That Thing. The selection dialog lets you preview a song before you load it. After you load a song, it automatically sizes itself to fit (more or less) the length of the movie you have loaded, if any. If no movie is present, the song comes in at 30 seconds in length, which you can easily change.
The music is represented as a bar ("smart block") in a time line display below the movie preview window. You can set the start and end times by dragging the bar endpoints, while a readout shows the new time in real time. A nice feature here is that the endpoint "snaps" to the endpoints of the video or the neighboring musical selection. You can also change both endpoints simultaneously by dragging the bar, but in this case the readout shows only the changing start time. Another display shows the start time and length when you stop dragging.
This is where the SmartSound feature comes in: No matter what length you set the selection to, it's not going to end too abruptly. For instance, I tried setting a jazz song to end in the middle of a solo, so the program stopped the solo at an appropriate point, and added a closing fillip. Of course, SmartSound doesn't use artificial intelligence (what do you want for 50 bucks?), so if you make a selection too short--say, less then five seconds--it might sound truncated. Conversely, if you make it overlong, it just repeats. One song I timed lasted just about a minute before repeating.
But in any case, your audience will probably be so intent on your stunning visuals that they probably won't even notice.
Your soundtrack can contain any number of different selections strung end to end, or with gaps in between. If you want to add more music, you set the time indicator to where you want it to start, load the number, and the block sizes itself to fit the available open space. After you've loaded a song, you can choose a variation from a drop-down list. This might be a section of the original song, or a differently orchestrated version. As you shorten the song length, fewer variations are available, but there's always a good selection.
Because this is a razor-type product--that is, Sonic Desktop makes most of its money by selling you "blades," or add-on sound libraries--a button on the main interface takes you to an advertisement for these discs.
Admittedly, it's a fairly helpful one, with brief, user-selectable samples of the music in each, accompanied by appropriate imagery. The available libraries ($30 apiece) are:
* Blockbuster, for a Hollywood feel
* Cutting Edge, with modern pop and rock sounds * Family, with special effects and feel-good tunes * Sentimental, for the Hallmark set
* Sports, with peppy themes
* Vacation, with an assortment of songs that might or might not keep the audience awake during your travel movies
Other controls let you fade a block in and/or out, zoom the timeline, remove a block, and set volumes separately for each block, the entire track, and the movie's existing soundtrack. And when it comes time to save your soundtrack, you've got lots of options. You can save the movie and soundtrack combined in the same format as the movie, unless you loaded an MPEG movie, in which case you can save to a variety of other formats.
If you want to output only the sound, you can save the entire soundtrack, or each block as a separate file. An audio-only save does not include the existing movie soundtrack, if one exists; only the content added in Movie Maestro gets saved. You can save audio in AVI, WAV, AIFF, System 7 Sound, uLaw, and Quicktime formats, including something called Hinted Quicktime, which the manual doesn't explain, but apparently has something to do coming off a server. For most output formats, a full complement of options is available, including compression and sample rate.
I was mostly favorably impressed with Movie Maestro, especially its ease of use, but the program does have stability problems. It crashed several times, occasionally froze for about half a minute, and sometimes ran out of resources, forcing me to reboot. Windows Me is probably not the best operating system under which to run Movie Maestro.
I also encountered a few minor annoyances: You can't scroll the soundtrack window by dragging the end of a block past the edge of the window; if you try, it just jumps back to its original position. Ameliorating this is the ability to zoom continuously between one-second and five-hour increments.
Also, when a preview finishes playing, the time indicator stops just past the last block, so you have to move it back to be able to access the block parameters. Fortunately, this is relatively easy; the arrow keys move the indicator in small increments, and the Enter key positions it at the beginning of the movie. Or you can just click the block.
Also, saving an MPEG movie combined with soundtrack was slow, probably because of the required format conversion. As a company representative told me, Movie Maestro is intended primarily for creating soundtracks for use in a video editing application. In fact, a Quick Save function lets you insert a sound segment directly into another video or multimedia application. This feature supports apps from Apple (on Mac), Microsoft (on Windows), MGI, and Ulead, but, alas, not Adobe. On the plus side, nice touches abound, such as plenty of keyboard shortcuts and the ability to play a block simply by double-clicking it.
Incidentally, if you're aware that Sonic Desktop also makes SonicFire Pro, a high-end movie-music program that also uses SmartSound, you might be wondering what the differences are between it and Movie Maestro. I haven't used the former program, but here's one difference: Movie Maestro is intended to work primarily with music sampled at 22KHz (although you can output at higher rates), while SonicFire Pro supports the CD-quality 44.1KHz rate. Frankly, though, the music sounded fine on my PC speaker system (Cambridge MicroWorks). As the manual states, "22KHz is more than adequate for multimedia-type applications." The music itself sounds professionally produced and is mostly fairly innocuous.
So if John Williams's fees just don't fit into your production budget, or Danny Elfman would love to help but is tied up with the latest Batman flick, consider Movie Maestro for scoring your latest video opus. But tell your friends you wrote the music yourself; they'll never know!
RichFX Unveils Online Catalog Maker
RichFX Inc. last week showed at the eTail2002 trade show its new Catalog Accelerator, technology that transforms print catalogs into interactive online product catalogs. Customers can virtually turn the pages of an online version of a retailer's print catalog, zoom in on product details, change product colors, mix and match items, add sticky notes to pages of interest, and make purchases. The software can update catalogs dynamically on a daily basis, allowing retailers to change prices, check inventory status or launch sales promotions.
Sorceron Updates Authoring Platform
The Big Apple's Sorceron Inc. last week released a new version of Cauldron, its $995 authoring platform for modular streaming media. Cauldron software provides an environment for integrating a range of media types, optimizing individual objects, and publishing dynamic, personalized content for different connection speeds. With version 1.5, Cauldron includes new integration and media-handling updates; a streamlined interface; production workflow advances; and bandwidth-optimization controls.
Improved integration and media-handling features include: * MP3 file support
* new exporters for 3ds max and Lightwave 3D; the Maya exporter now supports animation of alpha channels
* asset hierarchy management enables custom reorganization of media assets in the Time Tree
User interface enhancements include:
* time tree filter for locating media objects in a project * windows can be combined and rearranged to create a customized workspace * 3D scene graph - streamlines navigation through a 3D scene, enabling access to an object's cameras, lights, geometry and animation channels
Production and workflow enhancements include: * workgroup collaboration - enables multiple authors to collaborate on a single project
* trimming - in-place editing of audio and video objects with numerical and graphical controls
* audio Controls - audio-track editing of level and volume controls enables the creation of realistic, atmospheric sound effects directly in the Cauldron environment
Bandwidth optimization controls include: * bandwidth-consumption displays for estimated project load time, project peak-bandwidth rates, and individual media-object bandwidth consumption * embedded imagery recompression - enables the compression of image files embedded within a Cauldron project
* component visibility - provides real-time feedback on the impact of including or excluding an object in a project; extremely helpful when designing content for bandwidth-restricted devices
Photoshop Plug-In Enables Flash Output
Media Lab last week released PSD2FLA, an $89 plug-in for Adobe Photoshop (Windows only) that lets Photoshop users save their designs directly as a Flash movie. The movies are saved in the editable .fla format so they can be opened and animated in Flash.
* Create a multi-layered Flash 5 .fla file from a multi-layered Photoshop File * Supports Flash 5 and later (including Flash MX).
* Supports most Photoshop layer effects.
* Optionally ignore hidden layers.
Find complete details, including a working demo of the product, at http://www.medialab.com/psd2fla.
Xara Updates 3D Software
Xara has released a new upgrade to its $39 "slimware" 3D package, Xara3D, which can be used to create 3D headings and logos, animated or static.
Xara3D lets Web site owners produce compact 3D graphics for their sites, either from TrueType fonts or imported 2D metafiles. Controls include the extrude depth, lighting, bevel, font, shadow, animation type, speed and direction, foreground and background color and texture.
New features in version 5 include the ability to export to Flash, create 3D screensavers, support for new animation types, and the ability to apply all attributes, including animation types, on a per-character basis. Also, styles can be copied from any existing file (over 600 are included on the CD).
A free trial version can be downloaded from http://www.xara.com/.
eZedia Releases iMovie Plug-in
eZedia Inc. last week released eZeClip 1.0, the third in a series of eZedia plug-ins for Apple's iMovie 2 digital video editing software. eZeClip lets users create picture-in-picture and split-screen effects. Users can position, resize, loop, add borders and apply drop shadows to an additional QuickTime movie over an iMovie 2 clip.
eZedia's first iMovie plug-in, eZeMatte 1.0, was released in April 2002 and allows any QuickTime supported image to overlay an iMovie clip. Users can add borders, frames, themes, logos or any customized graphic. eZeScreen was released June 2002 and provides iMovie 2 users blue-screen and green-screen video effects. Users can position an additional movie over an iMovie 2 clip and adjust the transparency and fade levels of any selected color to add animated logos, talking heads, or any QuickTime supported movie.
OverDrive Launches Free eBook Locator
OverDrive, Inc. last week launched eBook Locator (www.ebooklocator.com), a free, Web-based search tool for locating commercially available eBook titles in leading digital formats.
eBook Locator provides real-time data about eBooks in popular formats for PCs and PDAs including Microsoft Reader, Adobe Acrobat eBook Reader (PDF) and Palm Reader. Title data includes covers, jacket copy, table of contents, excerpts, author information, digital rights information (DRM), license terms, file size, for which PC or PDA devices a title is designed, and purchase info.
ATI Introduces Radeon 9700 Pro Graphics Board
ATI Technologies, breathing down the neck of market leader Nvidia, last week announced the addition of the Radeon 9700 Pro graphics board (US$399), featuring the visual processing unit (VPU) of the same name, to its retail lineup.
Featuring eight parallel rendering pipelines, complete Microsoft DirectX 9 support, AGP 8X support and a programmable floating-point architecture, the board's features include:
* 128MB of DDR memory
* dual-display configuration including VGA, DVI-I and s-video connectors with independent resolutions and refresh rates for any two connected displays * fast engine (325MHz) and memory (620MHz) clock speeds * Catalyst software support including WHQL (Windows Hardware Quality Labs) certified driver and Hydravision desktop-management software * visual processing unit features Smartshader 2.0, Smoothvision 2.0, Hyper Z III, and Videoshader technologies
SCEA Acquires Twisted Metal Developer
Sony Computer Entertainment America Inc. has acquired Incog Inc.
Entertainment, developer of the popular Twisted Metal franchise. As part of the acquisition, Incog becomes part of SCEA's Santa Monica studio group.
Based in Salt Lake City, Utah, Incog will continue to be managed by Scott Campbell, the company's president and principal founder. Incog, which currently employs 51 people, will not move its current development facilities and no staffing or workforce changes are anticipated. The company will continue to operate under the Incog corporate name.
Overall, the Twisted Metal franchise has sold more than five million units in North America, making it the best-selling car combat series. Twisted Metal: Black Online, the group's first online title, is scheduled for release on August 27 in conjunction with the PS2 Network Adaptor (Ethernet/Modem).
The company is currently working on War of the Monsters for PlayStation 2, scheduled for release in early 2003.
GAMES PEOPLE PLAY
Icewind Dale II Goes Gold
Interplay Entertainment Corp. said last week that its new RPG Icewind Dale II has gone gold and will be available at retail in early September.
The sequel to Icewind Dale features the BioWare Infinity Engine that was used to develop Baldur's Gate and Baldur's Gate II (developed by BioWare Corp.), and Planescape: Torment (developed by Black Isle Studios). Icewind Dale II uses the third-edition D&D core rules within the Forgotten Realms adventure campaign setting. Features include new weapons, armor and magical items, plus feats and skills such as Power Attack and Diplomacy. Also new are character classes such as the Barbarian and Sorcerer and playable races including the Drow, the dark elves of the Underdark, and the celestial hybrid Aasimar. Over 50 new spells such as Executioner's Eyes and Aegis bring the total to over 300 spells, most of which have been revamped for the new rule set.
Activision Announces GBA Titles
Coming soon from Activision, Inc. is Doom II for Game Boy Advance, a joint development effort by id Software and Torus Games. The classic shooter follows the saga of one marine against the demon hordes of hell with non-stop action, scary enemies, and multiplayer carnage. As in the original PC game, players must blast their way through over 30 levels filled with 17 unique and deadly enemies. Players will have access to nine different weapons including the chainsaw, double-barrel shotgun and BFG.
Additionally, Doom II supports cooperative play so gamers can team up to rid the world of hellspawn, or go head-to-head with up to four other players in classic Deathmatch mode where it's every marine for himself.
Also, just out from Activision on GBA is XXX, based on the new Vin Diesel flick. Developed by Digital Eclipse, the game transports players into an underground spy world as they race through 11 levels. Featuring side-scrolling action and time-based "3D-style" motorcycle combat, players will use a high-tech weaponry and gadgets including Electro-Impulse Motorcycles, High-Impact Incendiary Grenades and the Dart Chrome gun from the movie.
Square/Disney's Kingdom Hearts for PS2 to Ship 9/17
Square Electronic Arts and Disney Interactive say Kingdom Hearts for PlayStation2 will start shipping to retail stores on September 17, 2002.
The role-playing game combines more than 100 Disney characters and new and familiar Disney worlds. The North American version also offers new elements in that are not available in the Japanese version.
New Disney characters making their debut in Kingdom Hearts -- Sora, Riku, Kairi and the Heartless -- are designed by Square's Tetsuya Nomura, the game's director and character designer, best known for his creations in the hit titles Final Fantasy VII, VIII, and X.
Kingdom Hearts is the story of Sora, a 14-year-old boy whose world is shattered when a violent storm hits his island-paradise home, and he is separated from his two closest friends, Riku, a 15-year-old boy, and Kairi, a 14-year-old girl. The storm scatters the three to different and unknown worlds. While searching for his friends in a strange and mysterious land, Sora meets Court Wizard Donald and Captain Goofy, who are on a mission to find the King of the Disney Castle, who has also mysteriously disappeared.
The three learn of ominous creatures known as the Heartless, who collaborate with Disney villains to realize their devious intentions. Sora, Donald and Goofy join forces to recover Sora's friends, return the King to his rightful position and save the universe.
Kingdom Hearts features a real-time battle system that melds new elements with traditional RPG elements found in other Square titles. The North American version features two modes, "normal" and "expert," as well as additional bosses, including Sephiroth and Ice Titan.
The voice cast includes Haley Joel Osment as Sora, David Gallagher as Riku, and Hayden Panettiere as Kairi. Other voice talents include Sean Astin, wanna-be spaceman Lance Bass, David Boreanaz, Mandy Moore, Christy Romano, Steve Burton, and Billy Zane. In addition, many of the original Disney voice actors are reprising their roles for this project.
Enix Announces Grandia Xtreme
Also set to ship in September for PS2 is Grandia Xtreme, Enix America's new role-playing game. Voice talent will include Mark Hamill, Dean Cain, and Lisa Loeb.
Hamill assumes the role of Colonel Kroitz, a cruel supreme commander with little concern for his men. Kroitz loathes the hero, Cain's Evann, a cocky kid with a turbulent past who spearheads the quest to right the Elemental imbalance within the world. He is also a ranger, a rare breed blessed with the ability to teleport parties between Geo Gates. And Loeb provides the voice talent for Lutina, confident officer of an elite Arcadian unit and the heroine of the story.
S&SI Ships Farscape PC Game
Simon & Schuster Interactive, in association with Jim Henson Interactive, a division of The Jim Henson Company, last week shipped their Windows release Farscape: The Game to retail. The character-driven, team-based, 3D action game, based on the Sci Fi Network TV series, is played from an isometric perspective.
The story: John Crichton is an American astronaut lost in a distant corner of space. He's fallen in with a motley crew of escaped alien prisoners on a living ship called Moya. They are attacked by the fanatical, militaristic Peacekeepers while in orbit around a desert planet. Though several of Crichton's friends are still trapped aboard the occupied ship, he escapes with the sexy alien Chiana to a mysterious and desolate landscape.
The player controls a team of up to three characters at a time, and can take direct control of any of the three. Characters not under the player's direct control will act intelligently by defending the player, using items and behaving according to their personalities. The characters are prone to independent actions, so the player must manage team members strategically, switching control as new situations arise.
The game's six playable characters, each with unique skills, include the American Commander John Crichton; the beautiful and deadly ex-Peacekeeper Officer Aeryn Sun; the Luxan warrior Ka D'Argo; the roguish but sexy Chiana; deposed ruler Dominar Rygel XVI; and the mysterious blue priestess Pa' U Zotoh Zhaan.
Spectrum is an independent news service published every Monday for the interactive media professional community by Motion Blur Media. Spectrum covers the tools and technologies used to create interactive multimedia applications and infrastructure for business, education, and entertainment; and the interactive media industry scene. We love to receive interactive media and online development tools and CD-ROMs for review.
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