Spectrum: Interactive Media & Online Developer News

25 Oct 2004
Reported, written and edited by David Duberman
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Search the Spectrum archives at http://www.3dlinks.com/spectrum

Today's Headlines (details below)

--Sly 2: Band of Thieves
--X-Men Legends

--GarageGames Announces Content Packs for Torque Game Engine

--Renderer News
--Turbo Squid Offers $100 Promotion on Turbo Toolkit 2
--Luxology Announces modo Educational Version
--cebas' finalRender Stage-1 Updates with Service Pack 2D
--Storm Tracer 1.1 Update

--New Book Shows How to Hack Game Systems
--O'Reilly Releases "Adobe Encore DVD: In the Studio"

--Re-create Kerry in Vietnam Service via 3D Gaming
--X-Men Legends Sequel in Development

--Accelerating Change at Stanford

--About Spectrum



Review: Sly 2: Band of Thieves
By David Duberman

What do a raccoon, a turtle, and a hippo have in common? Until recently, it was a videogame, but now it's … two videogames! More to the point, in the original title, Sly Cooper and the Thievius Raccoonus (SCTR, reviewed in Spectrum 10/28/02), you played the title character only, but in the new game, the turtle and the hippo play active roles, lending a generous helping of variety to the gameplay. The scion of a family of honorable thieves, Sly Cooper, the raccoon, steals only from other thieves. In the new installment, just out from SCEA for PS2 only, most of the missions are still undertaken by Sly, but you also get to play "The" Murray, the strongman hippo, as well as Bentley, the nerdy brains of the outfit in a hard shell.

Sly 2: Band of Thieves takes place a couple of years after the first installment. The disposable story concerns recovery of the stolen components of Clockwerk, the villain from the original game. The imagery and animation are quite similar, with a pleasant, if dark, hand-drawn look to the 3D graphics thanks to cel-style rendering. What's really changed is the gameplay, which has improved in many respects. First, it's more forgiving, in that you have a health meter and can receive a number of hits during a battle, instead of just one or two as often happened in the original. And you can't die; at worst, you just get sent back to the start of the mission, or, in some cases, to just after the last automatic, transparent checkpoint in the current mission. Which isn't to say it's an easy game; some missions are quite challenging, and you get a genuine feeling of satisfaction from completing one.

Saving is transparent; you never need to do it explicitly. And there's no need for multiple saves, because once a mission is complete, there's no point in returning to it; in fact, you couldn't if you wanted to. However, you can return to any level after completing its missions to find the remaining bottles to get a prize. I don't know what the prizes are, because some of the bottles are hidden really well, and it doesn't seem to be necessary. That's because in Sly 2 you can buy power-ups (finding all the bottles was necessary in SCTR to get them) with the coins. The game offers one power-up for each character in each level; these include such implements as a smoke bomb to hide Sly temporarily from nearby enemies and a sleep bomb for the offense-impaired Bentley. Again, however, these seem largely optional; with a few exceptions, you can get by with just the basic moves. Speaking of which, one interesting new move for Sly is the ability to pick pockets. In most cases, this gets you lucre, but some missions require picking specific pockets for items such as keys.

Another big difference is the addition of nonlinearity to the game. At any point, you have access to up to five missions that you can accomplish in any order. You can look up the current missions in a list with text descriptions--a nice touch--and beacons guide you to the mission start point. Better yet, each beacon is color coded to indicate which character must undertake it. Typically, a Sly mission involves stealth and the most platform-like play, as in the first game. Bentley's missions mostly involve technical feats, with some fun mini-games, and Murray's few missions involve brute force. Mostly, Murray is there for a bit of comic relief. A few missions involve all three protagonists simultaneously, such as one where Sly and Murray have to protect Bentley while he's hacking into a computer. Of course, you're still just playing one character at a time, but it does add to the feeling of being on a team.

Not only is Sly 2 less linear than SCTR, but the gameplay is much more varied. Sly has more combat moves, and Murray can perform such feats as picking up and throwing objects. Bentley isn't much for combat, but his ability to use the Binucom (computerized binoculars) to zap enemies with sleep darts comes in handy. Bentley also uses a radio-controlled helicopter for a number of bombing missions. While there's still plenty of platform-style action, Sly 2 adds a good assortment of other gameplay options to maintain your interest. The eight levels are much bigger those in the original and are expertly designed, so you'll have a lot of fun just exploring while smashing things to retrieve coins and health power-ups. Sly 2 isn't just a great sequel; it's a great game. In fact, I enjoyed it more than its predecessor.



Review: X-Men Legends
By David Duberman

The Sly Cooper franchise (see above), while existing solely in the videogame world, uses a comic-book motif for its graphics. Tied in more closely to the comic-book world is X-Men Legends, the latest game based on the exploits of the Marvel team of mutant superheroes. The action RPG for PS2, Xbox, and Gamecube was created by Activision-owned Raven Software, which is perhaps best known for Hexen and Heretic, its series of Doom-like FPS (first-person shooter) games. But with this title Raven is actually returning to its roots; the developer's first game was Black Crypt, a dungeon crawl for the Amiga that was strangely similar to the classic game Dungeon Master. Aside from being RPGs, the two games are quite different, but share some characteristics (as do many).

Legends' gameplay is perhaps most similar to games like Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance and Champions of Norrath; you explore environments while killing enemies and picking up treasures while viewing the game from overhead at an angle. You start with just Wolverine, but quickly pick up others and can eventually venture forth on missions with up to four X-Men at a time. In the single-player game, you can switch among these at the drop of a hat; the other three are controlled by the computer and parameters you set. Moreover, you can replace members of your team with those in reserve at limited locations during missions. These Xtraction Points are also the only place you can save, and some of them also let you buy and sell items such as power-ups and health potions.

The game distinguishes itself from its competition primarily by the wealth of options, including 15 playable X-Men (I found only 14). Each has its inherent strengths and weaknesses; for instance, Wolverine is good for melee combat, Cyclops projects powerful heat-ray attacks against individual foes from a distance, and Storm can unleash massive electrical damage on large groups. As each X-Man levels up, you can improve his or her personal statistics such as attack or defensive capabilities, as well as mutant powers.

No matter what her mutant capabilities, each X-Man is a close-up-fighting machine. You can launch physical melee attacks with two standard buttons: one does greater damage to a single enemy, while the other does lesser damage to a group of foes surrounding you. You can alternate these in various sequences for combo attacks; another type of combo occurs when you and one or more other X-Men use mutant attacks simultaneously. Speaking of which, you call up your character's mutant powers by pressing a shoulder/trigger button plus one of the standard buttons. You start with a single one, and then gain others as you progress.

Eventually, you get a super-powerful attack that usually damages a whole bunch of enemies, but has a limited number of invocations. So, with the assortment of playable characters, mutant powers available to each X-Man, combos, power-ups (these enhance general and mutant powers, and provide support functions such as gradually restoring health), there's a lot of replay value in X-Men Legends.

As you move through the game, you alternate between fighting humans and other mutants, and must use appropriate tactics, which often means controlling a melee or ranged character as the situation requires. Sometimes an enemy is less vulnerable to a particular type of attack (the game lets you know), so you need to keep X-Men with different types of attack on the team. Most of the time you're just exploring and fighting, but occasionally the game throws a puzzle in your way. This takes the form of a 3D letter X floating above a point at which a specific X-Man must use a particular power in order to progress or win the level. If your team doesn't currently include the required member, you need to return to an Xtraction Point to get him or her, which can sometimes be a bother.

Other "puzzles" simply involve smashing through physical obstacles such as walls. In such cases, and to see the approximate location of the next objective(s), the automap comes in extremely handy. You can make it small, in the corner, showing only your immediate surroundings, or larger, overlying the main view, to see more of the level.

Production values are high, at least on the Xbox version that I played. The diverse environments are so graphically realistic you can practically touch them. They range from sewers to spaceships, and everything looks just great. You're tempted to zoom in to get a closer look, but that makes it difficult to see enemies coming at you. The sound quality is also exceptional; in the initial, apocalyptic city-based scenario, I kept looking around to see where the emergency sirens were coming from. And the voice acting, led by Patrick Stewart as Professor Xavier, is very good. Fortunately, though, you can skip the dialogue if you're in a hurry.

All these elements and a number of others combine to create an extremely playable game. I played through most of X-Men Legends during a vacation, and am a little surprised to recall how much time I devoted to progressing in the game; it's a very addictive pastime. The only place I really got stuck was in the ultimate battle; it's pretty tough. Also, computer control of character motion is problematic; in particular, your teammates tend to crowd up and get stuck in doorways, preventing you from moving about freely. And enemies sometimes try to strike at you even though you're on the other side of a wall, and they shouldn't know you're there.

Now that I'm pretty much finished with the game, I probably won't play it again, at least not right away. But while I was there, the land of the X-Men was incredibly fun, and I look forward to the just-announced sequel (see below).




GarageGames Announces Content Packs for Torque Game Engine

New from GarageGames are Timothy Aste's Content Packs for the Torque Game Engine. There are four different content packs: a castle pack, a buildings pack, an environment pack, and an outside accessories pack. All the content packs come with modular infrastructure units of varying shapes and sizes so that game designers and developers can build larger systems.

Aste is a former freelance graphic designer educated at the Ringling School of Art and Design. He attracted the attention of GarageGames.com, Inc. with his 3D and level design work and since has moved to Eugene to work on the Torque Shader Engine and beyond. He recently was a speaker at IndieGamesCon '04 and presented an updated Torque shader engine demo, which he designed.

All four content packs can be purchased and downloaded at GarageGames.com. The content packs can be purchased as individual packs or you can also purchase all four content packs together in a combo pack.




Renderer News

The makers of V-Ray, a plug-in renderer for 3ds max and other programs, have begun a new V-Ray.EXE project "that will evolve as a standalone application, not bound to any 3D package. It will have connections to Alias Maya, discreet 3dsmax and probably more in the future."

Find downloadable test code at http://www.vrayrender.com/exe/

Also, coming soon is Maxwell, a new "physically accurate" standalone renderer that operates from the command line.



Turbo Squid Offers $100 Promotion on Turbo Toolkit 2

This is an excellent deal: Turbo Squid, a purveyor of 3D assets and publisher for the Discreet Certified 3ds max Plug-in Program, has mounted an end-of-year promotion for students and educators in the U.S. and Canada.

The Turbo Toolkit 2 is a suite of 10 Discreet Certified 3ds max Plug-ins in a single product with a commercial value of over $4,600 when purchased individually. MSRP is US$1995 and the standard price for students and educators is $495. To coincide with the release of 3ds max 7, Turbo Squid is offering this package at $100 for a limited time. Individual tools are priced at $50 during this promotion.

Turbo Toolkit 2 includes the following Discreet 3ds max Certified Plug-ins:
* hairfx, from Dimension Design Animation Group (DDAG) - hair and fur creation tool supports physics from clothfx and reactor 2
* clothfx, from Size8 Software - provides tools to create fabrics and clothing for characters and creatures, with collision-detection tools.
* finalRender Stage-1, from cebas Computer GmbH - rendering and raytracing solution with unlimited network rendering, 10-CPU distributed rendering, global illumination, 3d motion blur, sub-surface scattering, and nine camera types
* AfterBurn3, from Sitni Sati - particle effects solution that enables rendering of realistic effects ranging from clouds, pyroclastic smoke, dust, and explosions, to liquid metals, water and various procedurally defined "solid" objects.
* Absolute Character Tools 1.6 PRO, from cgCharacter - muscle and skin system lets animators create character animation, also includes cgAdam and cgEve, two complete human skeletal, muscle and skin character sets, rigged and ready to animate.
* Particle Flow Tools: Box 1, from Orbaz Technologies, Inc. - A collection of Particle Flow operators (including painting, utilities, and grouping) designed to extend Particle Flow within 3ds max.
* DreamScape2, from Sitni Sati - integrated suite of modeling and animation tools for building environments including mountainous landscapes, realistic skies, and bodies of water.
* Kaldera, from Mankua - Lets users render full scene information into special texture maps based on an object's appearance and relationship between itself and other objects in the scene. These texture maps are then "baked" into the object so they can be used to display the textured object rapidly on Direct3D devices such as graphics display cards or game engines.
* finalToon, from cebas Computer GmbH - cartoon renderer and a technical illustrator
* Texture Layers 2, from Mankua - mapping and texturing suite: an "all-in-one" UVW Mapping layering tool and a Compositor Map material for material blending between mapping layers.

The products are available from Turbo Squid Educational Resellers, including Studica (www.studica.com/turbosquid), Academic Superstore (www.academicsuperstore.com), JourneyEd (www.journeyed.com), and Creation Engine (www.creationengine.com).


Luxology Announces modo Educational Version

Luxology LLC, a developer of 3D content-creation tools, last week announced the educational version of modo, its new subdivision surface and polygonal modeling platform. "Good Student" pricing starts at USD $99, and USD $149 for academic institutions, faculty members and other students.

The modo educational version contains all the same 3D modeling features found in the full commercial version of modo; however it is limited to educational and student use only and is not for commercial production.

Modo is a 3D modeling toolset designed to improve the polygonal and subdivision surface modeling aspects for 3D artists working on games, films, TV and Web productions. modo's customizability enables modeling organics and hard surfaces as well as low-resolution real-time meshes and high-resolution film models.

A single license of modo is available to faculty members and students for USD $149. Schools can purchase modo for USD $149 per seat, or in a five-seat pack for USD $695 (five seats for the price of one). Luxology is also offering a "Good Student" price of USD $99; to qualify for the "Good Student" discount, applicants must provide proof of a 3.0 Grade Point Average (GPA), or equivalent score in comparable metric grading system.

All participants must register at www.luxology.com and submit proof of academic enrollment to Luxology's Sales office via email at info@luxology.com or via fax to (650) 378-8564. All educational and student versions are a one-year license but are upgradeable and renewable for qualified applicants. For more information visit Luxology's Web site at www.luxology.com or contact Luxology at (650) 378-8506.


cebas' finalRender Stage-1 Updates with Service Pack 2D

Just out from Turbo Squid is Service Pack 2D (SP2D) for finalRender Stage-1. Registered users of finalRender Stage-1 will receive an email instructing them how to obtain the service pack. Other users may contact dcpsupport@turbosquid.com for information.

SP2D is a free upgrade and provides the following to finalRender Stage-1 users:
* version compatibility - finalRender Stage-1 is now compatible with Discreet 3ds max 7 and Autodesk VIZ 2005.
* global material override exclusions - Within the finalRender: Globals rollout, users now have the option to exclude specific objects from the Global Material Override option that is present. This allows users to effectively "turn off" all materials on all objects except for the ones they want to review, which further increases performance.
* updates to distributed rendering -The Distributed rendering panel now sports a color swatch for each render slave in the rollout, so users can quickly see the color associated with each render node. This makes tracking and identification of machines an easy and efficient process.
* fR Advanced Material now has Opacity option
* new fR-Image Global Illumination option - Users who want to speed up their GI animation process now have the ability to render a Pre-pass Only sequence. This collects the light solution in an animation through an automatic rendering process.
* Two additional controls have been added to the RectLight that let users manipulate the Bias and Density settings.

SP2D also includes these improvements and general updates:
* improvements with Render-Elements and atmospherics
* improvements in Render-Elements and opacity
* shadow areas of opacity mapped objects are now “light-tight”
* improved stability in Motion-Blur
* opacity mapped objects have been optimized
* fresnel code has been updated (Carpaint not 2 sided)
* overflow issues in the shading engine have been corrected
* new updates for the support of the DCP hairfx are included
* Effects are optimized to work with blowup
* render-region now optimized for effects
* new efficiencies in the QMC-sampler (Adaptive multiple ray sampler)
* Render-To-Texture: Edge padding and GI baking are now optimized



Storm Tracer 1.1 Update

The Third Party last week released Storm Tracer 1.1, currently at early-bird pricing of 150 euros and as a free update to existing Storm Tracer customers. Also new is Storm Tracer NET Early Bird edition for 250 euros or 100 euros upgrade fee for those currently with Storm Tracer non NET.

Storm Tracer is a volumetric placard-rendering system for Cinema 4D release 8.5 and 9.0. It reportedly permits creation and rendering of hundreds of thousands of particles or placards at a high quality level.

New features include organic generation, shadows, new variation and cloning controls, constant-size mode, texture-based placement, a multi shader that lets the user time separate movies on separate sprites, new controls for spline rendering, a new storm manager with improved preview window and the ability to control not just Storm Tracer but all post effects. The interface has been redesigned and simplified, and a 70% memory saving and speedup of pre-calculation are said to result in the ability to render roughly 10 million storms per gigabyte of memory over the Cinema 4D core application's requirements.

The new organic cloning system allows the generation of advanced effects, from plants and true organic shapes to natural-media-style effects and particle effects.

The new storm manager has been redesigned to take up less space and be more functional. The user can manage and control post effects using drag-and-drop and copying and pasting between documents.




New Book Shows How to Hack Game Systems

New from Syngress Publishing, Inc., is "Game Console Hacking: Xbox, PlayStation, Nintendo, Atari, & Gamepark 32" (ISBN: 1-931836-31-0), a book written by Joe Grand, Frank Thornton, Albert Yarusso, and featuring a special foreword by Ralph H. Baer, the "Father of Video Games."

Hacks include: -Revive your retro console! Turn your old Atari 2600 into a fully featured PC. -It's Independence Day! Hack your PlayStation 2 to boot code from the memory card. -GP32?! Experiment with the Gamepark 32, the unfamiliar yet extremely hackable handheld system. -Have you played Atari today? Create an arcade-style Atari 5200 paddle controller or transform the Atari 2600 joystick into one that can be used by left-handed players. -You can do that? Run Linux on your Microsoft Xbox. -Let there be light! Add an Afterburner LCD frontlight to your GBA. -Avoid the flashing blue screen! Fix the infamous cartridge slot on the Nintendo NES

Chapter topics include: Introduction to Hardware Hacking, Tools of the Warranty Voiding Trade, Case Modifications: Building an Atari 2600PC, Modern Game Consoles, Xbox, PS2, Handheld Game Platforms, Nintendo Game Boy and GBA, GP32, Retro and Classic Systems, Nintendo NES, Atari 2600, Atari 5200 SuperSystem, Atari 7800, and Electrical Engineering Basics.


$27.17 at Amazon.com


O'Reilly Releases "Adobe Encore DVD: In the Studio"

"Adobe Encore DVD is a professional DVD authoring tool that combines the depth of professional authoring for complex projects with the ease of drag-and-drop operation for simple jobs," notes author and Encore insider Douglas Dixon, who draws on his experience in the field of DVD authoring to give readers the new "Adobe Encore DVD: In the Studio" (O'Reilly, US $39.95).

A part of O'Reilly's new Digital Studio series, this full-color, hands-on tutorial offers real-life examples, practical information, and advice on designing and creating professional DVDs with Encore. The book includes project-based lessons, annotated screen shots, sidebars with studio advice and background information, plus notes and warnings.

"The hallmark of Encore is its flexibility in fitting into your preferred workflow," Dixon continues. As he explains, you can let Encore do virtually all the work for you, or you can exert precise control over menu design, navigational linking, and video compression as well as project management and version control tools.

Not only does Encore provide a streamlined workflow for creating DVDs efficiently, but it also offers professional authoring capabilities for advanced DVD design and integration with other Adobe products, including Photoshop CS, Premiere Pro, Audition, and After Effects.

"Adobe Encore DVD: In the Studio" covers Adobe Encore DVD 1.5 and shows readers how to:
* master the Encore user interface
* understand DVD formats and features
* explore commercial DVDs with software DVD players
* understand how to prepare and import assets for DVD authoring
* organize projects with folders and assets
* use the Adobe Encore DVD Library and Styles to simplify authoring
* work effectively with timelines, audio, and subtitles
* design and create effective menus within Adobe Encore DVD
* integrate effectively with Adobe Photoshop CS for professional menus
* choose the best transcoding methods for video and audio clips
* design DVDs with features such as Easter eggs and alternate menus

For more information about the book, including author bio, see: http://www.oreilly.com/catalog/adobedvd/



Re-create Kerry in Vietnam Service via 3D Gaming

Kuma Reality Games has released a 3D re-enactment of the controversial events surrounding John Kerry's service in Vietnam. The John Kerry mission is available for download and free trial at www.kumawar.com.

Kerry's service in Vietnam and medals he earned there has become hotly disputed topics in his bid for the Presidency. But conflicting messages from special interest groups have made it difficult to discern fact from myth and fabrication. What actually happened? What was Kerry's role? Did he, in fact, deserve the Navy's lofty Silver Star? The Kuma/War 3D re-creation - combined with an 8-minute video news show and a wealth of background information, original documents, multimedia, and interviews with military experts - reportedly provides viewers with the information they need to judge for themselves.

Based on the Navy's records of the encounter on Feb. 28, 1969 that earned him the Silver Star, players take the role of John Kerry commanding Swift Boat PCF-94 through the small tributaries deep in the Mekong Delta. You come under heavy fire from Viet Cong in entrenched positions on shore. The next step -- to dash out of the kill zone or to turn 90-degrees into the ambush -- is up to you.

"This Kuma/War game technology gives users freedom to re-create the events that day and then judge for themselves which seems most likely to have actually occurred," said Keith Halper, CEO of Kuma Reality Games. "Regardless of one's political viewpoint, we think everyone will gain an appreciation for the truly dangerous mission the Swift Boat sailors undertook in Vietnam."

Kuma Reality Games builds re-creations of real-world events using advanced gaming tools. Kuma/War is available online to subscribers for free trial and download at www.kumawar.com and is also available at retail nationwide at $19.99 MSRP. Owners of the retail product will also receive a free month of the Kuma/War online subscription service (a $9.99 value). Each month Kuma/War online subscribers receive three new playable missions, video news shows, intelligence gathered from news sources around the world, and insight from a decorated team of military veterans. Kuma/War is a first and third-person tactical squad-based military PC game that provides multiple updates monthly to the player's computer to reflect unfolding events in the real war. As of today, there are more than 24 playable missions online available for download.


X-Men Legends Sequel in Development

Activision is developing a sequel to X-Men Legends with Raven Software. The original game challenges players to master the attributes of their favorite X-Men by creating, customizing and controlling teams of four mutants as they embark on a quest to stop the extinction of mankind. X-Men Legends is currently available for PlayStation, Xbox, and GameCube.



Accelerating Change at Stanford

The Institute for the Study of Accelerating Change (ISAC) announces its conference, Accelerating Change 2004: Physical Space, Virtual Space, and Interface, at Stanford University, November 5-7, 2004.

AC2004 analyzes the accelerating interconnectivity of the Physical World, the increasing accuracy of the simulated world, and the growing importance of the physical-virtual/human-machine Interface.

AC2004 features a 36-member speaker lineup consisting of virtual world creators, software designers, venture capitalists, authors, law enforcement futurists, and other prominent technologists. The roster includes Shai Agassi (CTO of SAP), Richard Marks (VP at Sony, developer of the Eye Toy) Gordon Bell (Project Leader, Microsoft's MyLifeBits), Cory Ondrejka (VP of Product Development for Second Life, Time Magazine's 2002 “Coolest Invention of the Year”), Cynthia Breazeal (Innovation Center & Strategic Programs Manager, Intel), David Brin (author of Transparent Society), Dave & Bruce Hall (DARPA Grand Challenge Team Digital Auto Drive), Peter Thiel (Co-founder and former CEO, PayPal), John Mauldin (author of Bull's Eye Investing), BJ Fogg (Persuasive Computing Lab, Stanford), Tim Sibley (StreamSage), Wlodek Zadrozny (IBM natural language processing), and Milton Chen (VSee internet videoconferencing).

The conference also includes a technology demo evening, three debates, DVD proceedings, and late-night entertainment.

One event of particular potential interest to Spectrum readers is this debate: Jaron Lanier vs. Will Wright (Mark Finnern moderating): Finding Humanity in the Interface: Capacity Atrophy or Augmentation?

As our interfaces get continually smarter, how do we keep them from dehumanizing us? Can we avoid the world of MT Anderson's dystopia, Feed (2002), where the Internet-jacked, childlike teens of 2030 speak pidgin English and live primarily as vehicles for highly sophisticated and automated corporate marketing and political programming?




About Spectrum

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/online-development tools and end product for review.

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