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

2 February 1998

Written and edited by David Duberman

for editorial/ subscription inquiries, send mailto:duberman@dnai.com

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Today's Reviews (details below)

--LightWave 3D

--LogoMotion

--Shadow Master

--Virtual Pool 2

--About Spectrum Reviews

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LightWave 3D

NewTek's LightWave 3D is an old favorite of ours. In fact, it was our sole motivation for buying a Video Toaster back in the wee hours of this decade, when the Amiga computer ruled the multimedia jungle. LightWave has grown considerably since then, having recently reached the age of 5.5 (in revision numbers) for Wintel, Mac, Sun and DEC Alpha machines ($1,500 street) and SGI ($2,300 street), and has become quite a formidable production tool for 3D modeling, animation and rendering. This is due in no small part to its role in creating just about all the CGI (computer-generated imagery) for Babylon 5 and any number of other shows, movies and computer games. Whenever the Hollywood-based professionals requested new features, these were incorporated into the product and made available to all users. We can't possibly do the program justice in the time and space allocated to this review, but we'll do our best to show you the brightest highlights (and a few of the low points as well).

LightWave actually consists of two separate programs: Layout, by Allen Hastings, and Modeler, by Stuart Ferguson. We'll start with the former, which is used for scene assembly, texture mapping, animation, rendering and compositing.

Layout

Neither Layout nor Modeler uses a standard Windows (or Mac, Unix etc.) interface, but both are well laid out and reasonably intuitive. Layout, especially, benefits from an improved user interface, one of the most significant revisions between 5.0 and 5.5.

What hasn't changed is that, unlike most 3D graphics apps, Layout lets you see only one view at a time. The choices--front, top, side, perspective, camera and light--are available from a pop-up menu in the main interface.

Anytime you're in one of the first four view modes, you can move and zoom the point of view by dragging on special buttons, and perspective view mode lets you rotate the viewpoint around the center of the view, or "aimpoint," as well. The non-camera viewpoints maintain a common aimpoint, so that changing one affects the others. The handy Center button, when active, keeps the current object constantly centered in the view.

There are two main groups of buttons on the interface's left side. The Edit group determines what type of object you can manipulate: object, bones (used for character animation), lights, and camera (only one is allowed).

To select an object, you can click on it, or pick its name from a pop-up list in the main interface, or use the arrow keys to highlight successive objects. The Add button, new in 5.5, lets you load an object or add a null object, sometimes used as the parent object in a hierarchy whose pivot point is not at its center (it has many other functions). Previous versions forced you to access a separate dialog to add objects. Also new is a button that lets you clear the current object.

The Mouse group lets you interactively move, rotate, size (uniform scale) and stretch (non-uniform scale) the current object, and change its pivot point interactively. Of course, with lights and camera, scaling doesn't make sense, so these let you adjust cone angle/zoom level instead. For animation setup, you can keyframe all but the pivot point adjustment. A new feature is the option to automatically record transformations as animation keys. When an object has "move" keyframes, the animation path appears as a spline, and changes dynamically as the object's position is altered.

Most functions have keyboard equivalents, letting experienced users work faster. A Reset button returns the current object to its original position, orientation or size, depending on the current manipulation mode. The Parent button lets you set up object hierarchies, and the IK Info button lets you take advantage of LightWave's considerable inverse kinematics power for character animation.

The Scene Editor button grants access to a list of all scene elements. Here you can set wireframe colors, as well as how objects render in the workspace, on a per-object basis--a very powerful feature. The choices are: solid or texture mapped (both with OpenGL support, a new feature), plus vertex-only, partial polygons, all polygons, front-facing polygons, partial solid, bounding box or invisible. These options are available as mini-icons, but not from a pop-up menu; you must often click repeatedly to get the desired setting. Also, at higher resolutions, the icons are small, and difficult to discern. A pop-up menu lets you globally control workspace object appearances, but it doesn't show what the current setting is. Also available in the Scene Editor is a choice of how Layout displays the current frame: as a number, in seconds, or in SMPTE time code for video artists. The Scene Editor also lets you shift and scale all animation keys at once.

For finer-grained animation control, the Graph Editor provides a marvelous array of functions. Here you can save, load, and clear the current object's motion, and perform a variety of functions with keys, including copy/paste, shift and scale. You can apply motion plug-ins, like Jitter and, for the numerically inclined, math functions. These plug-ins, along with many others in the program, aren't very well documented, but fortunately LightWave users are highly active online, and you can usually get answers to your questions in forums or newsgroups.

The Graph Editor lets you set a motion cycle to repeat throughout the animation. Most impressive, though, is the interactive manipulation of motion graphs. The editor's line graph displays position, rotation and scale changes and lets you adjust X, Y and Z keys by dragging; you can also delete and create keys by clicking. This is particularly useful because you can see motion graphed on all three axes at once, although only one line (axis) at a time is available for adjustment. You can also set spline controls (tension, continuity and bias) for each key. The latter adjustments are also available from the main interface by holding a key and dragging the mouse.

Most remaining capabilities are found in a row of buttons near the top of the interface--Objects, Surfaces, Images, Lights, Camera, Effects, Options and Network--each of which brings up a relevant settings-filled dialog. The Objects panel, for instance, lets you use plug-ins for various methods of replacing objects with others during an animation. For object deformation, you can set morph sequences and displacement maps/plug-ins. An object can have up to 16 morph targets (with linear point-to-point interpolation), and you can set envelopes to change morph rates over the course of an animation. Also, the Morph Gizmo plug-in eases the process of creating and editing multi-target morph sequences. The Object Skeleton button opens a substantial dialog for controlling LightWave's versatile character animation functions via the Bones feature, including joint-compensation and muscle-flexing functions. A wealth of options for affecting object appearance includes polygon size, object dissolve and distance dissolve, clip map, polygon edge color, and shadow options (cast, receive, self-shadow).

The Surfaces panel lets you create materials--combinations of color, reflectivity, bumpiness etc.--using colors and/or textures from external image files. And because LightWave's renderer has a ray-trace option, you can set an index of refraction for transparent objects. Surfaces can be applied to polygon groups as defined in Modeler, also known as surfaces. It may seem a bit confusing, but it's easy to understand once you start using the software. The best way to think of a surface is as a named group of one or more polygons, belonging to one or more objects, with a specific set of visual attributes. This can cause problems, in that if you load two different objects, each of which uses the same surface name, but with different attributes, the most recently loaded surface variant takes precedence. Surface names can be changed in Layout, but surface assignments can be changed only in Modeler. And it's important to remember that if you change a surface in layout, it doesn't get saved with the scene; you have to save the affected objects, too. (Conveniently, Layout provides a Save All Objects command.)

Special surface attributes include Sharp Terminator, for sharp-edged shading effects found on planets and such and an Additive option for transparent objects that cause objects behind them to appear brighter.

Reflective objects can reflect the backdrop only, a spherical reflection map only, or either of the two previous options plus surrounding objects (via ray tracing). And, for compositing, the Front Projection option projects the background onto a surface so that objects can seem to interact with the background; a very powerful feature. What's more, you can layer textures to your heart's content, setting a transparency level for each.

To use images in texture maps and/or as backgrounds/foregrounds, you must first load them, using the Images panel. It's not clear what formats are compatible with LightWave, but we assume it loads the same wide variety of image types as it saves, including TIFF, Targa, BMP, JPEG, Photoshop, RAS, RGB, PICT and even good old Amiga IFF. It also loads numbered sequences, and even seems to load AVI files as sequences, but can't seem to do anything with the latter. Once an image is loaded into memory, you can select it in other panels from a pop-up list.

LightWave's approach to lighting is one of the program's relatively conventional aspects, although here too it marches to its own drumbeat in some ways. Light types include the standard distant, point and spot; only the latter can cast mapped shadows. Then there are linear and area lights, which simulate a row and a rectangular matrix of point lights, respectively. The latter two work nicely for local lighting effects; they can be resized, but if made too big, cast a strangely textured light. The usual settings apply to lights including intensity, falloff etc., and you can animate intensity with the envelope editor. Where LightWave strays from the path, in a good way, is in the generous selection of lens flare options, including fade with distance/off screen, central/red outer glow, glow behind objects, various ring settings, anamorphic distort and star filter. Other programs have these, but they're not as well integrated; LightWave's had 'em for years.

The Camera settings let you set rendering size, field rendering (for video output), motion blur, depth of field and more. We move quickly on to the Effects panel, with three tabs. Backdrop and Fog lets you set a solid or gradient background, and three different types of fog: one linear and two non-linear. Compositing lets you set a background image, plus a foreground image with strong alpha-channel support. Of greatest interest is the third tab, Image Processing, with four slots each for pixel filter plug-ins and image filter plug-ins. Available in the former category are SkyTracer, which can render sun, moon and clouds with lots of parameters, and Steamer, which creates effects such as light cones/glows, volumetric particles and layered fogs. Would that we could go into more detail on these two powerful and impressive plug-ins, but suffice to say that they merit their own 30-page chapter in the reference manual.

As well, LightWave includes a number of useful image filter plug-ins, most of which perform such post-processing functions as blur, noise, negative, emboss and gamma correction. Of particular interest here is Pennello Lite from Xaos Tools, a "brushing engine" previously available as a 3D Studio plug-in. You may not often have need for the very special effects it creates, but it's nice to know they're available.

 

Modeler

Modeler has been around since before LightWave, originally written as a companion program to VideoScape, LightWave's predecessor on the Amiga. It's also come a long way, but still uses the same front/top/side/perspective interface; a number of alternative display configurations are also available. On the other hand, Modeler's functionality has increased by several orders of magnitude, thanks in particular to a tremendous selection of useful plug-ins; we won't be able to cover more than a small fraction of them here.

Arrayed across the top of the screen is a row of tabs, representing different groups of object functions. These are Objects, Modify, Multiply, Polygon, Tools and Display. Selecting a tab displays its tool group in a column of buttons on the left side of the screen. In the top right corner is a row of buttons that let you access Modeler's 10 layers as foreground or background, as in a drafting program.

There are four selection/working modes: points, polygons, or inclusive/exclusive rectangular volumes. When you're in point- or poly-select mode, the first click/drag selects entities under the mouse, and subsequent clicks/drags de-select entities. Modeler remembers what's selected, so that if you select some points, go work in poly mode, and then return to point mode, the points remain selected. Also, a Statistics dialog gives you an unprecedented choice of different ways of selecting points/polygons.

The Objects panel lets you create boxes, spheres and discs, type 2D text, and draw shapes freehand and point by point. One of the nice things about LightWave is that both component programs support polygons with any number of sides, which helps keep the total polygon count down. If you're creating objects for another program, or are worried about creating non-planar faces, you can force Modeler to create objects with triangles only. You can send objects to and from Layout, and can invoke Layout from a button in the Modeler interface (and vice-versa).

NURBS is a sophisticated spline-based modeling technique found primarily in high-end software. Modeler has a limited NURBS implementation called MetaNURBS. It's a classic example of why it's important to RYFM, because the function isn't available from any program menu-it can be accessed only by pressing the Tab key. In fact, the term itself is not even on Modeler's unassuming online Help function--the Edit Keyboard Mapping dialog invoked by pressing F1--where it's described as "Toggle Faces/Patches."

The MetaNURBS function is sort of an automated version of Modeler's splines and patches functionality, with added modeling power. Using the latter, you can "draw" any number of spline curves, connected at endpoints and midpoints, and then create a patch or "skin" over any area circumscribed by three or four curves that smoothly interpolates between the curves' shapes.

The patch is simply a polygon mesh, though, so if you want a different shape, you must rework the original curves, and then patch them again. For those who prefer to work more intuitively, simply take any old mesh object and press the Tab key. This temporarily converts the object, or any selected polys thereof, to a MetaNURBS object, rendering all three- and four-sided polygons as NURBS patch surfaces. If the object contains polygons with more than four sides, the program issues a warning, and then goes ahead and performs the conversion anyway, altering only "legal" polys.

In such cases, the results can be a bit strange, to say the least. In general, you get the best results by starting with a simple shape containing only four-sided polys, such as a box, and subdivide if necessary (a nifty Metaform function rounds as it subdivides).

All vertices belonging to converted polygons are extrapolated into NURBS control points, creating a smooth-flowing NURBS cage that surrounds the object. At this point, you can use most of Modeler's modeling functions to modify this cage, smoothly altering the shape of the underlying object.

Typically, you'd select one or more vertices or patch surfaces, and then use the Move, Rotate, Size or Stretch tools to manipulate the selected entity or entities. The program does a nice job of maintaining smooth curves: For example, if you select a patch surface at one end of an ovoid shape and drag it inward, it becomes concave. Pull it back to its original position or beyond, and it reverts to its original convex shape. You can also use functions that alter the object's complexity, such as Bevel, which extrudes a selected patch surface or surfaces, while maintaining the object's overall smoothness.

Pressing the Tab key again converts the object back to a polygon mesh, which, depending on the amount of deformation you've imposed, can produce a relatively angular shape. In general, you're better off using the Freeze function instead. Freeze performs a subdivision before converting the patches back to polygons, maintaining the patch's smooth surface as defined by the Data Options dialog's Patch Division setting. A higher value here, of course, results in a more complex mesh. And, of course, this mesh is of uniform density, which isn't always desirable. You can subdivide different areas of a model at varying densities by applying Freeze to selected patch surfaces, changing the Patch Division setting as you go, but this can produce undesirable results, such as portions of the object being detached from the rest. But Freeze you must, because Layout does not accept models in the MetaNURBS format. Thus, alas, it's not easy to animate objects' shapes via this method, unless you use it to create a series of morph targets, taking care to maintain a constant polygon count.

Modeler's MetaNURBS function is nowhere near as powerful as the NURBS implementations in programs like Softimage and Rhino, but it's very user-friendly for clay-like modeling with the ability to see the results in real time, thanks to the program's OpenGL preview.

Okay, we can see your eyes are starting to glaze over, so we'll finish up with a whirlwind tour of Modeler's remaining features. The Modify panel lets you move, rotate and scale objects, and drag vertices around. It also offers powerful "flex" tools: Shear, Twist, two varieties of Taper, and Bend. And the deform tools include Magnet, Vortex, two Pole tools, which act like a repulsing magnet, and Dragnet, a combination of the Drag and Magnet tools. This panoply of versatile, responsive tools gives Modeler the kind of modeling power other programs can only dream about.

Next we have the Multiply tools for adding detail to existing objects.

These include Extrude and Lathe for converting outlines into 3D objects, Mirror for reflecting objects (i.e., create half of an object such as a face, mirror it and then join the two sides to save time) and Knife for subdividing polygons interactively. Bevel moves individual polys inward or outward with an optional inset, and Smooth Shift moves groups of polys in or out as a unit. You can also extrude polys along motion paths created in Layout (e.g., animate an object and then create a tunnel for the motion), or along paths you create in Modeler. Morph, like other programs' Skin function, lets you connect a series of more-or-less parallel polys, and Clone duplicates an object with offset, rotation and scaling, e.g., to make a spiral staircase.

In Polygon you can create vertices, and add them to and remove them from existing polys. You can attach and detach polys to and from surfaces (a not-so-useful throwback), and create surfaces by giving groups of polys a name, color and other attributes. You can also subdivide, flip and align polys.

The Tools panel lets you Drill objects using a background template (2D polys or curves) with four options: Core and Tunnel, which leave behind only polys inside or outside the template; and Stencil/Slice, which subdivide the object according to the template, with the former optionally creating new surfaces. You can use Drill with Stencil, for example, to add polys in the form of a word to a surface. Then there are the Boolean functions, which let you add and subtract 3D shapes. Other Tools let you merge points and quantize them to grid coordinates, randomize vertices and smooth surfaces.

Finally, in the Display panel, one finds tools for panning and zooming windows, measuring distances, setting different image backdrops for the various windows, setting display options for the preview/perspective window, and hiding and unhiding entities.

Conclusion

As we warned, we've had to skip over a number of LightWave features, especially most of the terrific plug-ins. Nonetheless, the program is not without flaws. First and foremost is the state of the documentation.

LightWave comes with two good, printed manuals: reference and tutorial. But a big, complex program like this needs thorough online documentation, and, alas, there isn't much to speak of. The one exception is a set of HTML files that document LScript, an ARexx/C/C++-like scripting language that lets you control most of LightWave's functionality via text files.

There are known problems with multithreading. You can set the renderer to use one, two or four threads. Interestingly, even on a two-processor machine, using four threads is often faster than two. At any rate, many of the plug-ins, such as the cool cel shaders that render in 2D-animation style, are not multithreaded, and if one of these is invoked during a multithreaded render, the program crashes. Also, polygons in transparent objects disappear at random during multithreaded renders. This latter problem was called to our attention by a newsgroup message from Eric Jones of Web/multimedia production house Vision Factory (http://www.visionfactory.com). On the other hand, in an unsolicited testimonial, Eric writes:

"I must still say that LW 5.5 is our favorite 3D program, and we wouldn't give it up unless a gun was placed against our collective head. Perhaps not even then. In terms of sheer power, image-render quality, plug-in architecture, multiplatform support, etc., etc., LW blows most other similarly priced packages out of the water. I don't know of any other program that gives you literally unlimited distributed rendering capacity (via ScreamerNet), from just one licensed seat.

"There are more animators using LW for film/TV production than any other single Intel-based package, and this history shows. I mean, just go see Titanic if you need proof of its power. The [multithreading] bug is a bother primarily in the design phase of a project, where you're constantly rendering and re-rendering a scene on one machine as you build the scene.

During the [final] rendering process, we use ScreamerNet, with one SN node on every Intel processor in the building (so we would have two nodes on each of our dual-processor machines)."

The obvious program to compare LightWave to is 3D Studio MAX. With its unified interface and great online documentation, the latter is better integrated and is probably more suitable for beginners, albeit well-heeled ones. And certainly, 3DS MAX excels in animation editing and the brilliant stack-oriented process, where you can go back and modify an object at any stage of the modeling process. But LightWave is more advanced in a number of ways, not the least being that's available on more platforms. And it is a couple of thousand dollars cheaper on most of those platforms, perhaps at the expense of a steeper learning curve. It also incorporates some features that you have to pay extra for in MAX, in the form of plug-ins (we're thinking mainly of advanced bones animation here). A number of artists use both: The combined cost is significantly less than that of a single Softimage package. Which to buy? If you're still undecided, hang out in the Usenet newsgroups, ask for recommendations, and keep your eyes open for folks selling their copies at a deep discount. But be careful about buying from individuals over the Internet.

Bottom line: We're deeply impressed with LightWave's prowess and versatility, and are planning to spend a lot more the program in the coming months. We think you'll like it too. In particular, we recommend LightWave to VRML and real-time game developers because of the availability of Decimate and qemLOSS, two wonderful freeware polygon-reduction plug-ins for Modeler. Find more on these two at

http://amber.rc.arizona.edu/lw/decimate.html and http://amber.rc.arizona.edu/lw/qemloss.html.

 

Find NewTek online at http://www.newtek.com.

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LogoMotion

Upon reading the above LightWave 3D review, you may have thought something like, "But I just want to create a fancy 3D logo for my Web site! Why should I have to spend thousands of dollars and many weeks learning a program like LightWave?" If so, then you've come to the right place. Newly available is LogoMotion 2.1, MetaCreations' low-cost, easy-to-use, but surprisingly powerful program for folks like you. Previous incarnations, from Specular International (since acquired by MetaCreations), were available only for the Mac, but now Windows users have access to this nifty tool as well. Because LogoMotion renders via ray tracing, the results are high in visual quality, if a bit slow in coming.

As its name implies, LogoMotion is aimed at folks who want to create flying logos and such, the staple application of 3D graphics. The program sports a good range of tools, including text creation, and the ability to lathe and extrude objects from imported EPS outlines. Also, you can import 3D objects in the DXF and 3DMF formats.

But so beginners can be up and running with little delay, LogoMotion provides helpers in the form of "StageHands." These are various scene elements: backdrops (you can add your own images) and animated props, lights and cameras. To insert a StageHand in your scene, simply choose the appropriate type, and then drag it from a scrolling list into the Camera window. The props are plentiful and nifty; category choices include Birthday, Business Graphics, Circle o' Stars/$igns/Arrows, Hollywood, Potpourri, Sci Fi and various types of Shooters. Click on one and you get a thumbnail pre-rendered animation. The same goes for lights, and cameras; categories of supplied camera motions include Fly Bys, Tilts, Pans and Zooms, and you can also create your own.

In addition, you can create and use materials, including texture maps, by dragging them from a list onto the affected object. You can map textures onto extruded objects such as text in two ways: flat (the default), and cubical, which purportedly maps flat onto each of the six sides: front and back, top and bottom, and left and right. However, the latter option, in our tests with text, did not behave as expected, seemingly mapping flat at an oblique angle to the object.

A powerful Bevel editor lets you reshape the text bevel interactively at any time by clicking in a small window and dragging on two axes. Object Info permits moving, rotating and scaling object by the numbers for accuracy; interactive manipulation is also possible. The Atmosphere section lets you set a colored background, the ambient light level, and fog effects for that mysterious look. You can also select from the included selection of environment maps, to be reflected by glossy objects, or provide one of your own. The Mac version supports PICT, PICS and QuickTime movies; in Windows, you can use AVI, BMP, JPEG and PSD. And you can set the rendering mode from bounding box, wireframe, and three qualities of solid; enable and disable shadows and set the rendering window size.

LogoMotion has a few other neat tricks up its sleeve. Morphing, or changing objects' shapes during an animation, is not a feature normally found in low-end programs, but it's fully implemented in LogoMotion. You can morph between two lathed or extruded shapes, but not across the two different types. Text morphing is more flexible; you can metamorphose smoothly between any two text phrases regardless of the fonts/styles, number of characters and so on. But because the transition is created algorithmically, interim results can look kind of bizarre. Also, you can break up text phrases so as to manipulate and edit the individual characters.

LogoMotion uses a timeline-based animation editor called the Sequencer.

Objects' keyframes, set by going to a frame and manipulating the object, are indicated with editable markers, which can be copied and dragged.

Double-clicking on a marker lets you set transitions to linear or spline; in the latter case, you can set tension, bias and continuity between keys.

You can also set up object hierarchies by dragging one object on top of another. And if a object's pivot point needs to be outside the object (e.g., an orbiting planet), you use an invisible object as the parent.

New in version 2.1 is a simple spline editor (updated from the previous polygon editor) that lets you modify lathed and extruded objects point by point, and even create new ones. In the latter case, you would begin with a throwaway object, because you can't start from scratch. Tools include mirror, rotate, scale and razor, which lets you subdivide objects. There's no grid snap, but you can snap points to other points.

LogoMotion is mostly a fine program, but there are a few drawbacks, not the least of which is an utter lack of online documentation, or even tool tips.

The manual is a user guide, not a reference, so it can be difficult to find out how certain commands work. Also, it's more of a port of a Macintosh program than it is a Windows program (we haven't used the Mac version).

Rendering is slow, even when using scanline mode (non-ray tracing) on a fast machine. There's no support for hardware 3D acceleration.

Interestingly, the Windows version has a QuickDraw 3D mode that lets you get almost-real-time solid animation previews, as long as your scene doesn't have too many polygons. If, during recalculation of the screen image after moving an object or camera, etc., you scroll a list in the user interface, the rendering stops and the screen remains blank. Lastly, while not overly crash-prone, LogoMotion did die several times as we were using it.

But at $99 for friendly, powerful software that gets the job done quickly, with little muss or fuss, LogoMotion is hard to beat. Even if you're a professional animator, you might want to keep it around for small jobs that don't require high-end 3D-graphics muscle power.

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

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Shadow Master

If you like first-person shooters, but hate big bugs, Shadow Master is the game for you. The addictive Psygnosis game has a complex pedigree, having been developed by HammerHead (nee Tales Two), an offshoot of Travelers Tales (Mickey Mania/Toy Story). It's just out for PlayStation, and coming soon for 3D-accelerated PCs.

The titular character is an evil alien dictator who's come to your neighborhood for resources to continue his millennia-long war. Of course, your neighborhood is like nothing you've ever seen before, having been designed by British fantasy artist Rodney Matthews. His style includes sweeping curves, thorny plant life and barbed insectoid critters. With Matthews' propensity to color his landscapes in rich hues of green and blue, gold and purple, you're not likely to encounter many of the dull, slab-like interiors found in most Quake clones. In fact, much of the game takes place outdoors, and there's practically no fog, so the spaces look big.

The gameplay is a bit different as well. The first distinguishing characteristic is that you're driving a battle tank, not walking. So there's no head bob, and you can't stop on a dime, which, with the game worlds' many twists and turns, often places you at the center of the action. Even if you'd rather not be. You can move sideways, though, and should do so as often as possible to dodge incoming fire. There's another reason to keep moving forward, besides the fact that it's hard to stop.

Most creatures, when killed, drop one or more crystals that replenish your shield slightly, but which vanish after a few seconds. These are meant to encourage the player to be aggressive in combat, rather than hanging back and sniping at targets. Other pickups provide additional weapons, shield power and so on.

There's not much more to it. The game features 16 large levels in seven worlds full of lots of different kinds of scary creatures. It's unfortunate that you can save only at the end of each world, so if you get killed, you've got to slog once again through all preceding levels since the last save. There are a few rudimentary puzzles throughout, but the emphasis is on shooting rather than puzzle solving. Shadow Master is a technical tour de force, with up to eight baddies at a time firing firing dynamically light-sourced missiles at you, while maintaining a smooth 30 fps.

In the quibbles area, it often sounds as though there's a creature shrieking right behind you, when there's actually none around. Speaking of which, the game makes great use of QSound, and the sound effects are absolutely ghastly (it can be overwhelming at times). Shadow Master is an addictive must for twitchy-fingered 3D action-game fans, but the faint of heart should keep away.

Scare yourself silly at http://www.psygnosis.com.

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Virtual Pool 2

Just out for virtual sharks, hustlers and poolhall wannabes is Virtual Pool 2 (VP2), a superb simulation of one of the few "sports" that can be played well by folks who aren't in tip-top physical condition. And now you don't even have to lift that heavy pool cue!

This Windows 95 game, published by Interplay's VR Sports subsidiary, was developed by Celeris, whose programmers earned their chops creating military simulations under government contracts. Yet another benefit of the end of the Cold War! You can play full-screen or in a window. VP2 lets you take advantage of 3D hardware acceleration and/or Pentium Pro/Pentium II optimization. What's truly remarkable is that on our system with 3Dfx Voodoo card and a 266Mhz Pentium II, optimization without 3D acceleration was about 30 percent faster than optimization with 3D acceleration, and it looked better!

VP2 offers lots of options. You can practice by yourself or with computer opponents of varying skill such as Chalkalot Moose and Mrs. Offen (get it?), or play against another human on the same computer or via modem, serial cable, IPX (LAN) or TCP/IP (Internet). There's no matching service for Internet play, so you've got to pre-arrange a game, and be up on your Internet Protocol (don't ask Miss Manners). You can also set up trick shots, and there's an option to play Shark Skins, which isn't explained in the documentation, but seems to be a series: Three Ball, Six Ball and Nine Ball. Other games supported by VP2 are Eight Ball (four variants, including American Bar rules), Rotation, Ten Ball, Bank Pool, One Pocket and Straight Pool. You can select one of three preset tables, or create a custom table by adjusting table speed and size, and pocket size and cut.

When you begin a game, you're placed in Aim mode, looking down your stick at the cue ball. Moving the mouse rotates the stick and moves your position, so you continue looking down the stick. You can zoom in and out by pressing the left mouse button and dragging the mouse. To shoot, press the S key, draw the mouse and stick back, and let 'er rip! Other options available with different keys let you alter English, change the stick's vertical angle and change your view. If you need an extra-hard hit, you can amplify the mouse movement, and conversely, Fine Tune lets you slow down the game's response to your input. Additionally, when practicing you can turn on Tracking, which uses colored lines to show you the result of your current shot with the current Force setting, which you can adjust. And the options go on: You can ask the computer to suggest a shot, undo or replay the last shot, spot the lowest ball and so on. And speaking of help, there's a large selection of excellent instructive videos by experts Mike Sigel and Lou "Machine Gun" Butera. After each video, you can optionally try the shot yourself, automatically set up for you by VP2.

Playing VP2 is marvelously realistic. The balls have a shiny specular spot, and make satisfying clicking and thunking sounds when hitting each other and the rail, respectively. Input and output are silky smooth, and the physical simulation is very convincing--the stick even chalks itself! It's hard to imagine how you could get any closer to real pool on a computer than with VP2. The only thing missing is the smells: cigarette smoke and spilt beer. Ah, those were the days!

Climbing up on the old soapbox for a moment, we don't mind Interplay following Hollywood's lead by playing trailers for forthcoming products at the start of the installation process of any of their games. What bothers us is the fact that they can't be bypassed. If you've paid $40-50 for a product, you shouldn't be forced to sit through coming attractions, mercifully brief though they may be.

Chalk up at http://www.interplay.com.

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F.Y.I.

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Spectrum Reviews, a sister publication to Spectrum, is published approximately every other week for the interactive media professional community by Motion Blur Media. It offers 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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