Spectrum Reviews 5: Interactive Media & Online Developer Product/Service Reviews

12 December 1997

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

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Editorial

Welcome to the fifth 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 Reviews (details below)

--Macromedia Flash 2

--QUAKE II

--Total Annihilation

--Lands of Lore: Guardians of Destiny

--About Spectrum Reviews

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Macromedia Flash 2

Flash 2, an upgrade to FutureSplash Animator, was released by Macromedia subsequent to its purchase of FutureWave Software. It's the only vector graphics (i.e., object-oriented) Web animation software we know of, so it's a good thing that Flash 2 is a full-featured program. Files in the default output format, Shockwave Flash, are quite compact, even with synchronized soundtracks, so they download quickly. The only drawback is that end users need a browser plug-in to play them. That situation is changing, though: Macromedia recently released a beta version of Aftershock, a utility that outputs HTML code for delivering Flash movies with the Flash Player Java Edition (still a plug-in, but it downloads automatically), or even as a GIF animation, which Aftershock can also create. The latter, of course, doesn't include sound, and files are much bigger. A 13-frame GIF animation we created with Aftershock was almost as large as the Shockwave Flash plug-in itself.

Flash 2 is actually much more than just an animation program; it's a full-featured multimedia authoring system. As with any such tool, creating a project includes content creation and importing, asset organization and adding interactivity. The program provides facilities for all these functions and more.

The program offers a great selection of tools for creating and modifying drawings. You can draw straight and curved lines freehand with the Pencil, and the program optionally smooths them or straightens them out. Settings include line color, thickness, and styles such as dotted, dashed and stippled, all with lots of optional settings. The Ink Bottle tool lets you change lines' characteristics by clicking on them.

Brush strokes, created with the Brush tool, differ from pencil strokes in that they consist of an outline and a fill, both created automatically when you draw. The outline is by default invisible, but you can change it with the Ink Bottle tool. The fill can be any solid color, or a linear or radial gradient. A nice option locks the size, angle and center of the applied gradient fills to the canvas. All subsequently applied fills appear to be a continuation of the locked fill. The Brush tool offers a variety of powerful options, including various shapes and sizes, plus the ability to paint behind existing strokes, or only on selections, or only affecting the stroke on which you started painting.

The Paint Bucket tool fills enclosed shapes created with the Pencil, as well as brush strokes. Options include the ability to fill different-size gaps, and you can also rotate, scale and change the center point for gradient fills. And the Eraser tool can be customized to erase just lines, just fills, just the selected fills, or just the fill on which you start erasing. And, of course, there's a Text tool with lots of options for creating labels, logos etc.

For modifying your drawing, the Arrow tool lets you move, reshape, scale and rotate/skew objects and parts of your drawing, with options for snapping to other objects, and tools for making lines smoother or straighter. It also lets you select shapes by clicking on them, or dragging a rectangle. Using Flash 2's "shape recognition" feature, you can easily convert a rough outline to a perfect geometric shape. The Lasso tool, with its magic wand option, adds powerful bitmap editing-type capabilities, letting you select and modify any part of your image.

You can import and export images in these formats: Adobe Illustrator (AI, EPS), JPEG, AutoCAD (DXF), Windows Metafile (WMF), Windows Bitmap (BMP), Enhanced Metafile (EMF) and GIF. Images can be scaled, rotated and skewed, but there are no cropping facilities. In general, image-editing operations are interactive using click-and-drag techniques, which is usually good enough for Web work. For more exacting applications, there's a Scale & Rotate dialog that lets you perform both operations simultaneously via numeric inputs. To add sound to animations, you can import .WAV files, but you can't edit them.

The Library window displays a list of objects in the current movie: symbols, bitmaps and sounds. You can add a selected object (e.g., something you've drawn, or an image you imported) in the current movie to the library, so you can use it again elsewhere in the movie. Or, you can import another movie's objects using the Open as Library command. Buttons are special objects with a different frame for each of four states: up, (mouse) over, down and hit, which defines the button's hot spot. You can easily program buttons with any of a wide variety of actions, including displaying the next/previous page/frame, goto a specific frame and optionally play it, get URL and more. To save memory, library items such as symbols and buttons are stored in a movie only once, but can be instanced as many times as necessary. For the time-impaired, Flash 2 comes with an extensive collection of objects to use in your movies, including buttons, animations and sounds.

A Flash 2 project typically has a two-level hierarchy. At the top level is a page sequence. Unfortunately, to create a new page, you use the Insert Scene command, a nomenclature inconsistency that could be confusing to the new user. When you're creating a project in Flash 2, each page has its own tab on the right edge of the screen for easy access. However, the end user, who must use the included Shockwave Flash player software or a browser plug-in to view your movie, can flip pages only via embedded controls (i.e., buttons you've placed and programmed). Each page can contain any combination of still images, controls and animations. For example, a single page can incorporate several different animations, each with its own set of VCR-type controls.

Animation setup uses a conventional timeline metaphor, with a separate row for each animation element, and frames along the horizontal axis. You can use tweening for moving, scaling and rotating objects, either by creating keyframes or by using a path. The manual suggests, but does not emphasize strongly enough or explain that only groups or symbols can be animated this way. This method of animation is okay for simple motion, but for effective animation, such as characters walking, flowers growing etc., you need to do frame-by-frame animation, which is significantly more arduous, and requires special artistic and animation skills. Motion involving any kind of shape change, including the Rotate function's skew variant, cannot be tweened.

This is unfortunate, especially as it would probably be easy to program into an object-oriented program like Flash 2. You can tween colors, but it's not very straightforward, requiring the use of a separate Modify Element dialog.

Flash 2's onion-skinning features for animation editing are quite powerful.

You can display any number of frames previous to and/or following the current frame, in color or as outlines. In either case, onion-skinned frames are successively ghosted, with those farthest from the current one the faintest. You can turn on an option for editing multiple frames, to avoid having to skip back and forth, although this can get confusing. And you can even lock in a frame range, so that onion-skinning occurs only in those frames.

There's a special editor for creating buttons, which are essentially four-frame/four-keyframe animations. This should include a single function to set up the four frames and keyframes, but instead you must do it manually.

Macromedia deserves a lot of credit for creating excellent online documentation for Flash 2. For learning the program, a series of interactive tutorials--actually, Flash 2 animations--take you through nearly all the program features. Then there are standard Help files, and also a number of HTML documents, accessed via the Help menu, including information on how to incorporated Shockwave Flash into your Web pages, and some great samples of professional-type projects created with Flash 2. Of course, there's printed documentation too, for the traditional-minded user.

Flash 2 offers a number of other features we haven't gotten to, such as a profiling facility for performance optimization, the ability to create animated symbols, and export movies in AVI format (QuickTime on the Mac) as well as image sequences in various formats including GIF and JPEG, work with sound and lots more. It really isn't just for Web animation, but can be considered an excellent program for creating a wide variety of 2D animation and interactive applications. At $299, it's considerably less expensive than more elaborate programs such as Director, and is a more than capable tool for many tasks for which higher-end software might originally have been used.

Find more at http://www.macromedia.com.

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QUAKE II

Wednesday, arrived a nice package from Activision with QUAKE II, one of the most highly anticipated game titles of recent times. Being as susceptible to hype as the next geek, we immediately ripped it open, installed it (25, 225 or 400 MB; we chose the medium install, which lets you play from the hard disk), and commenced to frag. It's really fun, but safe to say it's not exactly a revolutionary product. As with its forerunners from id Software, including the DOOM series, you play a lone space marine in a seemingly endless war against brutal humanoid aliens, running through blasted-out buildings and swimming along aqueducts to reach your goal. In your travels, you shoot first, and ask no questions. You see the 3D world in a first person view, with only your arms and weapon visible at the bottom of the frame.

Among the most readily apparent innovations are the ability for enemies to get in a parting shot (easy to dodge) before they head off to the great boot camp in the sky, and the fact that flies start buzzing around their bodies right away. I guess the aliens rot quicker than we do. Also, the addition of radio chatter and missile blasts overhead give you the feeling that you've got allies in the game world, even if you can't seem them.

Perhaps the most significant new feature is the injection of adventure-like elements, such as the field computer that regularly provides updates of interim goals. For example, your first objective is to establish a communications uplink so your superiors can continue to order you around.

The game world comprises eight large units, each with a number of levels to complete in order to proceed to the next unit. It's often necessary to travel between levels several times to accomplish a particular objective.

Because you cannot return to a unit once you leave it, it's important to review the field computer to be sure that you've accomplished all of your goals for that unit. If you'd rather just skip to a different unit, the online manual tells you how, after warning you that you're spoiling all the fun.

Also, the environments are more interactive. You can now, for instance, push certain objects to gain access to hidden areas. Rocks fall, and shuttles transport you within buildings. You can even man a gun turret.

According to the PR material, enemy AI has been improved, allowing your foes to duck and dive out of the way, but we didn't see any of that in the first mission. What we did see was terrific 3D graphics, thanks to the now built-in support for OpenGL via 3Dfx and PowerVR cards, as well as system drivers. id's John Carmack is well known for his disdain for Direct3D, so it's unsupported, although the game does use the DirectDraw and DirectSound components of DirectX. The audio effects are improved as well, thanks to the upgraded game engine's ability to attach a sound to any object. And needless to say, there are lots of scary new monsters.

Last but not least, you can frag up to 32 of your friends at a time, thanks to Q2's support for multiplayer mayhem via LAN or over the Internet. We tried to get onto one of id's Internet servers, but it was not to be. At any rate, if you finished QUAKE in a few days and are looking for more high-end ultraviolent highjinks from id, QUAKE II ought to keep you happy, at least for a little while.

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Total Annihilation

Cavedog Entertainment is one of the brightest new software development stars on the horizon. While at LucasArts, Cavedog founder Ron Gilbert designed such classics as Maniac Mansion, Monkey Island 1 and 2 and other games. The company's first product is Total Annihilation, a real-time strategy game produced by Gilbert with Chris Taylor, of such baseball games as Hardball II and Triple Play Baseball, as well as 4D Boxing, as designer and project lead. The Windows 95 game is distributed by GT Interactive.

The game's scenario takes place in an unnamed galaxy, where two long-warring factions, the Arm and the Core, have reduced each other to scattered vestiges of their former glory. Apparently lacking any survival instincts, they continue to battle to the death on a series of devastated planets, with differing strategies required on each. The Arm consists of humans who defected from the Core after the latter insisted that all citizens undergo "patterning," electronic duplication of brain matrices that were then transferred to robots. Thus, Arm units are soldiers in high-powered combat suits, while the Core fights with battle machines directed by intelligent brains.

TA offers a number of innovations over its predecessors. First, the realism is enhanced by the use of 3D models for all mobile units, rather than multiple bitmaps. This lets them be seen at any angle, rather than just those pre-rendered by the designers. The manual lists 137 units, but there are four more available on the Cavedog Web site with more to come. However, to use these you must download an updater, which patches the game to version 1.2 beta (at this writing). That's just as well, because the new version contains a number of improvements and bug fixes. That said, the game still seems to be somewhat buggy, crashing unexpectedly on numerous occasions. The remedy, posted on the Web site, is effected by removing almost all resident programs; it seems to work.

Twenty-five single-player missions are available for each side, and you can also play in Skirmish mode against up to three computer opponents. And, of course, you can play against other humans via Microsoft's Direct Play, which works over LAN IPX connections as well as TCP/IP Internet links.

Those remaining few non-networked souls can vie for supremacy mano a mano via modem and serial connections.

The boss unit in most scenarios is the commander, which can build structures, repair units, capture enemy facilities and packs a powerful punch with its D-gun. Land-based walkers are called Kbots, and range in ability from fast, low-ammo scout types to lumbering heavy hitters. Each side also supports a goodly variety of vehicles, ships and aircraft, with more-or-less significant differences between Arm and Core units. You can set standing orders for units individually or collectively in two categories: aggressiveness and mobility. However, even units that use the default "maneuver" mobility setting, limiting them to movement within a short range of their assigned position, seem to occasionally wander far off course.

Structures consist of offensive and defensive fortifications, as well as construction buildings such as vehicle plants and shipyards. Construction and repair consume varying quantities of the two basic resources: energy and metal. While energy is normally produced by conventional means, such as solar collectors and wind generators, in a pinch it can also be gathered from local vegetation. Likewise, while metal is usually mined from the ground, it can also be reclaimed from downed units, and often must on planets with limited resources.

Okay, enough description: How's the game play? In a word, exciting. Cavedog did a marvelous job on TA's interface, from the great graphics, with minimal inter-mission cut-scenes, to the 21 different game speeds, which don't affect mouse response. You can see unit routes by pressing the Shift key, and use many other useful keyboard shortcuts. The 3D landscapes must be accounted for in building a strategy, with restricted lines of site requiring varying tactics. The scenarios are brilliantly designed, forcing you to work with ruthless efficiency to conquer often-overwhelming enemy forces. Indeed, we haven't yet discovered a way to beat the sixth Arm mission, even in easy mode with the strategy guide (consider the latter a must, even though it adds $20 to the price of the game). But, as in all good games, failure is an excellent teacher, and we'll be back soon to try another tactic to beat those pesky Core villains. Total Annihilation is being lauded by critics as one of the best of the new generation of real-time strategy games, and we must concur.

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Lands of Lore: Guardians of Destiny

Lands of Lore: Guardians of Destiny, which we'll call LOL2 for short, is a member of that increasingly rare breed, the single-player role playing game. The sequel to Lands of Lore: Throne of Chaos was recently released by Westwood Studios after four years in development. Like the first LOL, and the Bard's Tale series before that, the interface uses a first person 3D perspective. LOL2 is essentially a DOS title (doesn't support Direct3D), but it runs eminently well under Win95. It's a charming, compelling game that should have avid role players enthralled as soon as they start playing, and could even win new converts to the genre.

The game's hero is ex-farmboy Luther, who's on a quest to release himself from an ancient curse. As a result, he frequently changes shape, becoming, utterly at random, a small lizard or a misshapen, hulking monster. When this happens, the viewpoint gets lower or higher, and the player's capabilities alter as a result. For example, Luther's variant forms can't use weapons or magic, but the lizard can scamper through small holes and the giant can more easily defeat enemies up close. Interestingly, human/animal crosses seem to be something of a theme in LOL2; a race called the Hulines (human/feline hybrids) plays a prominent role in the story.

The game is huge, encompassing four CDs. The world we've spent the most time in, the Huline jungle, is beautifully rendered, with pixels becoming blocky only when close up. Adding to the otherworldly atmosphere are flocks of butterflies that rise into the air at your approach, small, bright-orange dinosaurs running in packs, and large two-headed black panthers. Amazingly enough, you needn't kill everything you see; in fact, if you took a swipe at one of the panthers, it'd take your head off in one bite. The jungle foliage hides a number of important passages, so it's necessary to consult your automap frequently as you explore.

Besides the relatively low-resolution real-time graphics, the game employs a number of mercifully brief 3D-animated cut-scenes incorporating virtual actors; these were created mostly with Kinetix 3D Studio and 3D Studio MAX, with some help from Newtek LightWave 3D. Occasionally, a cut scene ends in a rendered still, which you click on to travel to a nearby location. In general, character interaction takes the form of videos of human actors superimposed on a rendered background. There's no menuing; you just click occasionally, and the characters continue with their scripted lines, if they've anything more to say. If not, they don't repeat themselves, which can be a blessing, but not if you've missed something. The videos, often but not always with washed-out color and low resolution, are perhaps the least visually appealing aspect of the game. On the upside, the game's excellent sense of humor generally puts in an appearance during such encounters, and, combined with Luther's facial antics on his portrait in a corner of the screen, adds significantly to the enjoyment of the game.

There's a good deal more to like about LOL2, such as the mostly well-designed interface, both for inventory management and in-world activity. For example, during the real-time combat, if you're equipped with both melee and ranged weapons, the program automatically chooses the correct one, depending on your distance from the target. The puzzles are difficult but not overly devious; in many cases, it's necessary to examine an environment very closely, looking both up and down, to avoid missing important clues. Speaking of clues, an in-game hint feature offers just enough help without giving away the store.

As in other types of first-person games, you can run, jump, crouch, and dodge blows sideways. On the other hand, the audio levels vary too much from section to section, the musical soundtrack is kind of annoying, and the manual doesn't explain many items, nor does the game.

If you've got 120 hours to kill, or even if you just enjoy a great romp in a well-conceived imaginary universe, you could do far worse than LOL2. The graphics and sound may not be state-of-the-art, and the interface is a little clunky, but the gameplay beats most of its rivals cold.

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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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