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

20 January 1998

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



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Today's Reviews (details below)

--SurfaceSuite MAX

--Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II

--Dark Reign

--Broken Sword: The Smoking Mirror


--IBM/Crayola Kids Titles

--Resident Evil

--About Spectrum Reviews



SurfaceSuite MAX

Texture mapping in 3D applications is, generally speaking, a pain in the butt. If you're applying an image onto a regular surface, like a plane or a cylinder, the built-in facilities work fine. But more often than not, both the texture and the surface are oddball, and things end up in the wrong place. For example, if you're mapping a face, one eye might end up on the nose, and the other on an ear. What do you do then? Well, if you're using 3D Studio MAX, you rush right out and buy a copy of Sven Technologies' $995 SurfaceSuite MAX (SSM)! This nifty plug-in really gives you the feeling you can place an image onto an irregular surface as if were on a flexible rubber sheet, tacking it here and stretching it there.

The first thing you do when using SSM is apply a Texturizer Mapping modifier to your object. This modifier provides three sub-objects. The first, Projection, is similar to MAX's UVW Mapping modifier, letting you specify one of four mapping types--planar, cylindrical, spherical and shrink wrap--and alignments such as fit, viewport align and normal align.

The next step involves associating points on the object to be mapped with corresponding points on the texture. Using the Texturizer Mapping modifier's Association sub-object, you create points on the object and optionally give them meaningful names. For example, if you're mapping a face, you might use "R Eye" and "L Eye." Then, using a separate Define Texture Points dialog, you place points on the texture map that are to be associated, one-to-one, with the points on the mesh object. Here you can optionally load and display the texture image and/or the polygon mesh, and rename and move points. If you've ever used a morphing program like Elastic Reality, you're familiar with this procedure. One weakness of SSM is that there's no provision for changing the Association points' color, shape, or size, so in some circumstances they can be difficult to see against the background.

The bitmap must also be incorporated into a material, which is assigned to the object. What's really nice is that if you've done so, and set the texture to appear in the viewport, you can then adjust the Association points, on the mesh or in the Define Texture Points dialog, and see the results in real time on the object's surface.

To apply the texture to the surface, use standard 3DS MAX techniques: Create a material using the image as a diffuse map, turn off tiling, and assign the material to the selection. Thereafter you can fine-tune the image to the object by dragging the latter's association points around on the surface. You can even keyframe these adjustments, creating some really wild-looking animations!

To go even further, you can assign multiple maps to a single mesh by assigning different groups of faces to different Texturizer Mapping modifiers. This is useful for, say, adding a patch of lizard scales to a human's skin without modifying the original bitmaps, or for mapping different images onto an object's various sides. The modifier's Affected Faces sub-object gives you a convenient alternative to specifying a face selection with MAX's Mesh Select modifier, although you can use Mesh Select if you prefer. In general, it's best to select faces within Texturizer, because you can select a different group in each modifier. Be sure to opt to add the selection to add the selection to the stack; this lets you can see the mesh when adding and moving Association points.

Then you can apply a MultiMask material, an extended version of MAX's Multi/Sub-Object material, included with SurfaceSuite. MultiMask adds the capability to specify a blending map to avoid sharp edges between adjacent materials (selected areas must overlap slightly). Sven even throws in a handy Gaussian Map with such parameters as U/V Spread/Center, which makes it relatively easy to set blurred edges for a texture. It would have been even easier if Sven had supplied a simple Blurred Edge parameter within the Texturizer Mapping modifier roll-out, but apparently MAX's plug-in API makes this a bit tricky (it doesn't like you to manipulate materials from outside the Materials editor).

Lastly, SSM includes the ability to export a global map, a composite of multiple blended textures in the form of a single texture map. This is done by first placing a cylindrical helper object around a mesh object. The cylinder can optionally acquire the shape and positioning of a cylindrical UVW or Texturizer mapping. The second part of the equation is SurfaceSuite's Global Map Renderer plug-in, which "unwraps" the object's mapping into a single bitmap image. Thus, for example, if you've carefully applied and blended different texture maps to the four sides of a head, you can use global map generation to create a single texture map that you can then re-apply to the head mesh for real-time rendering. You can also use this facility to create panoramic views of your 3D scenes for QuickTime VR-type applications.


If you're trying to map textures onto a complex object, SurfaceSuite is the tool you need. It's not perfect--in fact, it tended to crash when we were changing the Material Editor's "Show Map in Viewport" setting--but it mostly performs as expected, and does an excellent job of it.

Find more information online at http://www.sven-tech.com.



Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II

Jedi Knight has been out for a while, so we've been somewhat remiss in not telling you about it before now. Just as the original Dark Forces was a DOOM clone with significant enhancements, Jedi Knight, for Windows 95, goes QUAKE several better in more than a few departments. If you're a fan of first-person action adventuring, this one's a must. It's got it all: breathtaking graphics (especially with 3D accelerators), heart-pounding action, a great story, fine strategic elements and lots of heart (Ya gotta have heart!).

Jedi Knight continues the story of Dark Forces hero Kyle Katarn, who embarks on a journey into his past and learns the mysterious ways of the Jedi. His path takes him back to his home planet after an absence of 12 years, where he learns the details of his father's death, and what he must do about it. The story, depicted mostly in between-level cut-scenes, lends interest to the game, but as in most such endeavors, you're mainly trying to make it through to the end of the level in one piece.

The first thing that strikes you about Jedi Knight is the terrific level design. Each of the game's 21 levels is a minor masterpiece. Each one is very large, in many cases bigger than any several levels in some other games. And all are brilliantly designed; you really get the feeling you're running through a real environment, not some programmer's pipe dream. Every level contains at least one cleverly hidden secret area, and most have quite a few. You have to constantly keep your eyes open, and finding them also requires some experimentation.

After the first few levels, you start accumulating stars: two per Jedi rank earned, plus one per level in which you find all secret areas. These bring in the element of the famous Star Wars "force," which is well integrated into the game. Once you have a few stars, you can use them to add Force Abilities. You must choose these carefully, because once you've done so, there's no going back. Neutral abilities include enhanced speed and jumping powers, plus the ability to grab enemy weapons from a distance and see all enemies on the map. Then there are the Light Side abilities, such as healing, persuasion and blinding. If you veer toward the Dark Side, preferring to play the bad guy, you get to add abilities such as "the grip," which lets you choke enemies from afar, and lightning bolts. The game counsels against choosing such evil powers, but, as in life, you're free to choose. As you use Force powers, you deplete your Force Energy (kind of like mana in a fantasy role-playing game); it replenishes over time, and you can also find Force Surge power-ups.

The other game element welcome to Star Wars fans is the celebrated lightsaber, which is where a major strategic element comes in. First, it's important to know that all weapons can be used in two modes: primary and secondary, activated with the Ctrl and Z keys respectively. For example, the concussion rifle fires an explosive projectile which is dangerous in close quarters in primary mode, but a shotgun-like projectile in secondary mode. Likewise, a grenade-type weapon explodes on imact in primary mode, but with a three-second delay in secondary mode. The lightsaber, in primary mode, produces various types of quick strokes depending on how you move Kyle when using it. Used in secondary mode, the weapon produces a wide double swing for taking out groups of enemies, but requires a longer recovery time. It's the only weapon that will allow you to beat the Dark Jedi. You can also use the saber to break through barriers, as a defensive shield, and even to illuminate dark areas. It slices, it dices, and it's a flashlight and a nail clipper! It's ... uh, sorry.

For a game that's so easy to get into, there's an amazing amount of depth to Jedi Knight. It stands head and shoulders above the pack of DOOM and QUAKE wannabe's, and is, by many accounts, the best game of 1997. At any rate, it's easily one of the 10 best, and belongs in the software library of every serious gamer and student of interactive entertainment.

Find the force online at http://www.lucasarts.com.



Dark Reign

Another great recent game that we missed reviewing when it first hit is Dark Reign, Activision's first stab at the real-time strategy genre pioneered by Westwood's Command & Conquer. It's similar enough to its ancestor that you can jump right in and start playing, and as soon as you do, you notice a number of improvements and refinements. One of the most pronounced is the effect of terrain on gameplay. If there's a ridge in front of your forces, for example, it blocks the view until they surmount it. Other terrain effects: hovercraft can go fast over solid ground and water, but they slow down over rough terrain, and can't climb inclines.

Walkers, on the other hand, are slow and are blocked by water, but they can climb steep slopes.

The game provides 12 missions for each side: the Imperium (bad guys) and the Freedom Fighters (us!), plus an "instant action" option that lets you battle up to seven computer opponents. During a campaign, you can switch sides at any point; for example, if you've finished the fourth mission as the Freedom Guard, you can then play the fifth as the Imperium. There are four training missions, which acquaint you minimally with the game's functionality, such as setting paths. These, by the way, have great flexibility; they can be one-way, back-and-forth or circular, and you can save paths and assign them to other units and groups. But to succeed at the game proper, you must read the manual. It's here, for example, that you learn about the special morphing troops, which can, while stationary, cleverly disguise themselves as other objects, such as trees or enemy units. Also, once you've passed the initial development stage, certain units can phase, or go underground temporarily as a defense. Such units are hard to hit!

Dark Reign designer Auran did a great job creating an interface that's simple, yet deep. For instance, when certain menus first appear, they provide basic functions, such as the Orders menu, which gives you three choices each for unit orders and preset behavior types. If, however, you hit the Advanced tab, you can also assign custom unit behaviors, such as how far they'll pursue fleeing enemies, how much damage they'll take before going for repairs, and a unit's willingness to deviate from orders in order to take out nearby enemy. Also, standard orders that you're likely to use most often, such as Attack, Attack without Moving, Stop and Repair Building are arrayed across the top of the screen, and there are keyboard equivalents for everything.

For creative gamers who want to create their own scenarios, Activision throws in a construction kit that lets you design maps, set mission objectives, assign orders to units, and develop "Artificial Intelligence Personalities" for computer players. And it goes without saying, but we'll say it anyway, that multiplayer gamers can vie head-to-head over a modem or serial connection, four at a time over the Internet, and eight at a time over a LAN. In multiplayer games, the Comms menu you lets you send and receive messages, designate friends/foes and message recipients, and even give units or credits to needy allies.

There's much more to Dark Reign, including the well-designed assortment of units and buildings, but we'll leave it to you to discover the many ways in which the game excels, should you choose to accept the assignment. Bottom line: This is one hell of an addictive game!

Put your mouse on the line (and download a free demo) at http://www.activision.com.



Broken Sword: The Smoking Mirror

If you like graphic adventures, and especially if you enjoyed last year's Circle of Blood, you're in for a treat. In Broken Sword: The Smoking Mirror, the follow-up, CoB's good-looking blond hero, George Stobbart, must free Nico, his investigative reporter girlfriend, from the clutches of a nefarious crime cartel. After a harrowing opening sequence where he's threatened simultaneously by a giant spider and a fire, George finds himself back at the same café that served as CoB's first location, waiting to meet Nico's obnoxious French admirer. As the game progresses, you must dig up information by asking questions of the game's assorted characters, solve lots of puzzles, and even trade identities with Nico at cliffhanger moments. The graphics are mostly two-dimensional, with excellent cel animation and gorgeous backgrounds, but parallax-scrolling foregrounds lend the game a 3D feel.

The interface is nicely designed. Move the mouse around the screen, and objects of interest are identified with text labels. Right-click on one, and George describes it verbally. Left-click on the object, and George performs the appropriate action, if possible (if not, you usually get a hint about what's necessary). Your inventory appears by mousing down to the bottom of the screen; to use one object on another, simply click on them in sequence. Also, during conversations, icons representing possible topics appear in a row at the bottom of the screen. Often there are quite a few of these, but for the most part, the exchanges are mercifully brief. There's some humor, but it's usually rather forced. For example, if you ask a male secretary in a Central American mining company why he's not wearing any pants, he responds that he feels more alert without them, "and kind of perky."

Progressing through the game is largely a matter of asking everyone about everything, and in particular, being observant. The only times we've gotten stuck is by missing small details; otherwise, it's fairly evident what's necessary. There are a few niggling inconsistencies; for example, at one point, if you try to give a character an item he's previously expressed interest in, you're told "He would have no interest," and another time George was able to read a sign from around a corner. These don't really interfere with the game, though. On the whole, Broken Sword is a rudimentary form of interactive fiction, and a very linear one at that, but it's a good story, the voice acting is decent, and the graphics are real eye candy.

Contact publisher Virgin Interactive Entertainment online at http://www.vie.com.




Okay, here's the plan: We'll eat. Then we'll evolve. Then we'll avoid being eaten. And then we'll evolve some more. You know the drill, right? After all, that's how you got here. Actually, most of us don't really know how we got here. We're the end products of a long, complex chain of evolution, but most of what preceded our ultra-modern age is obscured by the mists of time. Scientists have developed a pretty good idea of how it all came down, though, and now their theories are accessible to the rest of us, thanks to Evolution, a new game from Discovery Multimedia. The $40 title for Windows 95 PCs offers "enhanced graphics and special effects" with MMX machines.

In this unique, intriguing strategy game, up to six players compete to evolve their creatures into one of five intelligent life forms on a randomly generated world. Each player, whether computer or human, starts out with an early amphibian, and at first attempts to increase the species' population by directing it to an area where it can best feed. Once the population is growing, thus generating "evolution points," you can try to evolve new species (the game offers 170 species in all), optionally with combat capabilities versus another species of your choice. If you evolve predators, you can direct them to attack other species. You cannot evolve your guys to a species that an opponent already has, which adds a strategic challenge. Also part of the strategy is the need to keep your animals sufficiently spread out that they don't encroach on each others' feeding grounds, or, conversely, to crowd competing species out of theirs.

Evolution proceeds at the breakneck pace of two million years per minute of game time, although that's adjustable. From time to time, the game pauses while continents drift and climates change. This is one realistic simulation!

The interface is well suited to the Evolution's subject matter. As in many real-time strategy games, there's a small world map, plus a larger close-up window where you select your critters. You can set the global view to show the world by terrain type, temperature, elevation, precipitation, or feeding for the selected creature. Other windows let you monitor and command the selected creature, display evolution information, track creature populations and so on. Multiple humans can compete via the usual channels: modem, Internet, serial connection and LAN.

The manuals are good, although they would have been better with a tutorial or two. A brief strategy guide ameliorates this deficiency somewhat. We particularly enjoyed the Bestiary Guide's discussion of the game's invented species, including intelligent dinosaurs, birds and wombats. According to the guide, elephants are the best candidates for ultimate evolution to sapience, excluding the apes, which, of course, have already done so.

Developer Crossover Technologies and designer Greg Costikyan are to be congratulated on the successful implementation of an ambitious project.

Evolution is destined to be a favorite of multimedia fans who tire of constantly waging war on each other, or anyone who wants to play God for a little while.

Find more on the game at http://evolution.discovery.com.



IBM/Crayola Kids Titles

IBM and Crayola recently collaborated on a series of interactive multimedia CD-ROMs for young children--essentially specialized coloring books. First up is Color a Story in 3D ($29.95), developed by EAI Interactive. The title presents three classic kids' stories--Gulliver's Travels, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and The Trojan Horse--each with 20 images that kids can color using the provided 63 virtual crayons and 18 textures. The stories are narrated by "master talesman" Odds Bodkins, while program prompts and feedback are voiced by children.

When the program starts, the child is placed directly in the coloring section in fill mode, and is presented with the uncolored title page of Gulliver's Travels. When he or she clicks on a texture (the scrolling list shows three at a time) or crayon, a voice says, "texture," or names the crayon's color (a different voice for each color). Then, when she clicks on the image, that part is filled in with the selected texture or color, accompanied by a random sound effect, such as a xylophone arpeggio. After the fill is placed, the 3D aspect of the image is readily apparent, and almost makes up for the lack of tactility that is a large part of the fun of coloring. It's almost an introduction to texture mapping for budding 3D artists.

Besides fill, coloring tools available to the child are big/small crayon and eraser for freehand coloring (the color stays inside the lines of the area the small artist starts out in, unless you turn that feature off), plus a Band-Aid icon for undo/redo. Right and left arrows serve as navigation buttons. If the child has colored anything, clicking on either causes the program to ask the child if he wants to save the image in the scrapbook. Unfortunately, returning to that page subsequently does not present the child with his or her artwork, but the original uncolored image. When the next page appears, it's accompanied by narration containing the next part of the story.

The other main program interface is the library, where the user can access the scrapbook, choose a different story to color, and see a slide show of one of the stories with his or her artwork or the program's default coloring. The child can also print an image from the scrapbook, or use the scribble pad for drawing on a blank page. This is for very young kids, but they'll probably enjoy it.

Next, we have Print Factory ($29.95), a slightly disappointing version of Print Shop for the pint-sized set. The program starts with a brief introductory animation, after which the child is prompted to "Please sign-in" (get the kids started early on bad punctuation habits, we always say). After "signing-in," the child taken to a colorful, if somewhat chaotic, main menu screen. Here the choices are Posters, Decorations, Cards, Awards, Banners, Stationery, and Bookmarks & Stickers. There are also indifferently voiced boy and girl crayon cartoon characters (the latter wears a skirt!) that serve as a help function.

The different categories serve more as an organization structure for saved projects than anything else. In fact, the interfaces are all practically identical, except for a few slight differences such as simple templates and printed assembly instructions for Decorations, and two or four drawing areas for Cards. You can draw freehand with a brush (smooth line), crayon (dotty texture, not really like a real crayon), marker (angled line) and eraser, each with its own audio accompaniment. There's also area fill, and a very limited text-from-keyboard function. You can choose a color from among the 80 crayons, of which 16 are visible at a time. They're organized by color families, so if the child wants to use a rainbow assortment, she's in for a lot of scrolling.

There are seven simple patterns to draw with, created by adding black lines to the current color. The child can also place "stamps" like a clover and footprint, place more detailed pictures from categories such as food, people and travel, draw simple geometric shapes. In addition, the fun "crazy brush" lets the child draw with the stamp images (nice for creating borders, except that keeping lines straight is up to the child). There are also tools for selecting rectangular areas, flipping, moving and resizing them (three levels only), and copying them to other projects.

And, of course, the child can save, load and print out projects (in low resolution), plus there's an icon that provides random project ideas. Print Factory is not a terrible program, but it could have been made more flexible so as to grow with the child. Whoever thought of using the "sign-in" book in the main interface screen as the exit function was a dolt. And programs for young kids should be made foolproof; when we tried quitting after removing the CD-ROM, the screen went black and stayed that way, even after replacing the disc. The package includes a few sheets of special paper for printing out stickers, posters etc.

Finally, there's Holiday Activity, a dedicated, specialized version of Print Factory's Decorations category, with a nice variety of holiday templates including menorahs, gift boxes, Koinobori, a pop-up card, jack-o-lantern, valentine heart and so on. Other than that, it's identical to Print Factory, so if you just want something to keep the kids busy during holiday time, at $9.95 SRP, this one's a bargain.

Get colored online at http://www.us.pc.ibm.com/multimedia/.



Resident Evil

One of the biggest hits for Sony PlayStation, Capcom's Resident Evil is now available for for 3D-accelerated Windows 95 machines, published by Virgin Interactive Entertainment. Characters are 3D-polygon based, but the backgrounds are bitmapped, so the game doesn't look as good as it might have. This, and the fact that the game determines the third-person viewing angle, also proves that it isn't really 3D; just a pseudo-3D, like Final Fantasy VII.

Resident Evil for PC plays pretty much the same as the console version; you're a paramilitary operative wandering through a creepy old mansion while fighting off moaning zombies, mad crows, sharks (!) and other assorted baddies. It's quite difficult; you don't have much in the way of defensive moves, and very limited inventory space. Also, staying true to its console roots, you can save only in certain locations, which means if you get killed (and you will!), you have to retrace your steps to a lesser or greater degree. One of the reasons Resident Evil was so popular is that it's effective at establishing and maintaining a very scary atmosphere, and the PC version retains that quality in spades.

Find more info online at http://www.vie.com.




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

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