Spectrum: Interactive Media & Online Developer News 28 October 2002
Reported, written and edited by David Duberman
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Today's Headlines (details below)
FEATURE GAMES REVIEW
--Wild Arms 3 & Sly Cooper and the Thievius Raccoonus
--askSam Updates Web Publisher
--Badia Releases QuarkXPress Plug-ins
--Intrinsic Updates Alchemy GameDev Platform --NXN alienbrain 6.0 Ships With New CodeWarrior Plug-In --New Nutshell Book Explores JXTA
--InstallShield Upgrades DemoShield
--Gefen Updates Sound Effects Search Software --Pulse Launches Interactive Content Solution --New Hitachi 17" LCD Features Improved Response Times
--MojoWorld 2.0 Product Line Complete
--Toon Boom, Plazmic Partner for Wireless 2D Animation --MultiGen-Paradigm Ships Vega Prime v1.1 --Spinwave.com Offers Subscription for Graphic Compression Tools --3Dlabs Launches Wildcat4 AGP 8x
GAMES PEOPLE PLAY
--Midway Launches 3D Defender Remake
--Activision Ships X-Men: Next Dimension --Gamecube Hunter: The Reckoning Goes Gold
FEATURE GAMES REVIEW
The Dawn of the Cel-Shaded Era
By David Duberman
For some time now we've been hearing about a new generation of cel-shaded games. At its most extreme, the cel shading rendering method, applied to 3D data, looks a lot like traditional hand-drawn animation; it's a relatively flat look in which objects are outlined in black and their surfaces have two levels of shading: shaded and lit. Going by the early screen shots of the next Zelda game from Nintendo--the first for its Gamecube platform--Link and friends will sport this level of cel shading. Less radically different in their looks are two recent PS2 titles from Sony Computer Entertainment America. Sly Cooper and the Thievius Raccoonus, developed by Sucker Punch Productions, and Wild Arms 3, from Japanese developer Media Vision, both sport a similar, moderate cel shading, which lends distinction to the graphics without sacrificing three-dimensionality. It's implemented in a particularly pleasing way in Wild Arms 3, with its glorious palette of Western-style tones.
If you're familiar with the Wild Arms games, that last statement might come as a bit of a surprise. Previous installments of the console role-playing game (RPG) series have taken place in the same, traditional sort of fantasy world of many of its ilk. But the new title employs a Wild West setting to excellent effect. It's not the American West of legend, but the similar "wasteland" on a planet called Filgaia. "Drifters," who would be called "adventurers" in almost any other game, seek character-building exploits, riches, and justice as they travel across this barren expanse. In a nice touch, the game begins with four prologues: one for each of the characters, who eventually meet up and form a loose confederation to achieve their mutual goals. At first they don't seem to have much personality, but as the story proceeds we learn more about each. The interesting, original story is one of the main strengths of WA3, but the game has much more to offer than this.
One of the reasons the console RPG is my favorite genre is that, besides story, it combines adventure/puzzle-solving with combat/strategy; WA3 balances these nicely. As in the previous titles, you wander freely on the world map, seeking locations you must explore to advance the storyline. These landmarks can be found only after you're informed of their existence in conversations with non-player characters, and even then, you must reveal them with the press of a button when you're nearby. This revelation is one of the few weak aspects of the game's graphics, and a relatively minor one. It's achieved with a brief animation of an increasingly detailed bitmap of the landmark, but the low-res versions simply have large pixels and look kind of cheesy. A simple dissolve would probably have worked better.
And while I'm on the topic of graphics flaws, texture maps use world-space coordinates, so when the object to which they're applied moves, the texture remains stationary. Again, though, no big deal: because of the relative simplicity of the textures, it's visible only when the object is close to the camera, and even then it's so subtle that it's most likely noticeable only to graphics freaks like myself. Overall, the graphics in WA3 are among the best I've seen in a PS2 title, and add significantly to the enjoyment of playing the game.
In general, the locations are of two types: dungeons to explore, and towns, where you get clues, rest up, buy supplies, and upgrade your ARMs. This latter item needs a bit of explanation: Unlike other RPGs, where characters can switch weapons and weapon types as readily as we can articles of clothing, each member of your WA3 team is equipped from the get-go with a single gun: a rifle, a pistol, a machine-gun, and a shotgun. You can't purchase new weapons; you can only improve them by paying big bucks for various types of upgrades at an ARMs shop in town. Unfortunately, neither the manual nor the in-game help explains the upgrade process very well, but it's not difficult to figure out: the more you pays, the better you shoots.
The battles, as before, are turn-based affairs; at each turn, a character can shoot, use an item, or use either of what amounts to two forms of magic. Force abilities can involve an enhanced attack or calling on a powerful "guardian" creature, and use up force points. And arcana magic requires a minimum level of force points, but doesn't use them up. Adding to the strategy is that the guns have a limited number of bullets, and characters must use up a turn to reload after running out. Enemy monsters vary quite a bit in both appearance and characteristics; tailoring your attack to the enemy type is an important part of a winning strategy.
Also continued from previous installments are the special devices characters use to solve puzzles when exploring. Your team starts out with tools for freezing, burning, and hitting things from a distance, as well as for planting bombs near objects, and gains additional ones as you progress through the game. The puzzles vary in difficulty, but invariably serve as brain-teasing relief to the near-constant combat action.
There's more to the game that I don't have room for here, but I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the exceptional interactive soundtrack. Composer Michiko Naruke has outdone himself here, creating an evocative soundscape that combines spaghetti-Western themes with traditional console RPG-style songs.
In my opinion, the form of the console RPG was perfected during the 16-bit era of the Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis; almost everything done since then has been refinement. If so, then WA3 could be considered a highly refined instance of the genre; it's got playability in spades. It's also a tremendously compelling and entertaining game, with a surprising amount of longevity and depth. If you like console RPGs, get this game. And if you've never played one, rent WA3 and give it a try. You'll probably end up buying it.
Other than the cel-shaded graphics and its exclusivity to PS2, Sly Cooper and the Thievius Raccoonus (SC) has almost nothing in with WA3. Where the latter is generally bright and airy in appearance, the former is dark and claustrophobic. WA3's graphical content is relatively realistic, while SC's veers dangerously toward the cartoony. Not to mention that they're completely different types of games: WA3 is a more-or-less archetypal RPG, while SC falls squarely into the platform/action/adventure category.
In a slight to the entire raccoon species, Sly Cooper is a masked thief from a long line of wily nocturnal critters. His main problem is that his family's guidebook, the Thievius Raccoonus, has been stolen and split into five parts, each of which is held by a different notorious bad guy. Complicating matters is that a fierce lady cop and possible love interest, Carmelita Fox, is also gunning for Sly. His sole means of combating all this ill will is his cane (a raccoon with a cane? go figure), which doubles as a melee weapon and a tool for swinging from hook to hook in the aerial portions of the game.
SC takes place in five different worlds, each of which contains a number of thematically related levels. For instance, the first world is nautical, while the second employs a Vegas-style motif. All game areas are populated with cleverly animated goons who'd just love to whale on our hero, plus various types of mechanical tricks and traps Sly must outwit to progress. The level design is easily one of the game's strong points; the levels are very attractive in a gaudy, cartoony kind of way, and make you want to keep going just to see what the designers came up with next.
Therein lies the problem, though; certain levels are quite difficult. Even with special moves like shimmying up drainpipes and sneaking around corners, not to mention the classic jump and double-jump moves, Sly meets with considerable challenge throughout his travels and travails. In fact, I'm currently stuck at the boss fight at the end of the second world; despite numerous attempts, I haven't even come close to finishing it, although I know plenty of others have. My reflexes just aren't what they used to be, I guess. But part of the problem is also that, in a fairly serious game-design flaw, Sly effectively has at most only three "hit points"; get hit three times, and you use up a life and have to start over at the beginning of the current section, or from the last checkpoint.
Even so, I've enjoyed the game quite a bit up to this point. Each of the levels varies considerably, and even the mini-games, such as an easy go-kart race and a target gallery, are kind of fun. Also adding to the interest, and enhancing replayability, is the side quest in each level: find all the "clues" and you can open a safe that contains a special ability, such as the dash attack. Most of the clues are right out in the open, but a few are cleverly hidden. The extra abilities aren't necessary to complete the game, but do add to the fun.
askSam Updates Web Publisher
New from askSam Systems is version 5 of its Web Publisher software. The software is said to let non-technical users create new documents or import existing documents and publish the information in a searchable database on the Web.
New features include:
* sort search results by relevance, date, or any other field * attach original files to documents. The new Web Publisher displays these attachments in a browser and users can open or save these files by clicking on the links. Attachments can be documents, spreadsheets, presentations, photographs, CAD drawings, etc.
* create hypertext links to attachments; the software displays these links in a browser and users can open or save these files by clicking on the links.
* search results page can be customized to display the results in multiple columns with advanced formatting * support for documents with wide margins lets the user specify the width of the Web page. Documents with extra-wide margins are displayed in a browser with a horizontal scroll bar.
* create hypertext links that search for the linked text. The user can search for the linked text in the current database or in another database. Use this feature to look up information or find related documents.
Badia Releases QuarkXPress Plug-ins
Badia Software of Toronto last week released two new XTensions for Mac QuarkXPress 4.1 and 5.0: ContactPage XT and Exportools XT.
ContactPage XT fast-tracks the creation of picture contact sheets, along with captions, for cataloguing. Customizable features let users select page size and margins, grid layout, picture and text box dimensions, as well as extensive caption information. It also includes a "resume" feature that begins cataloguing where you left off after a break.
Exportools XT automates the process of saving document pages as individual files in several popular formats, including EPS, PostScript, plain or rich text, page screenshots and HTML. Users can choose which pages to export (spreads as well as single pages), the rules governing the file names, and, optionally, any program in which to open the new files for post-processing.
Intrinsic Updates Alchemy GameDev Platform
Intrinsic Graphics, Inc., the developer of the Alchemy game-evelopment platform, last week shipped Alchemy 2.5. High-level features in Intrinsic Alchemy 2.5 include: * PC DLL support -- straightforward integration * new plug-in architecture -- easier to integrate custom objects into the tool chain * embedded viewer for both Max and Maya -- instant game content previewing * memory allocation logging and debugging -- simplify tracking of memory leaks * added support for Max 5.0, Maya 4.5
* cross-console self-shadow shader and glossmap shader (specular map)
Said Brian McClendon, Intrinsic engineering VP, "Alchemy 2.5 now allows developers to dynamically link plug-in modules into pre-built executables. This eases the extension process throughout the pipeline from modeling tools, through optimization, and all the way to the game engine. Both partners and game teams are using these features to build a range of Alchemy plug-in modules."
A 30-day evaluation of Intrinsic Alchemy 2.5 is available at http://www.intrinsic.com.
NXN alienbrain 6.0 Ships With New CodeWarrior Plug-In
NXN Software, a supplier of asset-management solutions for the digital entertainment and computer graphics industries, is now shipping a new integration for Metrowerks' CodeWarrior development tools with NXN alienbrain 6.0. This plug-in offers game programmers source-code control directly from the CodeWarrior Integrated Development Environment (IDE).
Key innovations in the new plug-in for CodeWarrior tools include: * simplified access from CodeWarrior tools to NXN alienbrain's asset-management functionality * ability to run core NXN alienbrain commands directly from within the CodeWarrior IDE * support for the full range of CodeWarrior systems for PC, PlayStation2, GAMECUBE and Game Boy Advance
New Nutshell Book Explores JXTA
In February 2001, Sun Microsystems announced a paradigm shift in Java technology called JXTA. An abbreviation of the word "juxtapose," JXTA recognizes that some of the most functional computer networks use peers that work side-by-side. JXTA provides a framework that allows Java programmers to take advantage of the peer-to-peer (P2P) networking protocol without getting bogged down in the low-level details. "JXTA in a Nutshell" by Scott Oaks, Bernard Traversat, and Li Gong (O'Reilly, US $34.95) explains the concepts behind this new technology.
"Fundamental scalability and centralization forces are constraining the Internet and are restricting its growth," says coauthor Oaks. "Peer-to-peer networks like JXTA are essential to bring the Internet to the next level of scalability, management, and security in order to handle unconstrained exchanges of information between peers and the wave of new consumer devices."
"JXTA in a Nutshell" is both a tutorial and quick reference. A complete reference to the JXTA application bindings is included, along with the full JXTA protocol specification. The book covers important topics such as security and how the JXTA technology fits into the standard Java classes. It also provides: * an introduction to P2P networking concepts and the JXTA model * coverage of the JXTA Shell application, peers, pipes, and the discovery service * discussion of important security considerations for JXTA applications * ready-to-run examples on writing efficient JXTA applications
Chapter 2, "Getting Started with JXTA," is available free online at: http://www.oreilly.com/catalog/jxtaian/chapter/ch02.html
For more information about the book, including Table of Contents, index, author bios, and samples, see http://www.oreilly.com/catalog/jxtaian/
InstallShield Upgrades DemoShield
InstallShield Software Corporation, a provider of tools to enhance software installation, deployment and consumption, last week shipped DemoShield 7.5, the newest version of its tool for showcasing software products. The software is intended for independent software vendors (ISVs) who need to build interactive sales presentations, CD browsers, multimedia catalogs, product tours, and computer-based training using a point-and-click interface.
Among the 75 new features are:
* over 40 new templates with themes such as communications and health, plus enhanced text-display capabilities * voice and image synchronization lets end users browse demos at their own pace * enhanced search and replace function * response system lets users to send feedback * step-by-step instructions explain how to reuse scenes and content, add Web links, incorporate mouse-over effects, and more
Gefen Updates Sound Effects Search Software
Gefen's sound effects search software, SFX Search, has migrated to a new home. With a new Web interface and additional libraries, sfxsearch.com offers a selection of sound effects, production music and element libraries, searchable by category or library name.
Thousands of samples are now available with new licensing arrangements in the works for a greater selection in 2003. Users can purchase individual samples for one-time usage or a complete library to add to their collection. Individual sound effects range in price from $5-$15. Some of the categories available include: airplanes, animals, crashes, fantasy, funk, foley, rock/pop, sports and warfare, to name a few.
SFX Search software, also available through Gefen, offers the same search and purchase capability, but works on the user's desktop. It comes with a database of sound effects libraries available in CD-audio format that can be searched and sampled on the computer.
Pulse Launches Interactive Content Solution
Rich Pulse Media (RPM), a solution for building personalized electronic marketing campaigns is just out from San Francisco-based Pulse. Built on a scalable media server, the service's interface purports to let non-technical online marketing and sales personnel use a combination of interactive audio, 3D animation, images, video and other digital media to attract customers.
With RPM, users can create rich media ranging from virtual characters to interactive audio, and apply them to various elements of the document or page (links, images, text, etc.). The technology encodes references to the specified media into the document, and the user "publishes" the page in question by pasting a single line of "reference code" into the original document or page. All media assets and interaction scripts are dynamically sourced from the RPM media server and delivered to site visitors or message recipients as needed.
Additional features of the new service: * ready-to-use content including library of Web-optimized media content featuring Pulse-powered veepers (interactive 'virtual personalities'), audio tracks, ambient environments, user-interface sounds, and voice clips * text-to-speech (TTS) module lets users create voice files from text in a variety of character styles and accents * ability to upload custom audio
* secure content delivery, session-tracking and media authentication * ability to embed RPM-enhanced pages and materials directly into HTML-based email
New Hitachi 17" LCD Features Improved Response Times
Coming next month from Hitachi America, Ltd., is a 17" LCD monitor, reportedly with almost twice the response time of existing models. The company claims the 12 millisecond rise and 4 millisecond fall time make its $699 CML174 suitable for gaming, animation, digital signage, multi-media driven applications, and for general users viewing video over the Web.
The CML174 offers 160 degree horizontal and vertical viewing angles as well as a pixel pitch of .264. It provides inputs for 15-pin D-sub and DVI-D connectors, and delivers 260 nit brightness and 400:1 contrast ratio with a prime recommended resolution of 1280x1024 at 75 or 60Hz.
MojoWorld 2.0 Product Line Complete
Pandromeda, Inc. has released its complete MojoWorld 2.0 software product line: * MojoWorld Generator 2.0
* MojoWorld Generator Demo 2.0
* MojoWorld Transporter Pro 2.0
* MojoWorld Transporter 2.0
MojoWorld is 3D graphics software that renders more than strictly local stage sets: MojoWorld models and renders entire fractal planets, the size of planet Earth by default, reportedly with unlimited detail. These planets can be imaged at any distance, resolution or field of view. The user can lay down camera flight paths in real-time for animations, and render out QuickTime VR cubic panoramas anywhere. Users can record the planets, vistas and movies they find and create while exploring, and render everything offline, while away from your computer.
The $199 MojoWorld Generator 2.0 lets users: * build entire Earth-sized planets with unlimited detail * image and animate outdoor scenes at any resolution with pixel-level detail * import and export 3D models, with or without textures, to and from other 3D graphics programs, including games * save planets in compact files
* share planets with an online community of explorers
MojoWorld Generator 2.0 Demo is a free, save-disabled demo version.
MojoWorld Transporter 2.0 is Pandromeda's free planetary exploration and imaging program.
The $50 MojoWorld Transporter Pro 2.0 extends the free Transporter's capabilities, allowing unlimited rendering resolution and imaging without the Pandromeda logo.
Toon Boom, Plazmic Partner for Wireless 2D Animation
Toon Boom Technologies, in a new alliance with Plazmic K.K., plans to bring 2D animation to the wireless world. Using Plazmic technology, content providers looking to extend their reach will be able to use Toon Boom Studio to create animated content for wireless devices. Plazmic's cornerstone product, Plazmic Media Engine, renders interactive and animated 2D graphics for wireless handsets. Toon Boom has adapted its Toon Boom Studio software package to support Plazmic Media Engine and bring 2D animation to handheld devices using Scalable Vector Graphics (SVG), an XML-based Web standard.
A downloadable Java application with a size less than 10K, Plazmic Media Engine can play content media files over a network. The content is written in SVG, a platform-independent standard Web language for 2D graphics based on XML. Plazmic Media Engine is portable across different Java technology-compatible platforms and is commercially available for use under the iMode service operated by NTT DoCoMo Inc. in Japan. Content that is created with Toon Boom Studio can be exported to a SVG format so that they can be used on Plazmic Mobile Media Platform.
MultiGen-Paradigm Ships Vega Prime v1.1
MultiGen-Paradigm, Inc., a provider of realtime 3D software solutions, last week began shipping its Vega Prime v1.1 for Microsoft Windows and Sun Microsystems Solaris Operating Environment. Vega Prime is an extensible, cross-platform, C++ development environment that includes MultiGen-Paradigm's low-level scene graph VSG (Vega Scene Graph), as well as a high-level abstraction API, delivering a range of scalable and customizable features for visual simulation, sensor simulation, simulation-based training, and urban simulation.
The functionality delivered with Vega Prime v1.1 includes support for virtual textures, an efficient means for dynamically storing and paging imagery, which allows users to efficiently use large imagery sets within their Vega Prime applications. In addition, this latest release delivers support for many of the most popular input devices through integration of Trackd by VRCO, environmental effects for increased realism, functionality to facilitate the creation of custom user-defined module panels in LynX Prime, and fast-loading binary file creation and encryption for more efficient loading and safer distribution of applications.
Spinwave.com Offers Subscription for Graphic Compression Tools
Spinwave.com has debuted a new subscription service that allows visitors to the Web site unlimited usage of the company's online graphic compression tools JPEG Cruncher and GIF Cruncher. The compression programs convert photos and color graphics into optimized JPEG and GIF files, which reduce file size, save disk space and speed downloading and emailing of graphic images by up to 90%.
A free trial version using low-compression crunches (including GIF animations) is available on the Spinwave Web site.
GIF Cruncher and JPEG Cruncher are also for sale as $50 desktop versions that are downloadable directly from the Spinwave.com Web site.
Other Spinwave desktop products for sale on the Web site include: Optiverter ($149) - designed for organizations with large quantities of graphics. It processes thousands of images per hour, and is said to be the first software to be able to this automatically without compromising photo quality. The result is highly optimized images that download quickly but still retain excellent quality. It converts and optimizes over 50 formats including, EPS, TIFF, GIF, & JPEGs..00. A free 15-day trial version can be downloaded directly from the Web site.
Animator Pro creates GIF animations from single-frame GIF's and permits sequencing & optimization of GIF animations and banners. $50.00.
Spinwave's GIF and JPEG optimizers are based on proprietary technology that provides maximum quality, speed and bandwidth savings.
3Dlabs Launches Wildcat4 AGP 8x
3Dlabs, Inc. Ltd, a subsidiary of Creative Technology, last week introduced two new products into its high-end Wildcat professional graphics accelerator line. The new Wildcat4 7210 and Wildcat4 7110 graphics accelerators, available next month from OEM systems manufacturers, are intended for use in CAD and DCC, video compositing, and HDTV editing.
Wildcat4 technology takes advantage of the new AGP 8x interface standard, transferring 2GB of graphics information per second between the graphics card and system. The Wildcat4 architecture also combines geometry and raster engines into a single integrated processor.
Both cards incorporate a 128MB frame buffer, while the 7110 also has 128MB texture memory and the 7210 has double that.
GAMES PEOPLE PLAY
Midway Launches 3D Defender Remake
Midway Games Inc. last week shipped Defender, an all-new 3D version of the popular 1980s arcade classic, has shipped for PlayStation 2. Versions for Xbox, GameCube, and Game Boy Advance will ship Nov. 4.
In the new version, players battle an onslaught of vicious aliens as they assume the controls of next-generation combat-ready Defender ships to pilot through more than 20 missions spanning the solar system. Defender players execute tactical maneuvers such as barrel rolls, 360-degree loops and spinning reversals to evade the enemy.
Featuring a new view perspective with a 3D, third-person chase camera, Defender drops players into the action of an alien invasion where they must combine strategic elements with speed and control to outwit the enemy. Ship upgrades are also available with various power-ups including shields, advanced weapons and hyperspace technology, which allows players to strategically relocate the ship to one of several predetermined locations to aid in defeating the aliens. Aliens can be taken head-on in single-player campaign mode or defeated with a friend in the two-player, cooperative campaign mode as you deploy an arsenal of weapons such as a grenade launcher, fast-lock missile launcher, fireball launcher and gas launcher.
In addition to saving humans and killing aliens, there are tanks and other ground units to position (both defensive and offensive) and bases to defend. Now humans become more than just a body to save - they are a resource to manage.
Activision Ships X-Men: Next Dimension
X-Men fans can engage in battles of epic, superhero proportion with the release of Activision's X-Men: Next Dimension for PlayStation2 and GameCube. The game features more than 20 infamous mutants fighting across large 3D levels with interactive environments and combat-induced damage.
The story begins when Bastion, the leader of Operation: Zero Tolerance, and his Prime Sentinels kidnap Forge and plan to use his powers to create the ultimate weapon to annihilate mutants once and for all. Forge's destiny lies in wait as the X-Men must do the unthinkable and team up with their greatest enemy, Magneto, and his Brotherhood of Mutants in order to save him.
Mutants challenge Sentinels throughout multi-tiered levels filled with destructible objects. Features include fighting combos, aerial combat and 8-way movement. Fans can fight as one of 20 popular X-Men, plus four secret characters, in five different gameplay modes: Story Mode, Versus Mode, which lets players step out of the story and fight one-on-one, as well as Arcade, Survival and Practice Modes
Gamecube Hunter: The Reckoning Goes Gold
Hunter: The Reckoning for Nintendo GameCube is scheduled to ship in mid-November from Interplay and the Games division of Vivendi Universal Publishing. Developed by High Voltage Software, the action game is based on the characters and fiction found in the role-playing game Hunter: The Reckoning and the World of Darkness created by White Wolf Publishing Inc.
In Hunter, players become engrossed in the nightmare that is Ashcroft (no comment -ed.), a town plagued by creatures of the night. Played from a third person perspective, this action shooter has players take the role of one of four unique hunters. Throughout the game's many gothic environments, players will face over 30 creature variants from bloodthirsty vampires to unstoppable legions of the walking dead. Up to four hunters can battle the creatures cooperatively on a single screen.
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