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

20 February 1998 Written and edited by David Duberman for editorial/ subscription inquiries, send mailto:duberman@dnai.com --------------------------------------------------

Today's Reviews (details below)

--Age of Empires --Teac 32X MAX CD-ROM

NEW BOOKS

--3D Studio MAX 2 Fundamentals --Developing Web Pages with TV-HTML --Photoshop Channel Chops --Dynamic HTML --Java Master Reference --HTML 4 Unleashed: Professional Reference Edition --Using HTML 4 Fourth Edition --About Spectrum Reviews -------------------------------------------------- Age of Empires Microsoft has been trying to break into the games business for some time, but most of the company's releases to date have been less than memorable. All that's changed, though, with the release of Age of Empires (AoE), one of the best games in recent memory. The Win95-native title was created by Dallas-based Ensemble Studios, a startup game-development company led by designer Bruce Shelley. Shelley obviously learned well from his experience working on hit titles such as Civilization and Railroad Tycoon, because his newest creation has playability out the wazoo. Age of Empires is a real-time strategy game with elements of Civilization (empire-building) and a real-world historical theme. There are several ways to play. The game includes a good variety of scenarios with varying goals and necessary tactics, plus four nicely ramped campaigns of consecutive scenarios. You can also play a random map or death match, winning by achieving one of several different victory conditions. Gameplay is similar to Warcraft II, in that you typically start with a few units and resources, which you use to construct additional units and buildings, expanding your resources and strengthening your forces in order to defend against and attack enemy troops. You play as one of 12 ancient civilizations, including Phoenician, Egyptian, Greek and Yamato. Each has specific strengths, such as increased speed for some units, and weaknesses, such as various types of units, buildings and techniques not available to it. In a typical game, your tribe starts out in the Stone Age, able only to hunt, forage, construct a few types of buildings, and produce villagers (for production) and axemen for fighting. After you've fulfilled certain conditions, such as gathering enough food and producing a minimum variety of structures, you can advance to the Tool Age, where you're able to farm, create archers and horsemen, construct stronger buildings and so on. Also, at this point you can start researching technologies that enhance resource gathering as well as offensive and defensive capabilities. Eventually, if you survive, you reach the Bronze Age, and finally the Iron Age, where you can build Wonders, such as pyramids, which serve as victory conditions. So you never get aloft, but seagoing vessels do play an important role in the game. Also, I particularly enjoyed the religious aspect: Besides healing your units, priests can convert enemy forces to your side, and their powers are enhanced by researching such concepts as Afterlife (increases conversion range) and Fanaticism (enables faster recovery after a conversion). The mechanics of playing AoE are flexible and intuitive. For example, there are two grouping methods. After selecting several units (with the standard click-and-drag bounding box, and/or multiple Ctrl-click methods), you can click a Group icon, after which clicking on any member selects the entire group. Alternatively, you can press Ctrl plus a number key, and thereafter select the group by pressing the number key. You can't combine these methods with a single group, so you have to decide whether you're a keypress general or a clicker. I prefer the former method because it lets you select offscreen units. While AoE is marked by a overall air of excellence, two factors in particular make it stand out from the pack. First, the game is extraordinarily well balanced, continually forcing you to make strategic decisions with crucial long-term consequences. Do you create more villagers to create resources, or more axemen to protect your villagers from marauding enemy units? Or do you wait to build up a large food reserve so you can research more efficient farming methods, thus allowing you to create more villagers and axemen down the road? Then there's the top-notch AI (artificial intelligence). For once, computer-controlled enemy units act as if they're actually thinking for themselves. For example, enemy bowmen, when attacked by your axemen, will shoot, and then run, and then shoot again. Even better, if an off-shore scout ship is shooting arrows at one of your villagers who's constructing a building, he'll move around to the other side, to be out of range, and continue building. The game is filled with countless impressive visual and behavioral details like this that are really marvelous to see! There are, as always, a few flies in the ointment. You can build a sizable population in a short while (you're typically limited to a maximum of 50 units), and if workers run out of a resource (or finish building, etc.) they become idle. Sometimes workers just stop in their tracks, particularly if they're stymied by a traffic jam. After a certain waiting period, the game seems to just give up trying to move them. There should be some kind of hot key for finding idle workers, or at least cycling through units of a particular type. You can create paths with waypoints, but you cannot create patrol paths along which defenders can repeatedly travel. Thanks to the good AI, this isn't necessary, as fighters are relatively alert and often, but not always, attack any nearby enemies. In naval battles, when resources are tight and you're relying on land units (e.g., watchtowers) for support, you have to micromanage, because otherwise your warships will go after the enemy, letting him get out of range of the on-shore shooters. There are only three game speeds; there should be more. There's no display of what type of unit a building is creating. Worst of all, there's no way to instruct a building to create more than one unit at a time, so you've got to micromanage unit construction. Back on the plus side, AoE comes with a superb scenario builder, with enough options to almost make it a full-fledged game design environment, including the ability to customize computer-controlled characters' AI. The game includes excellent online help, great tutorials, and an eight-player multiplayer mode that lets you find out your IP address, so you can send it to your friends and play without a server (works great!), and the ability to play pre-recorded taunts by typing in a number. Besides sales (850,000 copies purchased to date and still going strong), one of the best indicators of a game's success is its Internet presence, and AoE's is second to none. According to CNET's GameCenter, there are currently 35 non-corporate (i.e., fan-created) Web sites dedicated to AoE. Standing head and shoulders above the competition is Age of Empires Heaven (http://age.gamestats.com/age), a large, beautifully designed site with news, interviews, strategy tips and scads of downloads, including scenarios, campaigns and utilities. Bottom line: If you've any interest at all in this sort of pastime, consider AoE a must. It's fun, educational _and_ addictive! -------------------------------------------------- Teac 32X MAX CD-ROM I recently took a look at TEAC's new 32X MAX CD-ROM drive (street price $129). The reason for the "MAX" qualifier is that it actually spins at 12X to 32X, depending on which part of the CD it's reading. The drive's compatibility is up to date; it reads audio, Mode 1, Mode 2 (Form 1, Form 2), XA ready, CII, multi-session Photo, Video and i-Trax CDs. The rotational speed is specified to be 6,850 rpm and sustained data transfer rate is from 2,000 KBps to 4,800 KBps. Typical access time is 85msec and the data buffer is 128KB in size. Installation of the IDE drive was a no-brainer. I unplugged my old drive, plugged in the new one, and Windows 95 recognized it instantly. The package includes a 3.5" floppy disk with drivers for installing the drive under DOS and Windows 3.1. To test the 32X MAX, I compared its speed with my previous CD-ROM drive, TEAC's CD-512E 12X drive. I used both drives to copy the World Creating Toolkit CD-ROM, which comes with 3D Studio MAX, to my hard drive several times. The disc contains about 2,000 files totaling 549MB of data. Averaging the results, the 12X drive took 5 minutes and 55 seconds, while the 32X MAX took 4 minutes and 40 seconds, about 20 percent less time. The second test, using more of a real-world situation, involved installing Origin's Wing Commander Prophecy. Using the Medium install option, which copies about 200MB of data to the hard drive, the 32X MAX took 1 minute 50 seconds, while the 12X drive took 2 minutes 10 seconds; the new drive saved about 15 percent of the install time. As with most technology upgrades, the improvement percentage is incrementally smaller than with previous upgrades, but it's still faster. If you do a lot of copying or installing from CD-ROM, you'll definitely save time with TEAC's 32X MAX. Find more at http://www.teac.com. --------------------------------------------------

NEW BOOKS

3D Studio MAX 2 Fundamentals $44.99; ISBN 1-56205-839-8 When Kinetix released 3D Studio MAX 2 with over 1,000 new features last fall, the company virtually guaranteed new interest in their flagship 3D graphics application. Now New Riders, the book publisher that has most consistently supported 3D Studio in its various incarnations over the years, has updated its Fundamentals book for the new version. As a beginners' guide, the book doesn't go into any great depth on the program's features, but it gives a good overview of most of them. After an introduction to 3D graphics fundamentals, author Michael Todd Peterson gets into the program's interface, discussing such important elements as viewports, command panels, grids and snaps display, followed by a short tutorial that lets the reader get his or her feet wet in various aspects of program usage by creating a pulsating, exploding hedra. Next come several chapters on modeling and editing, followed by a section on scene composition, which covers lights, cameras, materials and rendering. Finally, there's a section on animation, and the book closes with a glossary. The CD-ROM contains MAX and AVI files, models and textures, plus Lotus ScreenCam movies, which provide a visual reference for each tutorial. Speaking of which, this book is a little long on explanations, and short on tutorials, which is really how people learn complex programs like this. But overall, it's pretty good, and makes a useful companion to the MAX documentation for beginners. Read the Amazon.com Reviews
Developing Web Pages with TV-HTML $39.95; ISBN 1-886801-42-8 Like or not, the Web, or at least parts of it, are getting to be more like TV every day. And thanks to devices like WebTV, people are accessing cyberspace via the boob tube. Few people are more familiar with this phenomenon than Joseph T. Sinclair, an occasional contributor to Spectrum. In this book, just out from Charles River Media, Sinclair discusses the special considerations required by developers for this new hybrid medium. He covers navigational issues, graphics, typography, and video issues such as the various differences between a computer and a television. He provides a brief overview of the new markups used by various Internet appliances, and gives detailed information about how to go about creating content for set-top consumers. If you're interested in getting involved with the latest incarnation of interactive television, this book is a great place to start. Read the Amazon.com Reviews
Photoshop Channel Chops $39.99; ISBN 1-56205-723-5 David Biedny and Bert Monroy are a couple of Photoshop gurus, and in this book, they team up with Nathan Moody to bring you the definitive book on using the venerable program's channel operations. An entertaining and educational introduction by Biedny discusses pre-digital compositing technology, a history of Photoshop, and sections entitled Why Are You Reading This? and Monkeys Push Buttons, Humans Push Their Brains. The chapters proper cover channels, alpha channels, layers, calculations (Biedny hates what Adobe did to calculations in version 4, so uses a hypothetical Calculations box for part of the chapter), paths and blue screen/green screen. At 226 pages, it doesn't seem very long, but it's got more good stuff than many books twice as long, including lots of groovy color illustrations. Read the Amazon.com Reviews
Dynamic HTML $39.99; ISBN 0-7645-8053-1 Quite a few excellent tools for creating DHTML have hit the streets lately, such as Macromedia's DreamWeaver and mBed Interactor, but it never hurts to know what's going on under the hood. In 570 pages, author Shelley Powers, a regular contributor to Netscape World, offers coverage of the Microsoft and Netscape dynamic HTML extensions, including a quick reference to keywords. Chapter titles include Positioning HTML Elements (for both browsers); Adding Interactive Content to Web Pages; Creating an Interactive Presentation for Both Browsers; and Creating a Progressive Document for Both Browsers. Powers' style is friendly and accessible, and she offers lots of code examples, which are also available from the accompanying CD-ROM. Read the Amazon.com Reviews
Java Master Reference $69.99; ISBN 0-7645-3084-4 This book from IDG Books is subtitled The Definitive Java Language Reference, and at 1,610 pages, that's probably an accurate description. Author Arthur Griffith organized the contents alphabetically, letting you look up topics by keyword, function, concept (e.g., wrapper), structure and capability (e.g., exception). Whether you're just getting started in Java or are writing the next great word processor in this hot new language, you'll most likely find this book an essential keyboard-side companion. Read the Amazon.com Reviews
HTML 4 Unleashed: Professional Reference Edition $59.99; ISBN 1-57521-380-X Web development keeps getting more complex, so it never hurts to have an extra reference around to help you keep up. Sams.net has a good one in this hardcover by Rick Darnell et al. The content is divided into two sections. Timely Solutions covers new features in HTML 4; how to structure, align and format text in Web pages; managing Web color; binding live databases to Web pages; using style sheets, events and scripting to create dynamic HTML and much more, all illustrated with copious sample code. The reference section lists every element and attribute with a description, syntax, notes, and examples; and includes a cross-browser reference of HTML 4 tags. Cool tools on the CD-ROM include HotDog for Windows, PageSpinner for Mac, all the book's source code and much more. Read the Amazon.com Reviews
Using HTML 4 Fourth Edition $39.99; ISBN 0-7897-1449-3 And the HTML 4 books keep coming, this time in a 1,100-page paperback from Que. Authors Mark Brown and Jerry Honeycutt show readers how to master the new features and tags, talk about the differences between the two major browsers, demonstrate adding lists and multimedia to Web pages, and give the lowdown on applying cascading style sheets. The CD-ROM includes HTML code, graphics and templates, plus HTML editors and utilities, graphics editors, JavaScript and CGI applications, and of course, IE4. Read the Amazon.com Reviews

F.Y.I.

About Spectrum Reviews 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 Send review product and press kits by mail to Spectrum Reviews, Attn: David Duberman, 1609 Addison St. #6, Berkeley, CA 94703. Publisher's note: We are now accepting limited advertising. If you'd like to offer your company's products or services to Spectrum's elite audience of Internet and multimedia professionals, send an email query to mailto:duberman@dnai.com, or telephone 510-549-2894 during West Coast business hours. If you contact companies or organizations mentioned here, please tell them you saw their product/service in Spectrum Reviews. Thanks. ┬ęCopyright 1998 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.
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