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

13 January 1998

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

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Editorial

Welcome to the latest edition of Spectrum Reviews. This sister publication to Spectrum, published approximately every other week, 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

This week, we've got a special treat for 3D graphics enthusiasts: reviews of two vastly different new metaballs tools, plus a cool real-world textures disc. The usual motley assortment of games and multimedia titles rounds out this latest installment. Ain't we got fun!

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Today's Reviews (details below)

--Organica

--Seamless Textures You Can Really Use

--Clay Studio Pro

--Battlespire

--Microshaft Winblows 98

--Redneck Rampage: Suckin' Grits on Route 66

--Sweet! Digizine

--About Spectrum Reviews

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Organica

In the current state of the art of 3D modeling, there are two ways to create organic shapes (e.g., heads and bodies, as opposed to machines and architecture). The first is NURBS modeling, a relatively esoteric technique used primarily by advanced modelers. For the rest of us, there's metaballs, in which spheres in close proximity "melt" together to create smooth, flowing shapes that would be far more difficult to obtain by other methods.

Typically, shapes can also act subtractively, creating indentations and holes in other shapes. Metaballs modeling is relatively easy to get started with; it's simply a matter of positioning shapes near each other, and then seeing how the result looks. But it's not that easy to get sophisticated results, especially with the primitive shapes restrictions maintained by most metaballs programs. That's where Organica ($299), a new standalone metaballs modeling and animation program from Impulse, Inc. (makers of the 3D graphics application Imagine), differs from the rest.

In most cases, Organica couldn't be easier to use. The Windows program (Mac coming soon) boasts a clean, colorful, icon-based interface, and because the functionality isn't terribly complex, for the most part you really don't even need the manual. There are three dockable toolbars. The Metablocks toolbar contains all of the 3D building blocks; the Modes toolbar offers commands like Move, Rotate and Select, and the Functions offers extended commands, many of which apply to multiple selected objects.

There's also an Animation Controls panel, which lets you record keyframed animation.

Most metaballs programs we've seen restrict you to building shapes with spheres and ovoids, and if you're lucky, maybe cubes and cylinders.

Organica goes way beyond these by offering 25 (!) primitives. Besides the shapes mentioned above, there's pyramid, wedge (an extruded triangle), bowl, convex and concave lens-type shapes, barrel, hourglass, football and more. Some of these, such as the bent rod, could be created by modifying others, but it's nice to have them all accessible at a click of the mouse.

That's just the start. Double-clicking on a primitive opens a tabbed Properties panel with a wealth of options for modifying how it appears and how it interacts with other primitives. The first panel, Attributes, lets you set the object's color, mesh strength (relative influence) and color strength (how much it influences the color of nearby objects). There's no texture mapping in Organica, but if you set an object to have color strength but no mesh strength, you can use it to simply change part of another object's surface color without itself rendering.

Attributes also lets you disable the object (turn it off) and set it to be subtractive. And, if you want to be able to select all members of a group by clicking on any one, you have to provide a family name in Attributes, pick the rest, and then use the Make Same Family tool. Not so intuitive, but it works. An alternative grouping method lets you create an object pecking order, useful for hierarchical animation.

The next Properties panel, Shape, offers up to six sliders of various shape-altering settings, depending on the shape. For example, the cylinder primitive Shape settings include Rounder, which determines how spherical the object is, and Wider, which seems to maintain the shape's overall volume while altering its proportions between a disk and a rod. The disk slice primitive has an Angle setting, which seems to go between one degree (parallel sides) and 180 degrees (semi-circle), and the barrel primitive has a Bulge setting.

Next, there are two Deformation panels. The first provides sliders for resizing the primitive on any combination of the X, Y and Z axes, plus shear controls and a Mirror option. The axis labels, here as everywhere, are color coded to correspond to appropriate areas on a selected object, so you can anticipate the results of a particular change.

The second Deformation panel, aptly titled More Deformations, lets you taper and twist an object along any of the three axes, and bend the object on any of six planes created by combing two axes in different order. This panel actually offers three different faces, so that you can combine effects in practically unlimited ways. For example, you could twist an object simultaneously around the X, Y and Z axes, although there's probably no earthly reason why you'd want to. All these effects are animatable, by the way. Finally, although you can move and rotate objects interactively, if you need more accuracy, the Position panel lets you do it by the numbers.

The Modes toolbar lets you select and hide objects, and move, rotate and scale them, along any and all axes. There's no Copy icon, but if you use Ctrl-C to copy a selected object, you can use the Paste icon to place a copy anywhere by clicking on the spot. There's also an "In Place" tool which affects how multiple objects resize or rotate (couldn't figure out how this one works), and tools that let you pick grouped objects with one click.

In the Functions toolbar, you'll find tools that let you control objects' mesh resolution, mirror objects, make all selected objects the same color, mesh strength or color strength, and group items. One particularly neat function is Clone, which creates an array of objects along a path specified by the positions of two or more objects. What's more, it remembers which objects it created so that you can "re-clone" the objects by moving one of the original objects and re-invoking the function. Finally, the Animation function lets you create keyframe animations in an intuitive manner.

Of course, if you're not generating stills and animations directly from Organica, you're going to want to export objects in a format that's compatible with your target program of choice. Currently, that's limited to Imagine object (.IOB), AutoCAD DXF, LightWave .LWO, and 3D Studio .3DS.

Unfortunately, as indicated by the name of the export function--Save Mesh Object--any animation or hierarchical structure is lost upon export.

In the quibbles department, we found it somewhat difficult to pick objects, as they can only be selected by clicking on a small dot at their center.

Also, it's a bit weird that buttons that aren't currently selectable (typically because they pertain only to groups and only one object is selected) appear as solid gray fields with different constellation-like patterns of white dots on each, rather than ghosted.

Otherwise, Organica seems to be fairly robust, and the online manual in Acrobat (.PDF) format makes it easy to look up functions. It also provides some decent tutorials to help users get started. With its wealth of metaballs shapes and functionality for using them, Organica is a classic example of the unique software typically produced by Impulse Inc., and one we can recommend you add to your toolset. Congrats to designer Mike Halvorson and programmer Zack Knutson for a great new 3D program.

There's more info about Organica online at http://www.coolfun.com.

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Seamless Textures You Can Really Use

We recently ran an item in Spectrum about Marlin Studios' new $99 CD-ROM with the unwieldy title, "Seamless Textures You Can Really Use." Since then we've had a little time to play with the product, and we have to say, if you're interested in replicating or creating real-world type scenes, whether in three dimensions or two, this is one of the best places to start. Whether you're producing a game, a Web site, an industrial simulation, a presentation or just about any other type of project incorporating digital imagery, this is something you can use. The textures look great, they tile well, and there's terrific variety.

Content organization is straightforward. The CD contains three directories: Index, Textures and Bumpmaps. In Index, you'll find a text file in Word and .txt format listing the disc's contents, including the categories:

· Bricks

· Carpets

· Clouds

· Concretes

· Doors

· Fabrics

· Fences

· Gadgets

· Grasses

· Ground Covers

· Marbles

· Metals

· Paint Surfaces

· Patios

· Plasters

· Rusty Surfaces

· Shingles

· Shrubbery

· Stone Walls

· Stones

· Stucco

· Tiles

· Tree Barks

· Wickers

· Windows

· Woods

· Wallpaper

The text file lists the file name of each texture and corresponding bump map image, but it's easy to remember--it's just the texture file name followed by "b." The Index directory also contains 45 JPEG images with thumbnails of all the textures, showing each's description and file name.

There are 252 JPEG-format texture maps in all, with well-designed matching bump maps for each, excepting these categories: Carpet, Clouds, Fabrics, Marbles and Wallpaper. The images typically range between 350 and 500 pixels square (many are rectangular), which is more than adequate for most texture mapping purposes, especially with tiled surfaces. The variety is slightly reduced by the fact that some of the images are processed versions of others--for example, Rusty Grate is a reddish version of Gray Metal Grate. But still, at well under $1 per texture, you can't complain.

Creating credible seamless real-world textures is not that easy, so this disc can save you a great deal of time and trouble.

Kudos to Tom Marlin and crew for an excellent product at a very reasonable price. Now the only trick is to get this out there. We recommend that some enterprising firm like Digimation or Kinetix pick up Seamless Textures You Can Really Use for distribution, so that digital artists everywhere can take advantage of this great texture collection.

Find more info and free texture samples at http://www.marlinstudios.com.

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Clay Studio Pro

It's all well and good to use 3D graphics applications to replicate places and things in the real world, but the real magic of 3D comes into play when you want to create something that exists only in your imagination. One of the best ways to do that is with metaballs, and one of the best implementations of metaballs for Wintel-based computers is Digimation's $395 Clay Studio Pro (CSP). For the uninitiated, a brief explanation: Metaballs is a way of building virtual 3D objects out of elements which are usually spheres (find more in the Organica review in this edition of Spectrum Reviews). Each element has a volume (or field) of positive or negative influence which combines with other elements to create a smoothly flowing, complex surface. Clay Studio Pro extends this by letting you use clay splines, by themselves or in conjunction with the spheres, for vastly more flexible functionality. Metaballs is great for making cartoony, rubbery 3D objects and characters that melt into and out of each other, especially with CSP's nicely rounded bag of tricks.

CSP is a plug-in for 3D Studio MAX, so it's fully integrated with the rest of the program. One way to start is by adding a clay sphere. This has the option of being an ellipsoid, so you can set individual thicknesses on the X, Y and Z axes. The first tutorial takes advantage of this by using five thin ellipsoidal clay spheres to build a double-headed axe blade. You can also draw a clay spline, essential a curved line with an elongated influence field. When creating the spline, you click and drag at each vertex, adjusting the corresponding clay "knot's" size.

You can edit a clay spline as a whole, or knot by knot, adjusting the size and angle interactively or with a pop-up dialog. The dialog also lets you adjust the knots incoming and outgoing bezier handles separately, and move the knot along the length of the spline between the surrounding knots.

Unfortunately, the spinners for these numeric adjustments don't work like MAX's spinners--you have to keep the mouse button held down over the arrow button and wait, if you're making a big change. Of course, keyboard input is accepted as well. Finally, a special animation option lets you exaggerate the bulging effect between knots for all knots or on a per-knot basis. This is useful for creating bulging muscles and similar effects. And speaking of animation, all of CSP's myriad parameters can be animated simply by keyframing them, as you'd expect in any well-designed MAX plug-in.

Once you've created, sized and arranged a group of primitives, you create a clay surface, which is essentially a three-dimensional blend of the primitives. Clay surface settings let you display or hide the surface, primitives and fields of influence separately in wireframe and shaded viewports, and tell the program to render (or not) the surface and/or primitives. You can also set the surface's mesh resolution separately in the viewports and the final rendering. In most cases, a setting of 100 for the render detail produces satisfactory results, but you can set it as high as 10,000 for exacting situations.

Other clay surface parameters relate to texture mapping, letting you choose whether mapping will be applied according to a standard MAX UVW mapping modifier or from CSP's own very cool "sticky mapping" capability. The latter is particularly preferable in situations where individual clay spheres that make up a surface are to be animated, allowing the part of the image map applied to each sphere to move along with the sphere. Then there are the surface algorithm controls, which let you accommodate the surface generation to the metaballs object's structural makeup.

CSP also provides a set of useful surface-related utilities in the Clay Surface panel. You can set a clay surface to absorb all new primitives, activate or deactivate all primitives, create individual snapshots of your clay surface or a series of shapshots, and precalculate surfaces to save time when animating. Also, when a surface contains sections that must remain discrete (such as the fingers of a hand), the Group Workshop lets you assign primitives to one or more groups that don't influence each other.

That's not all by any means. If you have an existing spline that you want to use as a Clay Studio object, such as an alphanumeric character, you can take advantage of a separate plug-in utility called Clay Converter. This also converts standard objects to clay spheres, and even converts MetaREyes 3.0 metamuscle models to Clay Studio splines. Last but not least, there's a Global Settings utility which lets you determine how clay splines are affected by scaling, transforming and rotating knots.

Problems? Just a few. When rendering CSP objects, the clay surface(s) must first be generated, which can take a while with complex objects. For the impatient, progress is shown in the status bar at the bottom of the screen.

Fortunately, when rendering the same frame or object repeatedly, if the clay surface parameters haven't changed, the surface generation need take place only the first time. Unfortunately, the generation process is single-threaded, and doesn't take advantage of multiple processors. Also, MAX crashes reliably if you add and then immediately delete a clay sphere.

One workaround is to use the Undo function instead.

It never ceases to amaze us how a developer like Digimation can take a basic concept like metaballs and extend it into a supremely useful tool for creating 3D art and animation like Clay Studio Pro. This plug-in is obviously the product of a great deal of inspiration and hard work on the part of designer/programmer Oleg Bayborodin. If you're a serious MAX modeler and/or animator, you'll probably find Clay Studio Pro an essential part of your armamentarium.

Find Digimation online at http://www.digimation.com.

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Battlespire

I'm having a hard time writing this review. To tell you the truth, I'd much rather be playing the game. Battlespire, an addictive, immersive and absorbing new computer role-playing game, was created by Bethesda Softworks in response to customer demand for a more concentrated experience in the Elder Scrolls world than the humongous Daggerfall. Actually, the company bills it as "an action-RPG-adventure game hybrid." You're an aspiring hero on what you thought was a training mission, but suddenly find yourself up to your neck in "real" trouble. You've been transported to Battlespire, a celestial citadel that's been invaded by an evil lord and his minions.

Battlespire, played in the first person using DOOM-style 3D graphics, is basically a single-player computer role-playing game with a multiplayer option. In the former mode, you wander the citadel's halls, meeting and speaking with various friends and foes (mostly the latter), and then hacking them to bits in real-time combat. Your male or female character can be any of six different races (you can mix and match hair, eyes and mouth to customize the face), and one of 18 different classes. Some are better at magic, some are better at fighting, others are balanced; you know the drill. Hard-core enthusiasts can roll their own characters, creating a custom class by allocating 4,700 "build" points among a host of attributes such as strength and intelligence, plus magic spells and items, and equipment. You also get 12 skills such as Long Blade and Mysticism.

Finally, you can choose advantages, such as Rapid Healing and Acute Hearing, and even disadvantages such as forbidden armor and weapons, which gives you more build points for getting other good stuff.

Battlespire is a DOS game, but plays well on a reasonably fast Windows 95 machine. The action pauses from time to time, usually during a disc access, but sometimes in the middle of combat. This doesn't seem to hurt things, though. You can set the graphics to low or high resolution, but there's no support for 3D hardware. The interface is nicely designed. The best way to control the game is Quake-style, using the mouse to turn and fight, and the arrow keys to move forward, backward and sideways. In combat, fighting with items like swords, you right-click and drag in various directions for four different types of attacks. If you're equipped with a ranged weapon, a target icon appears when you're aimed correctly. You can assign up to eight spells to function keys for easy access, but the inventory management system is a bit unwieldy.

One of the neatest things about Battlespire is the character interaction.

We haven't gotten very far (it's not an easy game!), but we've been amused by our brief exchanges with the Scamps (like imps, cutely animated on the conversation screen) and the knight-like Dremora. The voices are decently acted as well. The puzzles aren't too tough, but you've got to be careful and observant. An automap feature lets you keep track of where you've been, and the magic system is flexible, letting you use different icons to determine how a spell is delivered and the type of damage it causes or counters. And a cool innovative jump interface involves holding down the Alt key while an inverted pyramid moves away from you in the direction you're facing, and then releasing the key when it's in the proper location.

If your character excels at jumping, this lets you leap over your opponents in combat!

Battlespire's multiplayer scenarios can be played over a local area network or via the Web on Mplayer. In Deathmatch, up to eight players can fight it out to the bitter end on a special or standard level of their choice. Or, up to eight can cooperate against the computer to progress through the game, a level at a time. Finally, two teams can compete finish each level first. In the latter game, you can have as many players as you want per team up to the maximum of eight players total, and depending on the level, there may be special changes and effects in store.

Bethesda's done a fine job of making the Elder Scrolls world accessible to those who don't have endless free time for wandering through Daggerfall.

The manual is more than adequate, the online help is good, and the clues are reasonable. What's not so reasonable is the 185MB installed size, although today's big hard drives are up to the task. Save games are less than .5MB each; the game allows 10, but there's no quicksave or shortcut key. The graphics are still a bit rough, but overall it's a fine entertainment, and should satisfy role-players who long for a bit of adventure for their evenings and weekends.

Get the scoop on Battlespire at http://www.bethsoft.com.

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Microshaft Winblows 98

Wandering the aisles at the recent Macworld expo in San Francisco, we were a bit surprised to see a booth loaded to the gills with copies of what looked like Windows 98. Upon investigating, it turned out to be Microshaft Winblows 98, the latest software spoof from Palladium Interactive subdivision Parroty Interactive, and quite possibly their best yet. The product was ostensibly created by a couple of disgruntled Microsoft employees--Bill's assistant's assistant and a janitor who wants to be a coder--played cutely by a couple of winning actors who appear in short videos throughout. The program interface vaguely resembles Win95, with some significant differences. We were particularly amused by the close box on one panel, which, when clicked, closes ... the close box!

Other features include Billagotchi, where you take care of your virtual CEO by feeding him money, disciplining him when necessary, and chatting him up when he hasn't got his ears plugged. Then there's Win Bill's Money, a You Don't Know Jack-style trivia quiz game hosted by an irascible Steve Jobs, and The Roll Ahead, a mostly uneventful board game with Bill and Steve vying to create the biggest business empire. Our favorite game was Microshaft Exploder, a creditable Space Invaders clone where the aliens hide behind the dreaded Retry/Fail dialog.

There's lots more fun and surprises in Winblows 98, including online content, but we won't spoil it by giving them away. Kudos to writers Tony Camin, Ian Deitchman, J. P. Manoux and Kristin Rusk for some clever, if not side-splitting, wordplay. This product is for anyone who's ever felt resentful towards the world's richest man and his software empire, which is, well, just about everyone! The disc won't last as long as a good game, but the need to explore through several levels to see all the content should provide enough entertainment to make the disc worth the modest $20 price.

Dig the spoof at http://www.winblows.com.

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Redneck Rampage: Suckin' Grits on Route 66

Q: What's scarier than Leonard and Bubba on their home turf? A: Leonard and Bubba on the road, of course! The two inbred brothers, in case you hadn't heard, were the stars of Redneck Rampage, Interplay's utterly tasteless and hilarious takeoff of the DOOM genre (see review in Daily Spectrum, 5 May 1997). Now they've hopped into their pickup truck and are shootin' and spewin' their way through 12 even more disgusting new levels in this new add-on pack from yore good friends at developer Sunstorm and publisher Interplay.

The first stop is Jake's Gator Farm and Carnival of terror, and you'll also find the World's Smelliest Flea Market, the House of Ill Repute, Hoover Dam and, at the end of the road, the Oddity Museum and Alien Crash Site. One very cool new weapon we've come across is the alien teat gun. Other than that and the mostly well-designed new locations, it's basically the same game, with the same enemies (skinny little coot, big fat hillbilly, turd minions, sexy female aliens et al), weapons, sound effects and so on. And it's a hoot!

Interplay's URL is http://www.interplay.com.

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Sweet! Digizine

This CD-ROM based magazine is designed for teens, but probably not by teens. It's not very educational, coming off as a barely interactive combination of Entertainment Tonight and MTV. Sweet!'s greatest flaw is that the version that you buy from the newsstand for $6.95 is a scaled-down version of the quarterly that costs $55 to subscribe to. When you reach sections that appear in the subscription-only version, you're teased with a contents listing and are solicited to buy the subscription. First, that's kinda bogus, as the kids might say. If we buy a print magazine from a newsstand, we expect the same publication we'd get as a subscriber--no more and no less. Also, it seems a bit unrealistic to expect that a teenager on a limited income is about to pony up $55 for something she won't see all of for a year (assuming the pub lasts that long).

The undated second issue, which we received for review in December, was a bit old, with coverage of movies like Men in Black and Lost World. For most movies, you can see a clip (set your screen to 640 x 480 first, or it'll be small) and read behind-the-scenes info, much of which seems to have been gleaned from studio hype. Also, the bitmapped text was difficult to read, having been processed to the point that many of the unevenly colored characters faded into the background. The interface sacrifices user-friendliness for flash; for example, when you return to the home page, the article categories fly in from both sides, after which a couple of other buttons fade in--but you can't select anything until the fade is finished. Also, while most buttons have roll-overs--they change in appearance to indicate they're clickable when cursored over--the Sweet!

logo that returns you from articles does not.

Anyhoo, here's a brief rundown of Sweet!'s content. Besides the movie stuff, there's the Music Zone, with two brief video clips of performances by three bands: The Verve Pipe, K's Choice and Tonic. The audio quality on these varies, but video quality is generally good. The mag is hosted by TV stars Barry Watson and Jessica Biel (referred to as Jennifer in the sleeve copy), who provide brief video intros to the different sections; Biel, who appeared in Ulee's Gold, is also profiled in the Now section. Also in Now is a regular Power Projects feature that encourages kids to get involved in community projects; this issue covers Help Hungry Kids. Then there's the Future section, with pre-mission coverage of last summer's Mars Pathfinder expedition, plus Apple's eMate (the company apparently provided funding for Sweet!) and an information-free look at concept cars. Rounding out the disc's content is Personal, with info about blues kid Jonny Lang, a clothing line and extreme sports. Then there's something called The Vault, which you can't enter without clues from the other sections; we didn't have the time or the patience.

If you're looking for an inexpensive multimedia gift for your favorite computer-loving 12-to-15-year-old, buy him or her a copy of Sweet!

Otherwise, give it a miss.

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F.Y.I.

About Spectrum Reviews

Spectrum Reviews is an independent service published irregularly for the interactive media professional community by Motion Blur Media. Spectrum Reviews covers the tools used to create interactive multimedia applications, and the applications themselves. We love to receive interactive media and online development tools and CD-ROMs for review.

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