Today's Headlines (details below)
--Quake IV Review
--NaturalMotion Ships endorphin 2.5
--Luxology Releases modo 103 Service Update
--Reallusion Updates CrazyTalk Media Studio
--Xara Xtreme Graphics Software Released
--Pixologic Releases New ZBrush Plug-ins
THE DIALS & LEVERS OF POWER
--EA Challenges CompSci Students
--No Starch Press releases "Just Say No To Microsoft"
--Lucasfilm Ltd Opens Singapore Animation Studio
GAMES PEOPLE PLAY
--Activision, Infinity Ward Release Call Of Duty Sequel
--EA Announces Command & Conquer Compilation
Quake IV Review
By David Duberman
I considered starting this review by harking back to earlier versions of Quake, but frankly it's been so long since I played the game that I really don't remember very much about it, except that I enjoyed playing it. And I've certainly been having fun with the long-overdue new version.
The only game I can honestly compare Quake IV to is F.E.A.R., the other PC FPS I've played lately. While the latter certainly has its advantages, particularly a slightly better control system (you can peer around corners, for one), Q4 stands head-and-shoulders above its rival in one important sense: eye candy. The new version is a tour-de-force of level design and texture mapping (as opposed to F.E.A.R.'s seemingly endless, drab office corridors); you never get tired of looking around and just taking it all in. The character modeling and animation is pretty spiffy as well. Even on my aging system (ATI 9800 graphics card, with a mere 128MB RAM), it looks just fabulous.
Ah, but how does it play? Not bad at all. It's not a ground-breaker; if you've ever played an FPS before, you know the drill: Move forward, kill enemies, move forward, etc., etc. All the old conventions are here in spades; for instance, when you start in an area, you usually meet one or two of a new type of enemy, and then, as you progress, they show up in increasing numbers, ramping up the challenge nicely. Ammo, new weapons, and health/armor power-ups are scattered in both obvious and hidden locations.
New to the franchise is partial squad-based gameplay (okay, I do remember a little bit about the old Quake, mostly that it's a pretty solitary experience). At times during the single-player campaign you're assigned one or more teammates who are actually effective fighters and exhibit decent A.I. (meaning they're smart enough to let you play point man). Some of them can also replenish your health and armor. You also get to pilot vehicles such as hovercraft and battle robots. The enemies are fiendishly smart and exhibit a nice range of behavior; some charge you in various ways (including somersaults) while others run back and forth in the background. You start the game with a measly blaster, but soon get your mitts on some fairly devastating weapons. My favorite: the rocket launcher, natch. The storyline is not bad; without giving anything away, I can tell you that there's a twist about halfway through. It doesn't change gameplay all that much, but it keeps the plot interesting.
One review I read of Quake IV mentions that the single-player game is "only" 12 hours long. That's probably fairly accurate, but it's 12 hours of intensity and variety, so you really do get your money's worth. If you want to have some white-knuckle fun while experiencing the state of the art in PC-based real-time 3D graphics, give Quake IV a whirl.
NaturalMotion Ships endorphin 2.5
Oxford, UK-based NaturalMotion Ltd., the developer of 3D animation technology based on Dynamic Motion Synthesis (DMS), recently released endorphin 2.5, the latest version of the company’s 3D character-animation software, at a new price of USD $9,495. New features include behavioral animation, enhanced asset repurposing, and improved FBX support.
DMS is a technology based on artificial-intelligence controllers said to imitate the human nervous system. Unlike conventional animation techniques such as keyframing or motion capture, endorphin’s DMS technology uses the CPU to simulate the brain and body of 3D characters, so animators can synthesize human movements in real time. NaturalMotion claims that this approach produces directed, interactive 3D characters that essentially animate themselves with real-life movements that are unique every time, thus reducing animation-production time.
endorphin 2.5’s new and improved features include:
* Dynamic Blending – Use the new Transition Event to blend from simulation back into moving animation data. For example, you can now make a character run (animation), stumble (simulation), and recover into a run (animation) again.
* Motion Transfer and Active Animation Events – Drive the character’s muscles using existing animation data, and combine behaviors, animation and environment/prop interaction at the same time.
* New Behaviors – New static balancing lets a character stay on its two feet autonomously.
* Enhanced Collision Mode – Crisper, high-velocity collisions.
* Enhanced Character Edit Mode – Faster custom character set-up, now including mirroring functionality.
* Improved Performance – Optimized load and save times, as well as smaller file sizes.
Besides the one-time pricing of USD $9,495, NaturalMotion also leases the software on a monthly basis for USD $1,595; the company also plans to release a free endorphin 2.5 Learning Edition this month.
Luxology Releases modo 103 Service Update
Luxology, the creator of modo, a subdivision surface and polygonal 3D modeling platform, recently released its free modo 103 service update. The update features several advances, including the debut of a new UV-mapping technology said to simplify and accelerate the UV-unwrapping process, and improved stability for specific hardware configurations.
The new UV unwrap tool lets the user select the desired UV border edges on the 3D model and adjust the tool by dragging interactively in the viewport, and then unwraps the mesh into a smooth UV map.
The free modo 103 service update and a free evaluation version of modo 103 are available for download at www.modo3d.com. modo 103 is available through Luxology and its worldwide partners. modo ships on a single disc supporting both Mac OSX and Windows, and sells for a suggested retail price of USD $895, with a limited-time introductory price of USD $695.
Reallusion Updates CrazyTalk Media Studio
Reallusion, a developer of animation and graphic software, has released CrazyTalk 4.0 Media Studio. Allowing users to create animations from a photo with an easy-to-use interface, the new version is said to be able to create lifelike facial animations for digital video projects, home video production, and interactive virtual Internet hosts.
Creating an animation is a four-step process using the program's auto-fitting features and animation menus. The user imports a digital photo, and CrazyTalk's auto-fitting wizard automatically finds the eyes and mouth to animate the image; manual adjustments are allowed for fine-tuning animations. Next, the user can record a personal message or import any pre-recorded wave file. CrazyTalk then morphs the photo into an animated video. The final step is to export the animation as full-screen digital video, Web-ready interactive online content, or talking email.
CrazyTalk 4.0 also allows users to create animated avatars for Reallusion's new free CrazyTalk for Skype Lite. CrazyTalk for Skype Lite is available from Reallusion's Website and adds animated characters, music and emotion to your online chat sessions. Animated avatars change mood as the user types and communicates, displaying 25 different emotions, including sadness, sarcasm, confusion, and affection, accompanied by music and sound effects for each emotion.
The new version's Timeline function is an editing interface designed to provide pro-level facial animation control. Users can now control the animation track sequence, producing lip synchronization, emotional expressions, and human motion with keyframed head, eye, and shoulder movement. Simplified previewing and zoom editing can help save time in using this feature.
Xara Xtreme Graphics Software Released
Xara Xtreme has been launched to provide users with a single software package for photo enhancing, Web graphics, general drawing, graphical text, and illustration needs. Xara Xtreme claims speed and graphics quality, with a simple and intuitive user interface, at $79.
Xara Xtreme is aimed at a range of skill levels and complexity of tasks, from the novice wishing to produce a poster, cards, stationery, signs, flyers, or Website logos to a professional wishing to produce high-end graphics or illustrations.
The integrated Xara picture editor provides common photo-enhancing operations such as cropping, rotating, color enhancing, sharpening etc, with a fast UI. The editor can be used within Xara Xtreme or by itself. It provides a simple approach to basic photo-editing tasks (one-click enhance, anti red-eye, crop, brightness, sharpness etc), and also accepts Xara and Photoshop plug-ins.
Xara Xtreme is used by Web designers as a Web graphics design tool. It can produce optimized GIF, PNG and JPEGs, mouse-over Web graphics, and animated GIFs.
For vector illustration, Xara Xtreme claims faster redraw and rendering speed than competitors. The drawing tools include real-time anti-aliasing, transparency and graduated transparency effects, real-time vector feathering, linked colors, zero-memory footprint bitmap editing, solid drag, resize, and rotation of images, all of which can be applied to both vector and bitmap images.
In its bid to dominate the world’s graphics market, Xara has made the decision to launch an Open Source version, so that a Mac and Linux version can be developed. The aim is to become a universal, mass-market, cross-platform tool.
A demonstration movie showing Xara Xtreme in operation (WMV format) is available from: http://downloads.xara.com/products/xtreme/movies/intro.wmv
Pixologic Releases New ZBrush Plug-ins
Continuing on the road to ZBrush 2.5, Pixologic recently released a new plug-in, ZApp Link. The free plug-in automates the connection between ZBrush and programs such as Photoshop, Painter, and Illustrator.
Also new from Pixologic are two other plug-ins: Displacement Exporter and Multi-Displacement 2.
Displacement Exporter is a free plug-in for registered users that automates and enhances ZBrush’s current displacement-exporting capabilities. It includes the ability to export 8-bit, 16-bit, and 32-bit floating-point grayscale and RGB maps. It can also convert a displacement map to a normal map and lets the user control the contents of each channel of the file texture.
Multi-Displacement 2 lets the user generate 32-bit floating-point maps with real-world coordinates baked into the displacement map as well as generate multiple displacement maps for a model by using UV regions. 32-bit floating point maps reportedly provide the highest degree of fidelity between the ZBrush sculpt and the final render.
EA Challenges CompSci Students
Electronic Arts last week launched "Tank Wars," a competition that challenges computer science students to compete for the title of "Best of Breed" and take home a new gaming computer including EA PC games. Computer science students demonstrate their skill by writing an Artificial Intelligence (A.I.) program that pits one military tank against another in a battle for supremacy. EA will provide the software code free to participating students and all entrants will retain ownership of their intellectual property.
EA has simplified the controls, graphics, menus and overall development environment to allow students to devote their time to exploring new AI approaches. The concept is simple: in a 100m x 100m world, two tanks are locked in an arena where only one will survive. The challenge is to program the tank that exits victorious. The finalists will present their completed A.I. designs to the EA judging panel and the winning entries will be chosen based on technical ability, originality and creative merit.
John Buchanan, University Research Liaison Dude at EA noted, "As we move into the next generation, the task of rendering stunning graphics in games is slowly being handed over to specialized hardware. We have reached the point where we can easily produce highly realistic and incredibly impressive visuals with relative ease. In this competition, we have deliberately downgraded the graphics to emphasize the importance of A.I. Over the next five to 10 years, A.I. is going to differentiate great games from the rest. With this competition, we hope to find people with a passion for A.I. and understanding of the magic that makes a game truly fun to play."
The competition is open to the following schools: Carnegie Mellon University, Florida Institute of Technology, Michigan State University, Morehouse College Georgia, San Jose State University, Stanford University, University of California at Berkeley, University of California Davis, University of California at Los Angeles, University of Central Florida, University of Florida, University of Illinois Urbana-Champlain, University of Michigan and University of Southern California.
The "Tank Wars" competition follows last year's Great Canadian Art Competition which saw top Canadian graduating post-secondary students submit 3D digital animated shorts for judging by EAC senior graphic artists. The "Tank Wars" competition is the latest step in EA's ongoing education initiative which already includes a lecture series at North American Universities, a paid internship program, and the EA Interactive Entertainment Program MFA at the University of Southern California.
EA is accepting entries from US citizens and residents who are currently enrolled in a recognized Computer Science program at the designated universities. No purchase necessary. Submissions will be accepted from January 15, 2006 - January 31, 2006. Prize winners will be revealed on March 15, 2006.
No Starch Press releases "Just Say No To Microsoft"
There are so many reasons to say no to Microsoft: the blue screen of death, Outlook email viruses, the endless dump of Windows patches, and so on. And yet, with Microsoft owning the lion's share of the desktop market, how can anyone escape the Beast from Redmond and still function? It's not as hard as you think, and author Tony Bove is only too happy to explain how to become liberated in his new book, "Just Say No To Microsoft" (No Starch Press, October '05).
"Just Say No To Microsoft" contains practical information about alternative operating systems and programs that will help Microsoft captives exercise their freedom of choice. After tracing Microsoft's rise from tiny startup to monopolistic juggernaut, "Just Say No To Microsoft" chronicles how the company's practices have discouraged innovation, stunted competition, and helped foster an environment ripe for viruses, bugs, and hackers. From there, Bove examines other operating systems, such as Linux and Macintosh, and Microsoft Office alternatives that will keep readers productive and able to interact with their Microsoft-using colleagues and friends.
"The shortcomings and risks of Microsoft products have made tech headlines for years, but many users stick with Windows and Microsoft Office simply because they don't know what else to try or what the alternatives are," said Bill Pollock, founder of No Starch Press. "'Just Say No To Microsoft' is a valuable resource because, in addition to explaining why and how Microsoft does what it does, it offers real alternatives. There's no reason to be a frustrated Microsoft customer anymore."
Lucasfilm Ltd Opens Singapore Animation Studio
Lucasfilm Ltd. Recently opened the doors of Lucasfilm Animation Singapore, a digital animation studio designed to produce movies and television for global audiences.
The studio, which is approximately 40,000 square feet (3,715 square meters) is in the Changi area of Singapore. More than 35 employees from 19 countries around the world have already been hired and hiring will continue into 2006.
"When we announced the formation of Lucasfilm Animation Singapore last August, we said we'd open our doors this fall, and we're right on schedule," said George Lucas. "Our first series -- a TV adventure titled Clone Wars, based on the time between Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith -- is already in active development and we hope to see it on the air in 2007."
An opening ceremony for the studio included a traditional Lion Dance, a blessing by a feng shui master and the unveiling of a statue of Yoda that will greet visitors to the studio.
Lucasfilm Animation Singapore will work with the team at Lucasfilm Animation, based at Skywalker
Ranch in Marin County, California. Gail Currey, Vice President and General Manager of Lucasfilm
Animation also announced the hiring of key creative executives in the U.S.
* Catherine Winder, executive producer, has worked as both an executive and producer in feature film, home video and television animation in both the US and Asia. Winder will head up development and production on the upcoming 3D animated television series as well as on feature film projects. As senior vice president of Fox Feature Animation, she supervised the expansion of Blue Sky studios and the production of the Oscar-nominated film Ice Age. Winder co-authored the industry handbook "Producing Animation."
* Dave Filoni, supervising director, most recently directed the Nickelodeon animation series Avatar: The Last Airbender.
* Henry Gilroy, head writer/story editor, first contributed to the Star Wars universe with his comic book stories for Dark Horse. He then authored the graphic novel adaptations of Episode I The Phantom Menace and Episode II Attack of the Clones.
* Rob Coleman, animation and development director, joins the animation division after twelve years at Lucasfilm's visual effects house, Industrial Light & Magic.
Activision, Infinity Ward Release Call of Duty Sequel
Activision, Inc. has shipped Call of Duty 2 for PC to U.S. retail outlets. Powered by Infinity Ward’s proprietary new engine, the sequel portrays the chaos and intensity of war with special effects, A.I. technology, and squad combat.
Set across three Allied campaigns: Russian, British and American, Call of Duty 2 offers a character-driven experience, as gamers can play through each storyline to its completion, or choose to engage the enemy in historic battles chronologically from 1941 through 1945. Players can take on mission objectives in any order, yet must utilize actual combat tactics like outflanking and fire and maneuver to succeed.
The new version offers bigger battles, more weapons, more troops, and special effects set in a range of locations and environments. Players, for example, can fight “The Desert Fox” across the sands of North Africa as waves of tanks clash in the desert; join an Army Ranger squad using rocket-propelled grappling hooks to storm the cliffs of Pointe du Hoc; or slog through the urban chaos of Stalingrad and Moscow in blizzard conditions as a tank hunter in war-torn Russia.
For multiplayer action, players can go online for Axis vs. Allies team-based gameplay featuring five modes of play: Headquarters, Capture the Flag, Search and Destroy, Deathmatch, and Team Deathmatch for up to 32 players.
A limited Collector’s Edition of Call of Duty 2 is also now available on DVD for $60. Offered in a metallic package, the Collector’s Edition features a bonus DVD loaded with interviews and commentaries, a making-of-the-game feature, and mission walkthroughs from the developers at Infinity Ward. Call of Duty 2 is also in development for the Xbox 360™ video game and entertainment system from Microsoft and is slated for release on Nov. 15.
EA Announces Command & Conquer Compilation
Coming in February from Electronic Arts is Command & Conquer: The First Decade, which will celebrate the 10th anniversary of the franchise. The special collector’s edition will include a dozen C&C games spanning over the last 10 years plus a bonus DVD of commemorative video features.
With over 23 million units sold worldwide to date, the C&C franchise has defined the real-time strategy (RTS) genre with advance graphics, storylines, rich mission complexities. The series has evolved over a decade, spawned over a dozen titles, and continues to be a genre benchmark by which other RTS games are measured. The C&C franchise has grown over the years to span multiple fictional genres, including the science-fictional Tiberium universe, the revisionist history of the Red Alert universe, and a twist on modern warfare with Command & Conquer Generals.
“Command & Conquer The First Decade offers RTS gamers a way to relive the history of C&C, and I’m thrilled to see this collection offered in one package,” said Louis Castle, VP of Creative Development at EALA. “It seems like yesterday when we were all pleasantly surprised by the way the gaming community wanted to play this new type of strategy game.”
The Command & Conquer The First Decade bonus DVD will feature a half-dozen exclusive video features including an interview with Louis Castle, who is also cofounder of now-defunct Westwood Studios, the creator of the C&C franchise. As a special bonus, C&C fans also have the opportunity to be featured on the exclusive DVD. The search is currently underway to find the world’s biggest C&C fan that can showcase and prove undying devotion to the C&C series via video submission. To find out more information, visit www.CommandAndConquer.EA.com.Command & Conquer: The First Decade will combine the following titles:
Command & Conquer: The First Decade is under development at EA’s Los Angeles studio and has a US MSRP of $39.99. All games included in the compilation are rated “T” for Teen by the ESRB.
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