Spectrum Reviews 6: Interactive Media & Online Developer Product/Service Reviews

23 December 1997

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



Spectrum Reviews, 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



Today's Reviews (details below)

--World Book 1998 Multimedia Encyclopedia

--Hellfire (Diablo expansion pack)

--Sub Culture

--Lords of Magic

--Nightmare Creatures PC

--Wing Commander Prophecy


--Inside 3D Studio MAX Volumes II & III

--NetObjects Fusion 2

--Animation Tips and Tricks for Windows and Mac

--Microsoft Internet Explorer 4 FrontRunner

--Step-by-Step Electronic Design Techniques

--Teach Yourself Microsoft FrontPage 98 In a Week

--FrontPage 98 Unleashed

--Laura Lemay's Web Workshop: Microsoft FrontPage 98

--HTML 4 How-To


--About Spectrum Reviews



World Book 1998 Multimedia Encyclopedia

IBM's latest foray into the wilds of multimedia publishing carries the unwieldy name of World Book 1998 Multimedia Encyclopedia Deluxe Edition.

The World Book encyclopedia has long been a favorite of junior high and high school students doing research on assigned papers, and now the kids can look stuff up faster and easier than ever, without taking up all that shelf space (at last count, 24 volumes including a two-volume dictionary).

The two-CD set contains all the articles from the print version, plus thousands of pictures, videos, animations and sound clips.

Unlike Sierra's Netscape-driven Collier's Encyclopedia, reviewed in Spectrum Reviews of November 13, 1997, World Book provides its own browser-like interface. The home page offers two menus: Browse and Search.

You can browse the entire encyclopedia, using the Just Looking feature to search within such categories as geography, life science and recreation for CD content in general, or specifically for articles, video and other types of media. The Random button puts up a random selection of articles that fit the search criteria, or you can search for a specific topic from the drop-down Find menu. If you search for a certain type of media and results are found on the other CD, this is indicated on the thumbnail results; a convenient feature that saves switching discs.

Video quality is acceptable, but not as good as in some competing products.

A special type of medium is the bubble view, a navigable 360-degree view like QuickTime VR, but which lets you look straight up and down for a full environmental "sphere"--very cool. You can also browse the What's New section, which takes you to a short article on special days and activities for the current month.

Typically, browsing eventually leads you to an article, which appears on the right side of the screen. You can scroll through the article, and if you don't understand a word, double clicking on it typically opens the dictionary on the left side to the closest definition. Not always, though; for example, we clicked on the term 1400's in one article, which opened a "time frame" with links to articles on painting, the Renaissance, Latin America and more. An excellent feature, the time frame lets you search an era, millennium, century, decade or year in such categories as history and humanities.

All articles have an Article Media icon link, whether or not there's any media associated with that article; the link should appear only on articles that have relevant media. Context-sensitive links on article and media pages include Article Outline, Caption, Go to Article (related to the current media) and more. This part of the interface doesn't always work as well as it should. For example, if you're reading an article, and you click on an image thumbnail to view the image full size, and then go to the home page and select Browse Media, it takes you back to the same image, but you can't select Go to Article. The Back icon takes you to the article.

Selecting Browse Media from the home page should always take you to the Browse Media menu (Current, All Disc 1 or All Disc 2), but it doesn't.

Always present above the contextual links are a "back" link (no "forward" link, though), plus links to the home page, Time Frame, What's Online and more. On the home page, you can select a search of the aforementioned links, plus article topics, maps and the dictionary.

Whenever you're on an article/media page, you can select the Tool Kit. This includes a Print function, plus the ability to place sticky notes and highlight passages. The sticky notes and highlighter are persistent from session to session, and you can list all sticky notes to jump directly to any page on which you've placed one. This feature is great for researching topics. Also particularly helpful for students are the Homework wizards: the Report wizard, which takes you through the steps of writing a report; the Chart wizard, which creates bar, line and pie charts; and the Timeline wizard for tracking historic data.

Online features (free for the first year) download and integrates such content as article updates and news of the month, and provide access to online-only archived articles from 1922, plus in-depth special reports and selected Web sites.

IBM's multimedia World Book is a fine product, but it's got stiff competition, and at $70 SRP, it's no bargain. If you've got a teenager or pre-teen who's having trouble learning how to research essay assignments, it might be just the ticket, but otherwise, first take a look at what else is available.




Released very early this year, Diablo was and still is one of the most addictive games we've ever played. The lion's share of media coverage focused on the accompanying battle.net, publisher Blizzard Software's free online multiplayer gaming service, but many found Diablo to be a compelling single-player gaming experience as well. For those offline stalwarts, Sierra has just released Hellfire, an "authorized" Diablo add-on developed by Sierra's Synergistic Software division. It's a logical "synergy," if you will, because both companies are owned by mega-conglomerate CUC International.

We first reviewed Diablo in Daily Spectrum of 10 January, 1997. Here's a brief excerpt from that review, which also applies to Hellfire:

Besides terrific graphics and great game play, Diablo offers:

· 16 levels of dungeon exploration laden with traps, treasures, magic, weapons and over 100 monsters; readily explorable thanks to the great automap feature

· a smart level-generation system that randomizes dungeons, creatures, and quests to maximize game play

After installing Hellfire from the CD-ROM, you play off the Diablo disc.

The expansion pack offers essentially the same gameplay, but with significant enhancements. The first difference you notice is when you choose your character before starting a game. There's now a fourth choice: the Monk. We went for this one, of course, and we're glad we did. Armed with only a staff, and minimally armored, the Monk is a fighting machine, often taking out several enemy with a single blow. Also, there are now difficulty levels: Normal, Nightmare and Hell.

Next, after beginning play, you might notice there's a new setting in the Options menu. Your character can either walk or jog (only in town), but this doesn't affect the overall game speed. The small village that serves as your home base is still the same, as are the introductory quests you find there. And the demon-infested church still serves as your training ground, but Diablo doesn't live there any more.

The real action begins when you've reached the ninth dungeon level, or character level 15. At that point you're assigned the first new quest by new villager Lester, the farmer. He wants you to remove a festering nest that's interfering with his crops. Turns out the nest--a bizarre, organic cave--is home to the Defiler, a savage, mantis-like demon with a deadly slash attack. Also dwelling in the nest is host of new demons, including Hellboar, a bull-horned goring monster; Stinger and Venom Tail, small, scorpion-like critters; Psychorb and Necromorb, floating eyeballs that fire deadly magic; bipedal spiders that attack with their six free legs; Hork Spawn (better left undescribed) and others.

Past the festering nest is the lair of big bad boss demon Na-Krul. Said demon crypt is a black marble palace under-run with lava, visible through grates in the floor, causing an eerie orange underglow to be reflected off the shiny marble surfaces. Here the intrepid adventurer finds such evil beasties as the Gravedigger, Firebat and Hellbat, Devil Kin Brute with its vicious claw attack, the two-headed Biclops with a huge battle-axe and others. In all, there are 23 new foes.

Besides the six new quests (according to the reviewer's guide, although the promotional brochure claims eight), there are many new magic items, shrines, traps and weapon types, plus spells such as Warp, which transports the caster to the nearest stairwell; Search, which highlights all magic items (the Monk can cast this one for free); Reflect, which turns enemy weapons back on their wielders; and Berserk, which causes monsters to attack their nearest neighbors.

We encountered a few minor bugs in Hellfire. At one point, the Speedbook indicated a Search scroll, which was not in the inventory. Also, loading a particular saved game produced a corrupted level, which was not the one from which the save was made, and had doorways that couldn't be passed through. This was resolved by quitting the game and restarting, whereupon the level was restored properly. No doubt these will be resolved via the inevitable patch file. All in all, we had a demonic blast playing Hellfire, and recommend it highly to all Diablo owners. And if you don't own Diablo, it is, as we predicted back in January, still one of the best games of 1997, so get it!

Find more info at http://www.sierra.com.



Sub Culture

Sub Culture's introductory animation starts out with a boat floating on the water. An unseen litterbug tosses a tin can overboard, and the camera follows it down to the sea bed, where it crushes an underwater installation. As with an increasing number of games that support 3D hardware acceleration these days, the visual quality of the animation doesn't hold a candle to that of the game itself. In fact, we'd go so far as to say it's the best-looking 3D-accelerated game we've seen to date. As you cruise through the three-dimensional, mostly aqua-colored underwater environment in your miniature submarine, buildings, terrain and animated aquatic critters such as giant tortoises slowly resolve themselves, as rays of light poke through the impenetrable kelp bed on the surface, and bubbles rise everywhere. Adding considerably to the overall esthetic experience is the soothing music, truly evocative of a smoothly flowing undersea world.

The gameplay itself is equally fascinating and varied. As suggested by the opening cut-scene, the denizens of the undersea world have somehow been miniaturized, which leads to the possibility of making a living by salvaging giant discarded artifacts, such as the aforementioned tin can.

The plot involves mutually antagonistic tribes living in small cities on the sea bed; your goal is to try to survive these wars while undertaking missions assigned by the various government entities. At first, you undertake training missions, such as prospecting for ore and trading. Soon, you become embroiled in the conflict by having to decide whether to believe one side or the other, mid-mission. Other missions involve escorting trawlers, researching mutant fish, rescuing stranded parties and much more.

Most of the water-dwelling creatures are content to go about their business, but occasional some will attack you. To defend yourself, you start out with only a short-range zapper, but as you progress through the game, you can afford to buy more powerful weaponry and defensive equipment, plus tools to help you accomplish the various missions.

Even if you don't have a 3D accelerator, Sub Culture looks and plays great, and we recommend it highly. But if you are equipped for 3D, and especially if you have a 3Dfx card, consider the game a must. The graphics and audio are state of the art, and the gameplay offers a good mix of strategy and action. British developer Criterion Studios deserves a feather in its cap for this original, compelling interactive entertainment.

Visit publisher Ubi Soft at http://www.ubisoft.com.



Lords of Magic

Following on the successful Lords of the Realm series, the folks at Sierra subsidiary Impressions now bring us Lords of Magic, a very good strategy game set in a fantasy world. For his or her hero, the player chooses from three types--warrior, mage or thief--and eight races/faiths: Life, Death, Fire, Water, Chaos, Order, Earth and Air. Each has its own strengths and weaknesses; for example, a Life mage can protect and heal fellow party members during combat. The overall game is turn-based, but combat is real time; fortunately, you can pause during combat to assign new orders to your party.

Lords of Magic is somewhat reminiscent of Heroes of Might & Magic, in that you wander through the countryside, battling for resource-producing buildings; mines and such. But there's a good deal more strategy required here, including diplomacy and barter. The resources are gold, crystals and ale; you can use these to hire mercenaries to help your cause. The game takes place in two phases. You start out with three units of three warriors each; typically, a horse-mounted unit, an infantry-type unit, and an archery unit. As you use these, augmented with mercenaries, your strength and fame grow, until you're strong enough to take back your faith's Great Temple from the evil creatures infesting it. Thereafter, you have access to a stronghold, which draws followers you can use to your purposes. During this second phase of the game, your goal is to build your forces and gain allies of other faiths by helping them clear their Great Temples. Or, if you can't win them over to your cause, you must defeat them in battle. To win the game, it's necessary to vanquish the evil sorcerer Balkoth, who's trying his best to lay waste to the countryside. Once you've defeated Balkoth, you can play another game as him!

Additional game elements include over 100 different animated creature types such as dragons, giants, dwarves and skeletons; the ability to research and cast 160 different spells, including ones that can affect the terrain; and 3D battlefields including a map editor for customization. We were somewhat disappointed that all buildings of the same type used identical battlefields. Also, the initial release was buggy, often not allowing the game to be saved, or the music volume to be lowered. Fortunately, a patch available on Sierra's Web site remedies these and improves enemy AI. It doesn't, however, resolve the game's disk-hogging problems; the minimum install footprint is 135 MB, recommended is 190 MB, and full install is 390 MB (still requires the CD, probably as copy protection), and saved games take upwards of 500 KB each. Multiple players can get involved via modem, local area network, or the Internet. Overall, we enjoyed the game's challenge. Lords of Magic is not an easy game to learn or win (even at the "easy" level), but it rewards persistence better than most.

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



Nightmare Creatures PC

We first reviewed Activision's Nightmare Creatures for Sony PlayStation last month (see Spectrum Reviews 13 November 1997), and just recently took a look at the Windows 95 version. It's basically the same game, but with superior graphics if you have a hardware 3D accelerator. Optimized for the NEC PowerVR chip, the game also looks great with 3Dfx accelerators. The mist looks much more real, and fast weapon moves by the hero leave brief trails. Nightmare Creatures is best played with a gamepad like Microsoft's SideWinder. Great mindless fun.



Wing Commander Prophecy

The way we see it, there's not much point in reviewing Wing Commander Prophecy. Either you're a fan of Origin Systems' stunningly successful space combat series, or you're not. If you've finished all the others, get this one--end of story. For those in the latter category who are interested in checking out the Wing Commander phenomenon, WCP is probably not the best place to start, as it's very difficult. Its principal claim to fame is that it's the first in the series to use Direct3D, so the space combat visuals are quite spectacular. Additionally, the title provides native support for 3Dfx-based boards, for optimal results.

On the other hand, the inter-battle conversational cinematic sequences that constitute the storyline performed poorly on our relatively powerful system, equipped with a 266Mhz Pentium II CPU, Matrox Millennium display card and 12X CD-ROM drive. The videos skipped badly, losing a significant amount of the dialog; fortunately, a subtitle option allowed us to follow the character interaction. Speaking of characters, the game features return appearances by such favorites as Blair (Mark Hamill), Maniac and Rachel.

The protagonist, though, is a new guy; a rookie who must work his way up through the ranks to win the war against the mysterious aliens who are attacking humans and Kilrathi alike.

Wing Commander Prophecy cost considerably less to make than its predecessor, Wing Commander IV, but it still looks and plays like a million bucks. Again, if you're a die-hard WC fan, this one's a no-brainer.

Seek ye further wisdom online at http://www.wingcommanderprophecy.com.




Inside 3D Studio MAX Volumes II & III

$99.99; ISBN 1-56205-778-2

This new hardcover tome from New Riders combines the two most recent books in the Inside 3D Studio MAX series (see Spectrum of 11 August and 25 August 1997) and augments the package with five bonus chapters. These are: Compositing, Retouching and Post-processing with Photoshop; Troubleshooting ... Under Windows NT; Architectural Rendering; Terraforming and Landscape Composition; and Using Amapi. (The latter two chapters are on the CD.) The new printed material adds 133 pages. If you've been waiting to get the latest expert info on Kinetix's awesome 3D graphics program, now's the time.



NetObjects Fusion 2

$18.95; ISBN 0-201-69658-4

NetObjects Fusion 2 is a popular Website building tool for both Windows and Mac Webmasters. For those just getting started with the program, Peachpit Press has just released NetObjects Fusion 2 for Windows & Macintosh.

Authors Gillian Hall and Mark Wheeler get things rolling with program basics, such as Fusion's five views: Site, Page, Style, Assets and Publish.

Following this is helpful advice on planning your site's structure, and designing the look and feel. Next there's an extensive section on Web pages, with information on topics like aligning elements and creating a consistent look with MasterBorders. The book also covers text, links and navigation bars, rich media and quite a bit more. If you trying to get a handle on Fusion 2, but find the manual a bit overwhelming, check out this book.



Animation Tips and Tricks for Windows and Mac

$44.95; ISBN 0-201-69643-6

This full-color large-format 139-page book from Peachpit Press is designed for folks who want to create wild special effects with the wealth of animation programs available for today's desktop computers. The techniques presented by authors Don and Melora Foley are general enough that they can be employed with a variety of programs. Topics covered include the use of sound, creating animated GIF files, texture mapping and more. A fair amount of attention is paid to faking effects with post-production techniques in programs like Photoshop, but, hey, whatever works, right? Value is added via the bundled CD-ROM, which includes .dxf-format 3D models, .aif-format sounds and Targa-format textures and backgrounds for spiffing up your animations. Definitely worth considering as a holiday gift for the struggling animator in your life.


Microsoft Internet Explorer 4 FrontRunner

$29.99; ISBN 1-57610-133-9

For a free program, MSIE4 (as it's known to friends) is an amazingly complex piece of software--often to an annoying extent. The latest member of Coriolis Group's FrontRunner book series aims to provide beginners with the straight skinny on Active Channels/Desktop, True Web integration, and all the other cool new buzzwords straight outta Redmond. Authors Mary Millhollon, Luanne O'Loughlin and Toni Zuccarini also cover searching; the use of favorites, history and subscriptions; NetMeeting for real-time conferencing, Outlook Express for email and more.



Step-by-Step Electronic Design Techniques

$39.95; ISBN 0-201-69672-X

If you're interested in making art, often the first thing you want to know when you see an impressive image is how it was created. Today's graphics programs are so awesomely full-featured that no one person can know everything there is to know about a particular piece of software, so it's great that publishers like Peachpit Press produce books like this that give the rest of us access to a broad range of design professionals' secrets. In over 90 color-illustrated articles, you learn how to use programs like Photoshop, FreeHand, QuarkXPress, Ray Dream, Illustrator, Painter and others to create striking, original and effective imagery, yes, you guessed it, step by step. Reading and using this book is like studying with over 70 of the world's top digital designers, but at a fraction of the cost.



Photoshop Magic: Expert Edition

$45; ISBN 1-56830-416-1

In this new book from Hayden Books, Brandon Perkins introduces a passel of techniques for using Adobe's popular bitmap editor for making digital magic. Only problem is, the book fairly stiffly perfect-bound, so you'll need to use something heavy to keep it open to the right page as you follow along. Here's a complete list of chapter titles: Simulating Stained Glass; Simulating Water Reflection; Weaving Elements in an Image; Vignettes, Borders and Backgrounds; Introducing Artificial Perspective for Emphasis; Photographic Restoration; Changing the Weather: Simulating Rain and Snow; Using Light to Set the Mood; Creating a Fantasy Image; Changing Day to Night; Working with a Central Theme; and Web Graphics: Creating an Animated Gear System. The CD-ROM contains all tutorial files, templates and preset Photoshop files, plus GIF animation programs for Mac and Windows.



Three FrontPage 98 Books

No sooner does Microsoft update one of its application programs or operating systems than book publishers are climbing all over each other to bring users additional and/or better-organized information about the software. Herewith we take brief looks at three books about FrontPage 98, the latest version of Microsoft's Web publishing software, all from Sams.net (climbing all over itself, apparently).

Teach Yourself Microsoft FrontPage 98 In a Week

$29.99; ISBN 1-57521-350-8

This book by Web designer David Karlins demonstrates how to create sophisticated Web sites with FrontPage Explorer; bring Web pages to life with the FrontPage Editor; use Image Composer to design original backgrounds and images, and more. On day 6, you'll learn how to use FrontPage's Personal Web Server to publish your sites. No CD, but a companion Website provides source code, links to resources and book updates.

FrontPage 98 Unleashed

$39.99; ISBN 1-57521-349-4

Also just out is this more complete treatment of FrontPage 98, with over 1,000 pages and 59 chapters divided into 11 sections: FrontPage Basics; Creating Web Pages with FrontPage 98; Web Page Layout and Design with FrontPage 98; Web Page Graphic Design and Image Composer; Forms and Advanced Form Handling; Templates, Wizards and FrontPage Components; Adding Dynamic Content to Your Web Page; Working with Databases; Web Site Management with FrontPage Explorer; Web Servers and FrontPage 98; and Advanced Development for FrontPage 98. Again, the book does not include a CD, but additional info is available from the companion Website.

Laura Lemay's Web Workshop: Microsoft FrontPage 98

$39.99; ISBN 1-57521-372-9

Finally, we have a FrontPage 98 book with the imprimatur of one of the foremost authorities of Webmastering. Lemay is only the series editor; the book is written by Denise Tyler with Crystal D. Erickson. You'll find the usual explanatory appetizers here, plus a generous helping of useful project-oriented articles. Tasks include creating hyperlinks, setting table background/border properties, using style sheets, inserting a hover button (changes appearance when the mouse cursor is over it), creating a guest book and much more. The CD includes a wealth of material, including IE 4, an electronic version of Lemay's Teach Yourself Web Publishing book, and utilities such as CuteFTP, HTML Assistant, and Hot Dog Pro Web editor.



HTML 4 How-To

$49.99; ISBN 1-57169-125-1

If you're a do-it-yourselfer when it comes to creating Web pages, you'll appreciate the 240+ task-oriented step-by-step lessons offered in this new book from Waite Group Press. Authors John Zakour, Jeff Foust and David Kerven cover a vast range of topics, including adding multimedia such as Shockwave Flash and embedded VRML to Web pages, processing file-type input from an HTML form, creating new windows for linked documents, switching the stacking order of layers, and a whole lot more. The book provides lots of code examples, and the CD offers even more, plus sample documents, multimedia objects, and HTML editors.




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.

Send review product and press kits by mail to Spectrum Reviews, Attn: David Duberman, 1609 Addison St. #6, Berkeley, CA 94703.

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(c)Copyright 1997 Motion Blur Media. All rights reserved. No reproduction in any for-profit or revenue-generating venue in any form without written permission from the publisher.