Spectrum Reviews: Interactive Media & Online Developer Product/Service Reviews
20 February 1998
Written and edited by David Duberman
for editorial/ subscription inquiries, send mailto:email@example.com
Today's Reviews (details below)
--Age of Empires
--Teac 32X MAX CD-ROM
--3D Studio MAX 2 Fundamentals
--Developing Web Pages with TV-HTML
--Photoshop Channel Chops
--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.
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
Read the Amazon.com Reviews
$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
Read the Amazon.com Reviews
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
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