21 July 2003
Reported, written and edited by David Duberman
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By David Duberman
Arc the Lad is a console-based tactical RPG series from Japan that has had little impact in this country. Indeed, the first three titles weren't released in English-language versions until late in the PlayStation's life cycle, and then only in a deluxe compilation whose high price probably frightened off more than a few potential buyers. Now Sony is trying to increase Arc's name recognition by releasing the first PlayStation 2-based AtL game under its first-party SCEA label at a relatively low $40. But even at $50, this game would be attractive to RPG fans; the developer, Cattle Call, did almost everything right.
Arc the Lad: Twilight of the Spirits tells the separate, parallel stories of two young heroes, alternating between them frequently throughout the game. Kharg, who was raised by his mother as a human prince, is ready to strike out on his own and establish himself as a warrior. The orphaned Darc is frequently described as a Deimos wannabe, and seems to be at war with the whole world. These two encapsulate the story's basic conflict: an age-old one between humans and Deimos on this non-Earth world. The Deimos are humanoids descended from monsters. They take various forms, from dragon-like to wolf-like and some more bizarre ones as well. Because the Deimos were originally bred by humans as fighters, to entertain their masters, fighting is all they know: they struggle among themselves, and they clash with humans.
Eventually, both Kharg and Darc gather small coteries of allies and set forth on their respective missions. I won't go into detail on their stories, but I will tell you that they're interesting ones, and quite intelligible for this type of game. The real gameplay, as in all RPGs, is in exploration, character development, and, of course, battle. Unlike most RPGs, on the other hand, AtL doesn't really have dungeons, for the most part. Travel is accomplished on a map of the current area of the world. Locations are connected by lines, along which the party moves. You can move from location to location, or between several at a time, depending on where you click. Sometimes you get to your ultimate destination without delay, but more often than not, you encounter enemies. When that happens, a battle begins.
AtL contains two kinds of battles: those that advance the story, and random ones. Both types transpire in the much the same way. You begin at a menu screen where you can select which of the party will take part, in the case of a random battle; with the others, you must use all members. Also at this time you can do any necessary setup, including healing, equipping, doling out items, and dividing up spirit stones. These latter items are key in the story; they're equivalent to mana in other RPGs, and allow the characters to cast various offensive and defensive spells. Each member can carry a limited number; during battles, they can't replenish their supply from the party stock, but can sometimes pick them up from felled enemies. Characters can equip three offensive and three defensive tools; this might seem limiting, but it actually helps keep the game simple and straightforward, and interest is maintained with the availability of a constantly growing number of skills (magic spells), plus new and more powerful items to equip.
After setting up, your team is typically transported to a relatively small 3D area in a predetermined arrangement. For example, they might be in compact group surrounded by enemies, or vice-versa, or the two sides might be arrayed linearly against each other. Battle is turn-based, with your team usually going first. The movement order is based on speed, which can be affected by equipment and spells. During each turn, a character can move and then act. The available area of travel is shown as a blue overlay. The character can move anywhere within this area; there are no "action points." At any time, the character can pick up an item dropped by a felled enemy and then attack, but can no longer go anywhere else. However, he or she can turn; a special marker indicates when an enemy or enemies are in range. Each character has its own direct attack range in width and depth, shown as an illuminated arc when you hold down a button. Of course, different spells have their own attack ranges as well.
Additional nicely designed strategic elements include dependence on where you attack from; if you're behind your opponent, he can't defend, although he can counter. Also, you must pick up items during the battle; anything left lying around is gone afterward. These aspects, in addition to destructible battlefield elements, some of which contain booty, makes the battles eminently enjoyable.
One drawback is the lack of ability to change the camera position or angle, with the result that items can be hidden from view. A more serious liability, from some points of view, might be that most of the battles are too easy. I've progressed fairly far through the game, but haven't lost more than a couple of battles--and I'm not that good. This may be the result of an attempt to make the game accessible to a wider audience, which I'm all for in theory. Balancing gameplay is one of the hardest parts of game development, but in my opinion Cattle Call should have added a Difficulty option for those who enjoy a greater challenge.
The game is very linear, with no side quests to speak of, but as many random battles as you care to partake in. And there's relatively little spoken dialog; most character interaction takes place via subtitles, accompanied by wildly gesticulating character animation. But despite all that, I've been having a lot of fun playing AtL, and fully intend to press on to the end. The bottom line is that this is a wonderful, big, very playable game with a good story, excellent battle sequences, and lots of variety. RPG fans will definitely get their money's worth with this one.
eHelp Corporation, the maker of RoboHelp, last week released the RoboDemo FLA Module, an add-on to RoboDemo that enables Macromedia Flash MX users to import RoboDemo projects. Macromedia Flash tutorials created with RoboDemo, eHelp's tutorial software, can be enhanced in Macromedia Flash where users can add additional effects, animation and ActionScript. The RoboDemo FLA module creates FLA files from RoboDemo projects. These FLA files contain the elements from the original project, and can be fully edited in Macromedia Flash, unlike a SWF file.
The module automatically launches Macromedia Flash MX from RoboDemo. RoboDemo frames are converted into movie clips and inserted into the Macromedia Flash MX timeline. Objects on a RoboDemo frame automatically become individually labeled layers. The Flash library is automatically populated with folders containing all of the objects and images from the RoboDemo project. Objects that can be imported and edited in Macromedia Flash MX include:
Turbo Squid last week released Absolute Character Tools 1.6 Pro, or ACT, from cgCharacter, as a Discreet Certified 3ds max Plug-in.
The $495 software is a production platform that offers a range of character-modeling and animation features. In addition to cgMuscle objects, ACT also now includes tools and objects (cgTubes) to create skinned proxy characters that deform and animate in real time.
With V1.6, ACT now includes cgAdam and cgEve, two complete human skeletal, muscle and skin character sets, rigged and ready to animate.
New from developer Reallusion is Effect 3D Studio ($99.95), which lets users create 3D animated graphics. The software's Creation Wizard helps users along with prompts and preview screens.
A real-time 3D preview window provides a WYSIWYG editing environment. To add effects to a project, the user drags and drops from the hundreds of backgrounds, 3D objects, rendering effects, material settings, lighting and animation effects available from the content galleries, plus manually adjust various settings and parameters.
When finished, animations can be exported as AVI files, animated GIF files, BMP and JPG sequence files or single frame BMP, JPG and GIF files for use in presentations, personalized Web animations, etc.
ACM Siggraph announced last week that the Web Graphics Expo is now live at. The expo is part of the Siggraph 2003 Web Graphics program and is a gallery of noteworthy Web graphics work done in 2003. Siggraph 2003, the 30th International Conference on Computer Graphics and Interactive Techniques, is being held 27-31 July, at the San Diego Convention Center.
The Web Graphics Expo, a new component of the Web Graphics program, is the first gallery of its kind. It features 25 Web sites that a jury of experts identified as examples of novel and exciting Web graphics content. Web sites were selected on the basis of their innovative use of technology. This included particularly attractive design work, novel applications, new modes of interactivity, and, in some cases, sites that exhibited the results of work the jury selected for presentation in the Web Graphics Presentations. The Web Graphics Expo site has six categories: art & design, commercial, community, development, education, and visualization.
Web Graphics Expo will be live for one year at: http://www.siggraph.org/s2003/conference/Web/expo.html.
Corel Corporation last week released an update to Corel Smart Graphics Studio, a development platform for SVG-based smart graphics. Enhancements to both the development and serving of SVG applications connected to databases and Web services include:
Smart graphics is a new form of enterprise-class, graphically rich application built using open standard SVG (Scalable Vector Graphics) to transform XML and legacy data into intranet and extranet applications.
Bauhaus Software Inc., a new company that provides products and technologies for the digital visual effects market, recently announced a strategic partnership with TVPaint Developpement Inc. for product development, marketing and distribution of TVPaint technologies. Headquartered in France, TVPaint's technology is used for broadcast and film productions. The companies plan to develop a new generation of cross-platform computer graphics software for visual effects artists, video professionals and animators. These new products will be sold and distributed under the Bauhaus Software brand.
The Bauhaus product line will comprise a suite of real-time software solutions for the creation and manipulation of visual effects. Bauhaus is pioneering Disruptive Technologies for the professional, semi-professional, and consumer market spaces, with an three-way approach: simplified creation of film-quality digital visual effects, real-time video paint, and integration with all major film and video standards and formats.
Odessa, Ukraine-based Computer Systems Odessa has introduced a Windows-based version of its ConceptDraw software, originally presented to the Mac community in 1999. ConceptDraw for Windows provides technology users and small to mid-size businesses with diagramming tools to create, share and present visual documentation of data, systems and processes.
ConceptDraw for Windows can be used for documenting, presenting and managing projects including business consulting; marketing; IT infrastructure and database engineering; software development; system integration; Web site design; information architecture; engineering, and research.
ConceptDraw for Windows enables users to visually develop and document processes, systems and structures in any combination of drawings, diagrams and charts. The software includes a library of over 2,700 pre-drawn objects to help build complex concepts such as organizational charts, electronic circuitry schematics and computer network diagrams. Completed ConceptDraw files can be imported or exported to AutoCAD, PowerPoint, Adobe Acrobat or saved as an HTML page to be shared with colleagues via intranets or the Internet. To facilitate file sharing in multi-platform environments, any ConceptDraw document can be accessed by computers running either Macintosh or Windows.
The ConceptDraw product line for Mac/Windows, available in Standard and Professional versions, comprises ConceptDraw diagramming and drawing software; Mindmap, a brainstorming tool that uses standard mind mapping techniques to help organize ideas and tasks; Presenter, an application for creating slide shows, animated presentations and Flash movies from documents; Server, which enables users to publish documents directly to the Web; Viewer, a free application that enables users to view and print any ConceptDraw file; and the ConceptDraw-Visio Converter.
Just out from BitJazz Inc. is SheerVideo Pro, its nondestructive software video codec for the production and archival of professional video and film. Designed to replace uncompressed studio-quality RGB[A] and Y'CbCr[A] formats, SheerVideo is said to double both the speed and the capacity of storage and transmission devices while encoding and decoding on the fly with full fidelity.
According to BitJazz, SheerVideo encodes and decodes nearly instantaneously, faster than real time. On a single-CPU 1 GHz G4, SheerVideo compresses 110 MB/s in RAM, 60 times faster than Apple's PNG codec, and four times as fast as Photo JPEG.
SheerVideo supports both RGB[A] 8b, for film and computer-generated imagery, and all popular professional Y'CbCr[A] 8b formats, including both 4:4:4[:4] and 4:2:2, for native video. Support for 10-bit and 16-bit channels is on the way. SheerVideo supports any resolution, including SD and HD, NTSC and PAL, 4:3 and 16:9, progressive and interlaced.
SheerVideo is implemented as a set of QuickTime codecs, so it can be used with video applications such as Apple Final Cut Pro, Adobe After Effects, Pinnacle Commotion, etc. On Windows, SheerVideo will also be available as a Windows Media (AVI) codec. SheerVideo is currently available for Mac OS X and Mac OS 8/9. PC/Windows and Linux editions are due out later this year. SheerVideo for Mac includes versions of each codec optimized for both G3 and G4 (AltiVec), and the decoders are multiprocessor-enabled, so it can make the most of whatever processors are available. SheerVideo Pro costs $149 for a single license, $99 in quantity.
A fully functional free tryout is available for download from http://www.bitjazz.com/, as is a free Reader. Installer and automatic updater included.
Fakespace Systems last week introduced two new interactive visualization systems. The dStation (Decision Station) is a movable modular system for collaborative work, offering high-resolution monoscopic images with integrated audio, video and multi-windowing capabilities. The ROVR (Rapidly Operational Virtual Reality) is a large screen, digital active-stereo system that sets up in fifteen minutes and delivers imagery for use in field research, work reviews, special events or trade shows.
dStation is a self-contained 4-ft. x 10-ft., two-channel visualization wall that can be separated into two 4-ft. x 5-ft. modules. Each module contains a 1280 x 1024 monoscopic digital projector. Up to eight computer sources can be connected and selected for display on either projection channel. DVD and SVHS players are built in and connected to a two-channel audio system. Two more external video sources can also be connected. An available multi-window input controller allows numerous computer and video sources to be displayed simultaneously on both screens. Data and video windows can also be resized to full width or moved anywhere on the continuous screen in real-time. The windowing controller also serves as a basic, on-board PC and is loaded with popular office programs.
No tools are required for ROVR setup, and all components are stored and transported in three small shipping containers. The ROVR comes standard with 2,000-lumen active stereo projector, and the design allows access to computer and video source connections. The 6-ft. x 8-ft. rear projection screen can be aligned with the projector for optimal image size and quality. A fabric enclosure encompasses the entire system, blocking overhead light and creating a cohesive, stand-alone unit.
Munich, Germany-based Iridas, a developer of digital playback solutions for the film, broadcast and digital-content-creation industries, last week released SequencePublisher, a $499 application that converts frame sequences to industry-standard formats, including video formats. It automates file conversions and other frame-sequence functions while maintaining user control.
The command line interface allows for scripted batch processing, designed to simplify tasks such as automating the collection of frame sequences from render farms and generating low-resolution proxy files for distribution. SequencePublisher reads and writes all standard industry formats.
New from publisher Paraglyph Press is Monster Gaming, a guide for those who are addicted to gaming, or know someone who is, and want to grow their expertise. Written by gamer and self-admitted gaming addict Ben Sawyer, the book reportedly speaks to the millions of gamers and covers their technical needs, practices and culture.
Although the economy is facing tough times, the computer gaming market is exploding. In 2002, over 221 million computer games were sold, representing $7 billion in sales -- just in North America. Nearly half the people in the U.S. expect to buy a computer game in 2003. And 87 percent of current gamers shop for a new computer game every month. The book covers basic tips for gamers; advice on what hardware they need; finding, buying, selling and modifying games; and the competitive gaming lifestyle. An list of resources for all gamers is included.
Also new from Paraglyph and author Mike "Mr. Mike" McShaffry is availability of the source code from the recently published game programming book Game Coding Complete (ISBN: 1932111751).
The source code, packaged for Microsoft Visual Studio.NET, is available under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 1.0 license (for more on the Creative Commons project visit www.creativecommons.org) and is available initial from WinSite at http://www.winsite.com/bin/Info?17000000037677
Developers, and development sites are encouraged to download and redistribute the code under terms of the license.
"We soft launched the code among community members on the Game Code Complete Portal (www.mcshaffry.com/GameCode/) a couple weeks ago. Now that we've not seen any problems we're ready to share it with the public at large. The combination of this code in electronic form, and the book, I hope is helpful to everyone, beginners, hobbyists, and professionals building games. I only wish I had stuff like this when I was trying to make barges stick together on Martian Dreams for Origin."
The new "Digital Video Pocket Guide" (O'Reilly, US $14.95) by Derrick Story is a guide to shooting better digital video, from understanding the technology and selecting the right camera to mastering good video technique.
The book covers both the internal and external components of today's entry-level and higher-end "prosumer" camcorders, explains how they work, and helps readers choose the best settings to get the shots they want. Subject matter includes A/V terminals, exposure compensation controls, image stabilization, and zebra patterns.
An article by the author, "Top Ten Digital Video Tips," can be found at: http://www.macdevcenter.com/pub/a/mac/2003/06/13/dv_tips.html
Sample tips from the book, "How to overcome backlighting" and "How to cope with wind," are available free online at: http://www.oreilly.com/catalog/dvideopg/chapter/index.html
For more information about the book, including table of contents, index, author bio, and samples, see http://www.oreilly.com/catalog/dvideopg/
New from author, designer, and teacher Jennifer Niederst is the second edition of "Learning Web Design: A Beginner's Guide to HTML, Graphics, and Beyond" (O'Reilly, US $39.95).
The book starts by defining the Internet, the Web, browsers, and URLs. It includes expanded coverage of Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) and more hands-on activities and interactive content. The lessons come with new "Try It" assignments that encourage them to learn concepts step-by-step along the way.
"Learning Web Design" covers the nuts and bolts of basic HTML, with examples that show how to format text, add graphic elements, make links, create tables and frames, and use color on the Web. The new edition has been updated to reflect current versions of popular Web authoring software (Macromedia Dreamweaver, Adobe GoLive, and Microsoft FrontPage), HTML tags, and other information.
Chapter 6, "Creating a Simple Page (HTML Overview)," is available free online at: http://www.oreilly.com/catalog/learnWeb2/chapter/index.html
For more info, see http://www.oreilly.com/catalog/learnWeb2/.
Silicon Graphics-owned Alias/Wavefront last week launched a corporate identity change from Alias/Wavefront to Alias. The company says the name Alias signifies its heritage and provides a simple name that is known throughout the 3D industry and beyond.
Alias Research was founded in 1983, in Toronto, Canada, with Wavefront Technologies launching one year later in Santa Barbara, California. The companies developed products such as Composer, Kinemation, Dynamation, Alias and PowerAnimator through the late eighties and into the nineties. In the mid-90's, the two companies were acquired and merged under Silicon Graphics as Alias/Wavefront. The goal of the merged company was to develop software for producing realistic digital visuals.
Midway Games Inc. plans to ship Midway Arcade Treasures, a multi-platform console-based offering of more than 20 classic arcade games, this fall. Gamers will be able to play in either one-player or two-player mode. The DVD content in the game features a history of many of the classic arcade hits and interviews with creators and developers of the games.
The titles are:
Midway also announced three original multi-platform console titles coming next year. The first is Narc, a stylized third-person action/shooter, is an all-new remake of the 1988 cult arcade classic of the same name, which put players in the middle of the war on drugs. Gamers can choose from an arsenal of weapons as well as street-fighting skills. The armed combat features third-person shooting, plus a sniper view, while the unarmed combat features punches, head-butts, knee-strikes, grappling and throwing.
Next up is Area 51, a "sci-fi meets government cover-up" first-person shooter set in the U.S. government's top-secret facility in the Nevada desert. Players travel through eight levels with gameplay that mixes combat, exploration, adventure, discovery, and puzzle solving. Stan Winston, creature designer, created artwork of some of the alien characters and mutations in the game.
Last is Justice League, based on the animated Cartoon Network series. Gamers will take control of DC Comics super heroes including Batman, Superman, The Flash, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, Hawkgirl and Martian Manhunter, using each character's superpowers, skills and special weapons to battle the combined forces of their greatest foes.
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