Spectrum Reviews 4: Interactive Media & Online Developer Product/Service Reviews

1 December 1997

Reported, written and edited by David Duberman for editorial/ subscription inquiries, send mailto:duberman@dnai.com

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Welcome to the fourth edition of Spectrum Reviews. This sister publication to Spectrum, published on an irregular basis, presents original reviews of software, hardware, books, Web sites, events and more. Software categories covered in Spectrum Reviews include Web authoring tools, content creation tools (e.g., 2D/3D graphics apps, audio/video production/editing tools), Internet email and Usenet news clients, multimedia clients such as RealSystem, consumer multimedia titles, and, of course, games, both local and online. In the hardware realm, we cover 2D and 3D graphics accelerators, game controllers, mass storage products and more. If you would like to submit a product for coverage in Spectrum Reviews, please send an email inquiry to mailto:duberman@dnai.com

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Today's Stories (details below)

--Shag: Fur for 3D Studio MAX

--The Curse of Monkey Island

--3D Ultra Pinball: The Lost Continent

--Grossology

--NetStorm

--Earth 2140

--About Spectrum Reviews

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Shag: Fur

If you've ever looked closely at the heads of synthetic actors in CD-ROM games, you've probably noticed that their hair doesn't look very realistic.

Our crowning glory is one of the most physically complex parts of the outside of our bodies, and to model it strand-by-strand with a 3D mesh is terrifically costly in terms of human and computer resources. So most designers resort to a raised, differently colored portion of the head, with the result that the hair looks like a glued-on plastic mat. Or else they just make the character bald.

Thanks to Shag: Fur, a new 3D Studio MAX plug-in from Digimation, this is no longer a problem. Created by Stanislav Estatiev and Ivan Kolev of Dimension Design, this terrific product goes a long way toward answering the prayers of 3D artists who want to create more lifelike, texturally detailed characters and scenes. Although the results appear authentic, with animation, shadows, etc., the hair doesn't take long to render because it's created as an Atmosphere Effect--a procedure--rather than as a polygon mesh. A slight drawback with this method is that you don't have any direct control over the hair via standard 3D modeling tools. But due to its comprehensive design, the user shouldn't feel limited in any way in his or her ability to customize Shag: Fur's effects.

Shag: Fur consists of three plug-ins, plus a set of special light sources.

First we have the Shag: Render Atmosphere Effect, the generic rendering engine that calculates the procedural fur and/or hair as defined by the other Shag plug-ins. Its settings include Quality/memory, which determines at the global level the quality of the final rendered fur, as well as the amount memory used; as one increases, so does the other. You can also set whether the fur/hair is to cast shadows. Both settings can be overridden on an object-by-object basis. A useful button in Shag: Render is "Convert lights to hair-enabled." Any standard MAX light sources in your scene won't cast shadows from the fur, but the program provides an equivalent set of lights that do. You can add these to the scene manually, or simply click the button to convert all existing standard lights to hair-enabled ones.

Finally, after rendering a hairy image, it's useful to know how many strands were generated, and how much memory was used; Shag: Render gives both statistics.

Next, you add a Shag: Fur Atmosphere Effect, which lets you pick one or more objects to apply hair to. Thereafter, you can see the hair as lines emanating from the object(s) in the viewports, which serves as a preview of different settings and effects applied to the hair. The problem is, the preview tends to be a bit too sparse to get a good idea of the final results. For instance, hair applied to a standard sphere appears by default only in a ring around the sphere, rather than protruding from the entire surface, as you might expect. You can increase the preview density/coverage, but only to a maximum of one strand per mesh vertex.

Also in this plug-in, you set hair characteristics, including maximum length and strand thickness, and colors of the hair base and tip with a blend in between, plus an animatable bias that determines which color predominates. You can randomize all of these, including the colors' hues.

You can also set the density on a strands-per-face basis, or with objects whose polygons vary greatly in size, you can set density per area for more even coverage.

Now for one of the reasons we're so impressed with this product. You can alternatively set each of the above settings to be controlled by any sub-material in a Multi/Sub-Object material (a material that contains two or more individual materials, normally used to change an object's appearance on a per-face basis). Hair color is determined by the material's coloration, whether solid, procedural, or bitmapped, and length and density are determined by the material's grayscale value. This makes it a no-brainer to apply one image to an object's surface, use another to vary fur density, a third to vary the length, and yet another to create multicolored fur. For example, you could create a marble sphere that has calico fur applied in a checkerboard pattern. This one capability creates a wealth of possibilities that could take a very long time to exhaust.

Unless you're modeling Don King, you probably don't want the hair/fur to stick straight out. That's where the Leaning controls come in. These work in conjunction with a third plug-in, the Shag: Fur helper, which lets you place a vector object. This consists of an arrow that you can move and rotate, which specifies a leaning direction, plus scalable minimum and maximum influence volumes. Leaning settings include the amount and maximum angle, plus a random factor. You can animate these to depict hair lying down or standing up over time. The ability to place multiple vectors with separate volumes of influence gives you localized control over hair angles.

The Bending capability, which lets you specify amount of bend and a random factor, can be tied to the Leaning amount, or to one or more vectors. And to add scruffiness to the hair's appearance, the ability to randomize separately the directions of hairs within faces and hairs at polygon vertices comes in handy. About the only things lacking here are wavy hair and corkscrew curls, although those will no doubt be added in a future revision.

Other controls include number of line segments used to draw curved strands, the overall shininess of fur strands, and the ability to prevent MAX omni lights from illuminating strands that are in shadow from a hair-enabled light. But what's really cool is that any Space Warp applied to a hairy object also affects the hair! Of course, it also affects the object, but with things that are mostly hair, like dandelion puffs, that's not very noticeable.

Aside from the necessity for indirect control, the only limitation of procedural hair/fur is that strands pointed directly at the camera are invisible, which can lead to bald patches with thinly furred objects.

Otherwise, Shag: Fur is a superb implementation of a brilliant concept, and one that will undoubtedly visually enrich the output of MAX artists everywhere.

For more information, visit http://www.digimation.com.

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The Curse of Monkey Island

Fans of humorous adventure games will be tickled to know that LucasArts has, at long last, released the third chapter of the Monkey Island series for Windows 95. Curse finds wimpy "hero" Guybrush Threepwood taking up dull blade and rapier wit against LeChuck to save his true love Elaine from becoming the zombie pirate's demon bride. In the game's first act, after rescuing Elaine from the doomed pirate ship, where LeChuck seemingly kicks the bucket, Guybrush unwittingly slips a cursed ring onto her finger, turning her into gold and setting off a series of comical events.

If you played the interactive demo, where captive Guybrush encounters poseur pirate Wally, a pint-sized former associate, you know how the story begins. The object of this scenario is to verbally puncture Wally's false bravado, making him break down in tears and thus lose a not-so-vital part of his anatomy, which you can incorporate into a tool to help you retrieve another item, and so on. Yes, it's a classic inventory-based adventure game, but at least the puzzles make a certain amount of sense, and the silly dialogue and situations make the game a great deal of fun.

If you're an experienced adventurer, you could probably progress quickly through the two-disc Curse, but that would be missing the point. The designers have worked a plethora of puns and other witticisms into the game, and the graphics, while essentially 2D, with rendered 3D backgrounds, are vastly improved from previous episodes. You can chat with Murray, the all-powerful demonic headbone, and get him to finally admit that he's "out of his skull" with boredom. Other memorable characters include the still-unnamed but talkative Voodoo Lady, and junior lemonade entrepreneur Kenny Falmouth, played by none other than Gary Coleman.

At the game's start, you can choose whether to play the standard game, or the "Mega Monkey" version, "a tale of swashbuckling adventure (but with more puzzles)." We recommend the latter. Other features include the Object Line, which provides textual descriptions of objects under the cursor or current actions, and LucasArts' standard action interface, a click-and-drag method of easily interacting with the game. You'll also find action, in the form of a series of sea battles (which you can sort of bypass if you like), and the hilarious insult sword fight. There's lots more fun and surprises we won't spoil by telling you about. If you like computer games, and you like to laugh, get this one; you won't be sorry.

Find the demo and more at http://www.lucasarts.com.

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3D Ultra Pinball: The Lost Continent

The Lost World, Spielberg's follow-up to Jurassic Park, may or may not have been a dud (we missed it), but this third installment of Dynamix's 3D Ultra Pinball series, which has nothing to do with the movie, is pretty entertaining. The game's "plot" involves adventurer Rex Hunter, who must lead zoologist Professor Spector and his assistant Mary (no last name--sexist!) to safety through harrowing encounters with dinosaurs, cavemen and the evil Doktor Hekla.You progress through 15 tables in three sets of five each, plus a bonus table. Some are large with two sets of flippers--layered or side by side--and some smaller tables offer special attractions like a lumbering T-Rex. All offer lots of color and pre-rendered 3D animation, plus repetitive heroic commentary from the characters. Of particular interest were The Colored Chasms, where you have to move Rex through a series of colored stone columns by hitting the correct targets in sequence, and The Entrance Hall (to the lost temple), where you move Rex along a rope at the top of the temple by aiming for the ramps.

If you've enjoyed previous thematic episodes of 3D Ultra Pinball, this one is unlikely to let you down. For more information, visit http://www.sierra.com.

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Grossology

Remember a time in your distant past when you thought things like farts, burps and boogers were funny? Well, okay, last week wasn't that long ago, but we're thinking more along the lines of the late single-digit and early double-digit years of age, like 9 or 11. It turns out, as with so much else in childhood, that you were having fun while learning about nature, in this case in the form of the human body. Book author Sylvia Branzei took this lesson to heart, and has made a small fortune from it with her popular Grossology book series. Now developer Appaloosa Interactive and publisher SegaSoft have created a fun CD-ROM based on Branzei's good works, and your kids just might have a blast with it.

This is not a product for delicate sensibilities, beginning with the plastic peel-off vomit on the outside of the package. Pop the CD into the drive and grab your barf bag, because you're in for a feast of disgusting fun with bodily functions. After a brief humorous disclaimer, you sign in, and are then ushered into the Main Hall of Grossology University, where the ditzy Ginger Vitis offers a short introduction. From here you can click on different parts of a ravaged cartoon body go to any of the nine standard labs, which include Spit & Saliva, Boogers & Snot, and, of course, Pee Pee.

(We're not making this up!)

In each lab, you learn about that particular aspect of grossness from the animated cartoon lab assistant, such as that zits don't come from what you eat, but are a combination of dead skin, pores and oils. One caveat here: As a relatively politically correct resident of Berkeley, Calif., we were slightly disturbed to see that the pimple-laden Zit Lab assistant was a distinctively Hispanic character with a greasy black pompadour. Most of the other characters are less ethnically offensive, such as a stereotypical New Yorker and an upper class Brit twit.

Besides information on the topic at hand, each lab offers such features as the Notepad, where you can type up your notes from the class; the Exploratory Lab, where you can examine the lab assistant's innards close up; a dictionary of gross terms and more.

Once you've taken in some facts, you can play a game, such as the concentration-like Something Special in the Air game in the B.O., Sweat & Smelly Feet Lab. There are nine games in all; one in each lab. It's not all fun and games, though. For example, when you enter the Zit Lab, you're reminded that picking at your zits can cause permanent scarring.

Other sections include the Sound Lab, where you create musical compositions in various styles such as Rap and Funky, and clicking along on various sections of innards of a surgical patient lying on the table. Sounds are mostly variations on the burping and farting standards, with a few oddities like breaking glass thrown in for good measure. After you've recorded your masterpiece, you can save it in the program's proprietary format, or even export it as a .wav file to give to friends who don't own the program.

There's plenty else to do at good ol' GU, including singing along to gross songs; and the Developer's Lab, where you can type up and print out your notes for (real-world) school, adding cool gross color clip art. There's also a Web link (http://www.grossologygames.com/), in the form of (what else?) a spider web. Finally, after you've visited all the labs and uncovered most of the hot spots, you can Gross Out with the final exam and most challenging game. If you succeed here, you become an official Registered Grossologist and get to attend the graduation ceremonies.

We encountered a few minor problems with Grossology. Most annoying was the audio, which was marred by a fluttering background noise. You can turn it off in certain sections, but the program isn't as fun without all the funny voices and cool sound effects. Also, the dictionary was slightly inconsistent: For example, it lacked an entry for "snot," which could only be found under "mucus."

Overall, besides being fun and highly educational, Grossology is a good example of what you can do with standard authoring tools, i.e., Macromedia Director. Even if you don't have kids, you might want to check it out to for your own development education. In closing, let us just say that this title is a real gas! (groan)

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NetStorm Review

NetStorm is the latest in a long string of real-time strategy games, inspired by the success of Warcraft II and Command & Conquer, due out this holiday season. It should do well, because it follows the successful philosophy of its forebears: Make it easy to play, but keep it interesting, challenging, and most of all, fun. Also, it was designed from the ground up for multiplayer gaming over networks and on the Internet. NetStorm's premise involves a planet called Nimbus, where the three storm furies--wind, rain and thunder--have thrown up huge chunks of the planet's crust into the planet's atmosphere. It's on these islands in the sky that the action takes place. Each player starts with a priest; the object is to capture priests belonging to enemy players, thus capturing your foe's island as well. You start by building bridges to geysers located near your island, and harvesting power from them in the form of crystals.

Once you have enough power, you can build things, including golems to do your bidding, and various types of buildings and offensive and defensive battle units. As you progress, you can upgrade your workshops to build more and new kinds of units. Examples of offensive units available to all players are the Sun Disc Thrower, which can toss weapons in any direction, but with a limited range; and the Sun Cannon, which can fire much farther, but only in the four cardinal compass directions. Players align themselves with one of the three furies, and so can also build more specialized units, such as Wind's Air Ship and Dust Devil, which sweeps into enemy territory, destroying all in its path; Rain's Ice Cannon and squid-like Man o' War, which survives only by destroying and feeding on enemy units; and Thunder's Thunder Cannon, which is very powerful, but can fire only in one direction.

When you destroy enemy units, you get more power, which is a good thing.

Netstorm's flexible design lends itself to a good variety of strategic gameplay. For example, at any one time, there are only four bridge pieces available at a time; when you use one, another appears. The Tetris-like bridge pieces appear in various shapes and sizes at random, and a large part of the game's strategy is placing these correctly. That's because your offensive units need power to operate, for which purpose a generator of the correct alignment must be located nearby. One of the game's problems is, that because of the isometric view, placing bridge pieces correctly can occasionally be a bit tricky.

Generators (as well as other units) can be placed only at bridge ends (e.g., the third end of a T-shaped bridge piece connected to adjoining pieces at its other two ends). Enemy units within range of any of your units automatically fire on them, so you have to be very careful with placement. Fortunately, you can click on any unit, friend or foe, to see its range. An additional unique strategic element with the bridge pieces is that, when they first appear, they're cracked, but after a short time, they "heal." Cracked pieces are undesirable for bridge construction, because they tend to crumble under stress. Also, because units are autonomous, the game rewards unit generation, placement and combinations, rather than unit micro-management.

While we didn't have the opportunity to actually finish an Internet game, we did log on and check out the situation, and can verify that Activision's claim that lag is minimal. However, another claim, of automatically matching players of equal skill, didn't seem to hold; we started a game as a Level 1 player, and immediately a Level 6 player joined in. Also, the online game world is persistent, so you develop a vested interest in your island. Last but not least, when you ally with another player, you can give him or her complete control over your units, and vice-versa; a terrific feature. In multiplayer mode, it doesn't make sense to be able to change the game speed, but we wish they had implemented this control in the single-player game.

It's worth mentioning that NetStorm was created by Titanic Entertainment, a new development house co-founded by two Origin Systems alumni.

President/programmer Ken Demarest worked on Wing Commander as well as Ultima VII and Ultima Online, and created and directed BioForge. Art director Beverly Garland worked on Privateer and Ultima VIII, and art directed Crusader: No Remorse. To create the NetStorm graphics, Garland used Photoshop, Animator Pro and 3D Studio MAX, as well as her specialization in 3D figure animation. Their combined experience shows in NetStorm, a very nicely finished piece of software.

Of the real-time strategy releases so far this season, the critical consensus seems to place Age of Empires, Dark Reign and Total Annihilation in the top rank, but we wouldn't be surprised if NetStorm takes a place up there soon.

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Earth 2140

In the rush to bring countless real-time strategy (RTS) games to market in time for the holiday buying season, there are bound to be a few screw-ups, and Earth 2140 is one of them. The game's premise is that two world powers remain after years of war: The United Civilized States (UCS) and the Eurasian Dynasty (ED). That's really all you need to know. Pick a side and difficulty (easy, normal, hard), get your first assignment, and a-warring you go. The first sign there's something wrong is the lack of interactive tutorials, found in almost every new release in this genre this season. Oh well, it's not that hard to figure out; just thumb through the manual for a few minutes and everything's clear.

Next problem: There are three different game speeds, which is great, except that the speed affects _everything_, including the game's interface. This is an inexcusable programming lapse; slowing down the speed should affect only the on-screen action, not your ability to interact with the game.

The interface is pretty standard; drag a box around the units you want to control, and click where they should go, or attack. Wait a second, you guys in front are okay, but why are the rest of you going around that way?

Apparently, if you specify a "move to" point for your units that's not within their line of sight, they sometimes take needlessly circuitous routes. A neat feature is that you can assign up to three different groups to "virtual generals," who direct the units in defensive or offensive activities. Alas, these AIs aren't very intelligent; they tend to spread out the forces, making them more vulnerable to attacks from stronger units.

Such minor peccadilloes we can forgive, but not the ridiculously steep learning curve. At the normal difficulty level, the first few missions are relatively easy, but then all of a sudden you're thrown into a near-impossible situation, with overwhelming forces ranged against you and no possibility of reinforcements from above. We really tried to give the game a fair chance, restarting the fifth single-player UCS mission (of 50 total in the game) about 20 times and trying a number of different strategies, and never even got close to accomplishing the final goal before we were totally wiped out. We didn't count, but the enemy seemed to have at least 20 times as much firepower as we did. We may not be an armchair general, but we've gotten considerably farther in most other RTS games.

The picture isn't totally bleak. The 16-bit graphics are attractively detailed, if drably colored, as befits a war game in a depressing future.

The "fog of war" is nicely implemented, with unexplored portions of the map black, and explored areas not currently under surveillance darkened and not updated. And there are _lots_ of units and buildings--in all, 69, some of which can be used by either side, but most of which are unique to one or the other. This versatility undoubtedly makes the game much better in multiplayer mode; six at a time can play over an IPX local area network.

We really wanted to like this game, but, alas, Earth 2140 is basically a dog from the cheesy cinematics to the not-so-smart AI, and the only redeeming factor is that it wasn't developed in-house by Interplay. Coming early next year from the Irvine games powerhouse is MAX 2, the sequel to one of the better C&C clones we're really looking forward to.

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F.Y.I.

About Spectrum Reviews

Spectrum Reviews is an independent service published irregularly for the interactive media professional community by Motion Blur Media. Spectrum Reviews covers the tools used to create interactive multimedia applications, and the applications themselves. We love to receive interactive media and online development tools and CD-ROMs for review.

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