17 March 2003
Reported, written and edited by David Duberman
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by David Duberman
After a slightly dry period for PS2 RPGs, Sony has come out with a doozie. It's the sequel to Dark Cloud, one of my favorite earlier titles for the console. Dark Cloud 2 tells the story of Maximilian, a boy who's searching for his mother, and Monica, a girl from the future. The future has been destroyed by an evil being from the past, and Monica recruits Max to help rebuild the present, thus restoring the future.
The basic gameplay is similar to that of the earlier title; you move through a dungeon, randomized level by randomized level, clearing out the monsters, and glomming up all the treasures. The combat is real time, but you can pause at any time (and often need to) to restore health or repair a weapon. Combat in DC2 is also relatively challenging. You can use the auto-map to tell when danger is near, but despite that, you'll probably be reloading a saved game a bit more often than you might like, at least in the earlier levels of a dungeon.
The game is nicely balanced; Max and Monica each have well-defined strengths and weaknesses against different enemies, and you can switch between them at any time. Well, almost any time; they can't be killed, but if one loses all his or her hit points, you can't use him or her any more during that level. And, if both do, it's game over. Also, some levels force you to use only one character, or prevent you from healing. Fortunately, the save points are easily accessed, and there's no limit on the number of save games (unlike another recent, artificially challenging PS2 RPG, which shall go unnamed), so you'll never need to backtrack too far.
But that's just the start. A little ways into the game, Max gets the ability to switch to the Ridepod, a big, customizable robot he helped to invent, and Monica becomes able to switch to different monsters. Each of these also has particular capabilities; for example, the Ridepod is best against machine-like enemies.
One of the key aspects of the game is upgrading your weapon. As you win battles, you don't get experience, but your weapons do. Each time a weapon levels up, it gains, in essence, "slots" for upgrading it in any of 10 or so categories, using materials you find in the dungeons. For example, you can make the weapon more effective against creatures that are weak against fire or other elements, or more durable, and so on. You can do this one "slot" at a time, or in multiples (for example, three fire). Every so often, a weapon becomes eligible for a major upgrade, if you've increased its capabilities enough in certain categories. A command from the inventory screen shows you which categories you need to improve it in, but not by how much. In some cases, you need to upgrade it a lot in a certain category, which means, if you want to be careful and not run out of slots, you have to do it one slot at a time, which can be slow and inefficient.
Besides fighting through the dungeons and beating the occasional boss, the designers threw in a number of additional activities. Max soon receives a camera, which he can use to take pictures of anything he sees. He can use these photos for two purposes: To fulfill journalistic assignments ("scoops"), for which he receives medals, which he can trade in for various rare items. More importantly, he can combine three photos to invent items that might help him on his quest. The problem is, only particular combinations will yield results. You can find "recipes" for inventions that will work in various parts of the game world, but in most cases, at least one of the photos called for is a real head-scratcher. So the only items I've successfully invented so far are ones that are required to progress in the game. But this could constitute a game in itself for those who like a bit of variety in between dungeon crawls.
Also required to progress through the game is the Georama aspect, an enhanced version of a system found in the earlier title. In Dark Cloud, you could build towns using parts found in the dungeons, and then find a few goodies in the town, and buy stuff at the shops. In the sequel, this aspect becomes more central to gameplay: By rebuilding "origin points" in the present, you re-create the destroyed future, and advance the plot. But equally important is that this is the only way to increase your characters' maximum health and defense. In some cases, you can buy things at shops in the restored future locations, but you can also buy essentials (and, in some cases, get freebies) from NPCs (non-player characters) you recruit. If you complete a quest posed by the NPC, he or she will join your party; not as a fighter, but in a way that enhances, say, your ability to get money or items after a battle. You also need these characters to fulfill requirements posed by the Georama system. It's a neat idea, and adds a lot of fun to the game.
At heart, DC2 is, like its predecessor, and many other console RPGs, an extended dungeon crawl. But it's one that's all decked out in Sunday finery, from the truly spiffy graphics to the mini-games, such as fishing and golf, and many secrets. Once you get into it, there seems to be more fun stuff to do than you could ever find time for, and that's what makes it a great game. One caveat, though: Make sure you've got plenty of free space on your memory card. This hungry baby eats a half-megabyte per saved game!
New from Macromedia is DevNet Subscriptions, a set of tools, servers, extensions, components, and other resources over a one-year annual subscription period. The service reportedly lets companies predict the cost of equipping developers with technology and resources. The service also features a personalized subscriber portal that helps reduce administrative overhead and manage software licenses. Subscribers can download their products, upgrades, extensions, and components through the portal and have them mailed on CD.
The subscriptions service is available in two levels, Professional and Essentials. Professional provides developers with single-user perpetual licenses to Dreamweaver, Contribute (Windows only), Flash, Fireworks, FreeHand, and fully-functional, development-only licenses of all Macromedia server products.
Subscribers also get three months advance access to the quarterly DevNet Resource Kits (DRKs), which bundle components and extensions to make development with Macromedia products easier and more efficient.
DevNet Essentials complements a developer's existing Macromedia Studio MX tools with an annual subscription that provides advance access to the quarterly DevNet Resource Kits (DRKs).
WebSideStory, Inc. (http://www.Websidestory.com), the creator of HitBox for online marketing analytics and optimization, reported last week that the percentage of search engine referrals worldwide has increased significantly over the past year. As of March 6, search sites accounted for more than 13.4 percent of global referrals, up from 7.1 percent the previous year, according to WebSideStory's StatMarket division, a source of data on global Internet user trends. StatMarket aggregates information from Internet users who visit sites using HitBox marketing analytics services. HitBox shows how visitors and customers arrive at a Web site, including specific URLs, keywords, search engines, email campaigns and other marketing initiatives.
"People are more efficient in their Web use," said Geoff Johnston, vice president of product marketing for StatMarket. "The trend is that they either navigate directly to a Web site they already know, or use a search engine to find a new one."
Although the global average has increased worldwide, search engine referral percentages can vary between countries. For example, search sites in the United States accounted for over 15 percent of all referrals (up front 8 percent a year ago), while the United Kingdom had a search referral percentage of almost 18 (up from 11.5 percent the year before).
Just out from Side Effects Software is the pre-release of Houdini Version 6, with the final shipping candidate anticipated by the end of April. New features and workflow enhancements include tools for creating, publishing and managing Houdini digital assets into existing production environments, improved character animation tools, global illumination rendering, interactive light and camera controls, and an embedded help browser that can run interactive training material written using Houdini's internal scripting language.
Artists working with Houdini Apprentice are encouraged to register for the Houdini Apprentice Challenge, a contest designed to uncover new animation talent for leading studios that use Houdini solutions within their visual effects pipelines. All entries must be created using the Houdini Apprentice Edition. Select winning projects will be awarded a range of prizes, including an HP XW4000 workstation, ATI Fire GL X1 cards and Houdini commercial licenses.
Eovia Corporation, a developer and publisher of 3D software, last week released Power Pack, a set of 14 plug-ins for Carrara Studio and Carrara 3D Basics, on both the Mac and Windows.
Power Pack lets users add fur, hair and similar strands to characters and models, apply displacement mapping, add a starry background to 3D night scenes, and use the new shading functions to concoct their own collection of original textures.
Developed by Digital Carvers Guild, Power Pack gives users four independent add-ons, for a total of 14 plug-ins. The four are:
Coming soon from Pinnacle Systems is Pinnacle Edition 5, a new version of the company's mid-range video editing and DVD-authoring software. New features include real-time AGP-based 2D and 3D video effects, and the ability to author DVD from the editing timeline and create menu structures, motion menus and motion buttons using the editing tools.
Frantic Films, a Canada-based visual-effects facility, has purchased SplutterFish LLC's new Brazil Rendering System to serve as the rendering platform backbone for its feature film and commercial television production pipeline.
The Brazil Rendering System is a recently released, integrated rendering suite for Discreet's animation software, 3ds max, and Autodesk VIZ visualization software. Brazil r/s v 1.0 features include filtering; anti-aliasing; illumination and shading models including fast raytracing; task-specific accelerators and shaders; core architecture that renders multi-million polys; camera and film effects; motion blur; depth of field/bokeh lens simulation; global illumination; non-photoreal capabilities; and support for standard artistic "fakes."
Frantic Films, which created the opening visual-effects sequence for the feature film "Swordfish," has just completed post-production on the upcoming Paramount Pictures feature, "The Core." The sci-fi adventure film stars Aaron Eckhart and Hillary Swank as scientists who discover that the Earth's core is about to stop "spinning." To save the world from destruction, an experimental craft is sent to the core of the Earth itself to detonate nuclear weapons. The film is scheduled for release March 28.
Frantic Films faced a number of rendering challenges in the creation of approximately 100 visual effects shots on "The Core." Of these, Brazil r/s was leveraged extensively to render 3D elements on 60 shots in the film. These required hundreds, sometimes thousands, of objects to reflect each other and the environment, all with complex textures that needed supersampling to avoid "crawl" during renders. The software was also deployed to render pre-visualization shots and content for the onscreen graphics for the film.
Tokyo-based Access Co. and HI Corporation have concluded a license agreement to provide products combining browsers for consumer information appliances developed by Access with HI Corporation's 3D rendering engine Mascot Capsule Engine.
Tailored to the needs of customers, ACCESS will integrate HI Corporation's 3D rendering engine, Mascot Capsule Engine, into its NetFront and Compact NetFront browsers for consumer information appliances, and JV-Lite2 Java compatible engine for consumer information appliances. Integrated browsers will be shipped globally for consumer information appliance markets including mobile phones, PDAs and car navigation systems. The browser solution provided by Access integrating the 3D engine will let users access 3D polygon content inside HTML content and allow applications such as idle browser screens utilizing 3D polygon and displaying 3D map contents on the browser. Access will also provide a Java-based 3D rendering engine that runs on JV-Lite2.
A trial version of Mascot Capsule Engine has already been bundled with the latest Access browser, NetFront v3.0 for PocketPC. The browser is sold through software download Websites in Japan and the United States. Bundling the engine with Access products supplied to overseas mobile phone manufacturers is also planned.
Mascot Capsule Engine is a 3D software engine that enables real-time 3D mascots to be rendered on PC desktops, Web pages, embedded devices, handheld game devices and mobile handsets. Mascot Capsule works on resource-constrained environments and runs on engines capable of 32-bit integer operations (floating-point operations and divisions are not required) with 10 MHz or higher clock speed. The software supports commercially available 3D graphic formats including 3ds max and LightWave with display performance proportional to allotted memory.
Since Apple released the latest version of its operating system, Mac OS X, some Windows users have been tempted to make the switch, especially since the computer industry is such that new advances make upgrading to new software and hardware inevitable every few years anyway. Mac OS X is not only a hit among traditional Mac fans, the system has attracted longtime PC users. Apple's iApps--iMovie, iPhoto, iTunes, iDVD, iCal, and more--add urgency to the desire to cross platforms to take advantage of the array of useful tools available for Mac users only. However, lack of logistical information has been a serious roadblock, preventing many a potential Mac convert from taking the technical leap. "Switching to the Mac: The Missing Manual" (O'Reilly/Pogue Press, US $24.95) aims to take the questions, dread, and frustration out of moving to the Mac.
"Switching to the Mac is not all sunshine and bunnies," admits author David Pogue. "The Macintosh is a different machine, running a different operating system--and built by a company with a different philosophy. But there's never been a better time to make the switch."
Much of Apple's success in converting Windows users to Mac OS X is due to Mac's new ability to operate in the Windows-centric business world. Microsoft Office for Mac OS X already creates identical Word, Excel, and PowerPoint files. With the latest version of Mac OS X, Macs and Windows PCs can see each other on a network without so much as a single mouse-click of setup or extra software. That means that people away from the office can effortlessly use a Mac to access their Windows-managed network and share files with PCs.
Pogue addresses how Windows users can make a relatively trouble-free switch to Mac OS X. Issues explained include adapting to Mac versions of programs such as Microsoft Office, FileMaker, Photoshop, and Quicken; finding familiar controls in the new system; setting up a network to share files with PCs and Macs; and adapting old printers, scanners, and other peripherals.
"Missing Manuals as Performance Art," an interview with David Pogue, is available at http://www.oreillynet.com/pub/a/oreilly/missingmanuals/news/interview2_0103.html.
For more information about the book, including table of contents, index, author bio, and samples, see http://www.oreilly.com/catalog/switchmacmm/.
Oregon3D Inc., The Center for Visualization Technologies, will offer its first class for Kaydara Motionbuilder, a character-animation tool, on the weekend of March 29-30. The $700 class will cover a basic introduction to Motionbuilder; the user interface; importing and exporting using Kaydara FBX; and advanced character-animation techniques. Students will also receive a free copy of Motionbuilder Personal Edition, a full one-year production license of Motionbuilder with printed documentation, upgrades and customer support.
Kaon, supplier of 3D product-representation technology to, last week launched Video Clip Composer software for developing Flash product tours. The software lets Flash developers position 3D product models and parts virtually over a timeline and then capture those images in a video format ready for Flash.
Video Clip Composer is available now starting at $5,000 per user. The Composer server requires a Java2-capable platform, such as Windows 2000, with a minimum of 1GHz CPU and 1GB RAM. The recommended configuration is a 2.5GHz CPU with 2GB RAM. The Composer user interface is entirely browser-based, works on PC and Mac using IE 5 or greater, or Netscape 7 or greater.
Digital Element, an Oakland-based software developer and publishing firm specializing in art tools, last week released Easy Interface, a $19 palette-management plug-in that lets users hide toolbars and palettes in graphic applications.
With Easy Interface, formerly called Interface Improver and developed by Linerock Productions, palettes and toolbars hide off-screen in locations set by the user and appear when the mouse is moved close to them. It works with the following graphic applications: Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Illustrator, Adobe ImageReady, Adobe InDesign, Adobe Pagemaker, Adobe Premiere, Adobe Go-Live, QuarkXPress, Macromedia Dreamweaver, Macromedia Flash, Macromedia Fireworks, Macromedia Director, and Macromedia Freehand.
Vivendi Universal Games last week shipped Enclave, a third-person, 3D action game for the PC. The game is set in a fantasy environment where long ago a rift formed separating the lands of light from the plains of darkness by an impassable chasm. Over time, the Enclave of light grew strong and prosperous, while those confined to the war-ravaged plains of the outlands harbored nothing but hatred and jealousy. Now, after hundreds of years, the rift is closing and it is only a matter of time before a full-scale war erupts. At the start of the game, players must make an important decision and choose to take on the role of either an agent of light or of darkness.
Enclave generates a fantasy world with more than 25 indoor and outdoor levels, a choice of 12 playable characters, and an arsenal of ranged and melee weapons, both conventional and magical.
Just out from Activision is Tenchu: Wrath of Heaven, a stealth-based ninja game for PlayStation2. Set in the late 1570s, one year after the events of the original Tenchu PS1 title, the game finds Rikimaru and Ayame on a quest to save feudal Japan from the clutches of an evil sorcerer and his six lords of darkness.
Tenchu: Wrath of Heaven features new stealth attacks, an enhanced fighting engine, new weapons and tools, plus larger levels, improved character animations, new multiplayer options and a soundtrack from composer Noriyuki Asakura. Other features include 25 missions and detailed lighting and weather effects.
Sony Computer Entertainment America last week released My Street for PlayStation2. Set in a virtual neighborhood, the game, developed by Idol Minds, creators of the Cool Boarders franchise, is a party game for single- and multi-player competition in a collection of arcade-style mini-games.
Players can either use pre-determined characters or create their own game "persona," selecting hairstyles and outfits, and then hit the street, where children await challengers for seven mini-game contests. In both online and offline gameplay, players can take on up to three of their friends in mini-games including Dodgeball, Volleyball, RC Racing, Marbles, Chemistry, Lawn Mowers and Chicken Herding.
My Street offers three gameplay modes: Story Mode, Play Mode, and Online. In both the Online and Play modes, gamers can choose from single games or create customized tournaments. Through Story Mode, gamers compete in each competition in succession to be crowned ruler of the neighborhood.
Working with companies such as JAMDAT Mobile, Mforma and Mobliss, Sprint plans to launch a new category of wireless games, with select games available starting in early April. Initial titles will include:
In early April, multi-player games will be available on Java-enabled PCS Vision Phones. Once downloaded, a customer will be able to choose to play with others on the enhanced Nationwide PCS Network. Customers can choose their opponent or let the Sprint Network find one for them. Prices are expected to range from $1.99-5.99, with subscriptions from 30 days to unlimited use.
Currently in development by Vivendi Universal Games and Interplay Entertainment Corp. is Fallout: Brotherhood of Steel for PlayStation2 and Xbox.
The third-person action-adventure game transports players into the post-apocalyptic wasteland of the Fallout PC franchise. Utilizing a combination of combat strategies integrating melee, ranged weapons and explosives, one or two players can assume membership in The Brotherhood of Steel, warriors determined to bring their own sense of order to a nuked-out wasteland.
The fear of an apocalypse has become a reality. Fallout: Brotherhood of Steel begins after the first Fallout PC title in which humans emerge from the safety of underground vaults to explore the earth following a nuclear holocaust. In joining the Brotherhood of Steel, players will uncover a sinister plot that could transform the remainder of humanity into a race of mutants. The Brotherhood of Steel have come together to wage battle against the mutant raiders and pirates to fulfill their search for a mysterious and heavily sought-after device, one that could be used to help rebuild humanity or as a monstrous toll of war.
Scheduled to ship to retail in early April from Vivendi Universal Games and Interplay is Run Like Hell for Xbox. The expanded Xbox version of the survival horror game includes an additional "hydroponics" level, five additional rooms and several new creatures. Dolby Digital 5.1 and high definition will be supported in game, and additional mini games and skins will be available at launch via Xbox Live.
Run Like Hell puts the player in the role of Nick Connor, an exiled military hero sent to work on a mining station in deep space. Returning from a mission, you find your crew members wiped out by a vicious and intelligent alien race. Your mission is to stay alive long enough to discover the aliens' plans for your ship and find any survivors in the process.
According to Sony, in six months, the PlayStation2 has become the platform for the largest online console gaming community in North America. Sales of the Network Adaptor, the gateway into the PlayStation 2 online arena, have exceeded 500,000 units sold through to consumers. The community continues to expand with an average of 2,500 new members joining per day. The company plans to double its projected Network Adaptor shipments to a cumulative one million units by the end of its fiscal year, March 31, 2003.
Sony says 42 percent of users play online games via dial-up and 58 percent via broadband. Thirteen titles are currently available and five more are coming this month, and of the top 10 best-selling titles for the month of January, three were PlayStation 2 online-enabled titles: SOCOM: U.S. Navy SEALs and ATV Offroad Fury2 from Sony, and Madden NFL 2003 from Electronic Arts.
New and upcoming online-enabled titles for PlayStation 2 from first party and third party companies include:
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- David Duberman
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