Monday 27 February 2006

For Arts Sake

A friend suggested that I add an image link to my portfolio site! So, today marks its world . The illustration is based on Batman and features Oscar-winning actress Marisa Tomei (My Cousin Vinny and The Guru).

This morning Adobe announced the release of Photoshop Elements 4.0 for Mac (OS X 10.3 and above). New tools include the Magic Selection Brush, Skin Tone Adjustment, Magic Extractor and Auto Red Eye Removal. However, the application isn't a Universal binary, meaning it runs on Intel Macs using Apple's Rosetta emulation layer.

Existing registered users of Photoshop Elements and PLE can order a discounted upgrade directly from Adobe's store. Don't forget to enter the free postage offer code 7EUND (works in the UK store).

Not to be out done by Adobe. Corel has released a substantial free update to Painter IX. IX 9.5. Although this is not yet a Universal application, Painter now offers support for Rosetta running on Intel-based Macs, including support for the Wacom Intuos 3 and the 6D Art Pen. The software also introduces new features, including new Photo Painting Palettes. Corel should be applauded for avoiding Quark's infamous point update charge.

Saturday 25 February 2006

Gift from the Gods

Yesterday Apple co-founder and CEO Steve Jobs celebrated his birthday. Google, which is often taken to task by Mac Users for tardy support, released Google Macintosh Widgets and Group (membership required). There is an abundance of excellent third-party options available, but these new official Dashboard Widgets are worthy of note. The Gmail and Blogger Widgets show promise and AdSense is sure to follow. Putting Gmail Notifier in the trash...

Did you manage to sign-up for Google's newly launched Page Creator service? If so, congratulations, anyone who got caught in the surge will have to wait for an invitation. As of today Gmail users can start using Page Creator (no Safari support as yet). Therefore I had a very quick look (Firefox 1.5) and published a basic page. Watch this space.

Google is certainly prolific. However, isn't it time to consolidate the paradigm?

The Blogger sidebar has undergone yet another face lift! The RSS chicklet confusion has been curtailed in favor of Full and Summary Feed subscriptions only. And coComments, a new trend, has been introduced (albeit restricted to my comments on other blogs until coComments introduces secure moderation).

I'm experimenting with Google AdSense placement. Please be assured that this is not intended to be too intrusive. Incidentally, according to various sites (notably ProBlogger) Google is testing a new AdSense format - video.

Thursday 23 February 2006

Scare Tactics

The Mac OS X security scare season is upon us again! However, there are some basic built-in measures, which every Mac User should have enabled, that should make life difficult for those Cylon computer viruses.

Built-in Firewall
The Firewall (accessed from the Sharing Pane in System Preferences) is disabled (by default). Switch it on and, whilst you're there, click on Advanced and select these boxes:

•Block UDP Traffic
•Enable Firewall Login
•Enable Stealth Mode

Go to the Security Pane and select these boxes:

•Disable automatic login
•Require password to unlock each secure system preference
•Use secure virtual memory

Go to Prefences, General and deselect this box:

•Open "safe" files after downloading

There, that was easy wasn't it? Now, spend sometime reading Corsaire White Papers.

Please note that the above configuration (using Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger) is only a suggestion. I take every care in the preparation of this web site. However, it is for information purposes only. I accept no liability for any loss or damage incurred as a result of acting on or refraining to act on information or other material within this site. You should always seek professional advice on the facts of your particular matter.

Tuesday 21 February 2006

3D Combat Evolved

One of my most enduring memories as an undergraduate (and losing valuable book time), was playing the original award-winning Worms (1995) on the Sony PlayStation! Team 17's turn-based opus relied on the player's ability to correctly judge the trajectory and the power necessary to inflict devastating damage (on a par with shock and awe) against the clock (usually around 30 seconds, but this could be adjusted higher or lower). All the while trying to achieve mastery over the wind. You see, the wind can be unforgiving and weapons that are vulnerable to air current can be rendered impotent.

After 9 previous iterations including Worms Pinball and Blast, the basic premise remains intact (and relatively unspoilt) as the franchise inevitably segues to luxurious 3D in 2004! And the impish dialogue and black humour (motifs of the franchise) still remains cuttingly humorous. Friends' star Matthew Perry would be pretty proud of that achievement!

Porting progress
Feral Interactive is never merely content to publish key titles ‘per se’ on the Mac platform! Whenever working with UK porting house Zonic, it is always the partnerships intention to provide Mac gamers with compelling "added value" as a reward for our patience. This release is no exception to that golden rule.

In the case of Worms 3D (alongside the development of XIII), a rare opportunity to improve the graphics arose. It was noticed that whilst playing Worms 3D that at high (or low) resolution the interface was blurred! The original Adobe Photoshop files, used during development, were leveraged to replace all the interface graphics and weapons that Feral had been given assets for. And to avoid alienating the Mac gaming community, the PC keyboard was appropriately replaced by a Mac version!

Carnage candy
Worms 3D inspires obvious graphical comparison with Pangea's Bugdom series! And possesses looks that would make even Earthworm Jim blush with envy! Everything has an organic Play-Doh look and feel, which would delight the artists at PIXAR. The textures are simpler than Unreal Tournament or Halo, but then that's wholly appropriate given the context, and the game runs smoothly under Mac OS X 10.3.4. Support for Full Screen Anti-Aliasing (FSAA) is available for those equipped with a compatible graphics card. Is it time for an animated television series from Warner Bros. and attendant merchandise such as action figures, I wonder?

Existing Worms fans will be delighted to learn that bazookas, grenades, dynamite, air strikes and sheep made it safely from 2D, with the addition of brand new weapons to take advantage of the more expansive 3D landscape.

Customised combat
The single player (SP) mode still rotates predominantly around randomly generated battlefields against computer-controlled teams (the level of difficulty can be adjusted).

Alongside the obligatory Tutorial and Campaign modes, Team 17 have introduced the new Challenge mode, an offering where players can participate in various objectives such as firing-off a shotgun at as many targets as possible before time runs out to unlock bonuses such as medals and secrets.

Players can pass levels with Gold Silver or Bronze. As an incentive, getting Gold and finding secret areas (in SP) unlocks more hidden weapons and levels for the multiplayer mode.

The Challenge mode is somewhat repetitive, but completionists will no doubt find it a noteworthy addition all the same. Also the code system that was used to generate levels in the original is included in Worms 3D. And the codes for the PC version work on the Mac. It's worth searching the web for sites dedicated to collecting these cross platform codes!

Ultimately multiplayer (MP) mode is the signature element of the Worms franchise and here 2-4 teams can compete against each other in highly addictive sorties. The landscape of war can be edited; players can select to play in Lunar, War, England, Horror, Pirate or Arctic (in day, evening or night)! Or alternatively choose a randomly-generated landscape, or one that you've unlocked in the Campaign mode. In the mood for a chat, taunt or want to privately discuss tactics (with fellow team members and allies)? That's here too!

Worms 3D is compatible with GameRanger. Therefore, I urge you to 'fire-up' GameRanger as the MP mode is far more engaging than the SP experience because of human interaction - watching an enemy worm sink into the icy depths, underscored by a suitable quip, is a very satisfying accomplishment. Worms 3D MP is a luxurious treat and may close the deal for gamers unmoved by the series anaemic SP mode.

Blasted Bug
Subsequent to the GM release. MP games work on a LAN, but there is a bug in the network detection check which will cause all network games to be disabled if the Internet cannot be reached.

Zonic are working on a fix for this and it will be included in the first patch. In the mean time, if you can get your LAN connected to the Internet, you should be able to play locally.

Got Worms?
The transition to what could be construed as a more liberating 3D context, has introduced new challenges and complications that can confuse! You can toggle the camera between 3rd person (default), 1st person and blimp views. However, at times I found orientation difficult - the 3D terrain is more problematic to gauge than in 2D. And it requires greater effort (not necessarily a negative) to accurately judge how far to shoot a missile in order to target it anywhere near an enemy. This can lead to frustration, which often detracts from the pleasure of playing.

And now for the conclusion
Worms 3D is a solid port and clearly the product of stringent QA (Quality Assurance). Kudos to Feral and Zonic. With spruced-up graphics, a multitude of tactics available, coupled with the ever-changing, randomly-generated landscapes, Worms 3D is a pleasant antidote to the glut of FPS releases.

However, I was left with a yearning for the 2D side scrolling pleasures of old and the absence of an engaging soundtrack was remiss! The score of Worms 3D isn’t as impressive as the sound effects. Whilst I'm not looking for a John Williams orchestration, the music didn't serve the action and was turned down in favour of the amusing dialogue and spot effects.

As I completed this review Team 17 officially announced 'Worms Forts Under Siege'! The Worms saga continues...

Gameplay: 8
Graphics: 9
Sound: 7
Value: 8

Overall: 8 (out of 10)

Friday 17 February 2006

Cel-shaded Conspiracy

XIII Preview
With the imminent release of the Macintosh port, it’s IMG’s “raison d’ĂȘtre” to tackle the daunting task of another hands on preview courtesy of those fine folks at Feral Interactive. And a rare chance for this comic book fan (and former fine art student), with a predilection for the darkness of an American McGee's Alice, to experience an interactive 3D graphic novel (graphic novel was a term coined by Will Eisner; comic book with high quality storyline and artwork)!

If 'Retro Chic' found favour in the quirky No One Lives Forever (a veritable pastiche on UK television's The Avengers) and its first sequel, XIII takes the First Person Shooter (FPS) into the labyrinth of 1920s to 1950s inspired Dark Deco!

Bourne Again
Acclaimed French/Canadian developer UbiSoft serves up a self-referential cocktail in which film director Doug Liman’s The Bourne Identity stars X-Files superstar David Duchovny (as the titular character). And Adam West (General Carrington), television’s 1960's Batman, returns to a setting that acknowledges the source medium that made him an international cult star - comics.

XIII is a complex story of betrayal and intrigue based on the original French comics by Belgian's William Vance and Jean Van Hamme (who took part in the production of the game). The XIII comic series is replete with Byzantine plots that would delight even the most demanding fan of ABC’s award-winning Alias television show.

The President of the United States has been assassinated, and everyone (most notably large guys with guns) possesses a compelling argument that you did it - even you're not sure! As the story unfolds, you'll learn more about your mysterious past, discovering that you are number XIII (shades of Patrick McGoohan's seminal TV series The Prisoner) of The Twenty, a mysterious shadow organization, the group that perpetually want to see you dead - there's no chance to discuss 'issues' over cappuccino in a virtual Starbucks. Your eventual goal will be to clear your name of all charges (if only you could remember your name…), and get to the bottom of the conspiracy.

So it's clear that the story is a little more involved than, say, the riveting backstory behind Doom! To do the job, you'll have the usual array of weapons and gadgets. There are 13 standard weapons, including crossbows, assault rifles, and rocket launchers, each with an alternative-fire mode. You'll need to choose your weapons and tactics carefully, though, because you can only hang onto four weapons at a time.

Sans Solo
XIII is not entirely flying solo as he is accompanied, at key stages, by Major Jones, a sassy female operative voiced by multimedia diva Eve. During these stages XIII will have to battle enemies while receiving covering fire from Jones and vice versa. So be prepared for some bombastic fire fights with other characters as you progress through the game.

As a counterpoint to the adventures with Major Jones. Adam West’s General Carrington is bereft of any armoury, so it’s your duty to act as human shield during the rescue mission!

On top of the world
From the Baywatch opening (not the O.C?) to rooftops and snowy mountains, the Mac gaming tourists amongst you will be well served as you unearth that most post-modern of questions – Who am I?

Enter the Manga Dimension
Sometimes referred to as Manga Dimension or non-photorealistic rendering (NPR), cel-shading arguably entered the video game lexicon in the seminal Jet Set Radio Future (JSRF) (From Sega development team Smilebit) and, perhaps most famously, changed the look of Link in Nintendo's The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker. XIII (Thirteen) witnesses cel-shading's maturation in the over populated FPS genre!

Cel-shading is much more than a superficial stylistic treatment in XIII; it underscores the game’s comic book roots and (excuse the terrible pun) is a marvel to behold! For example when an enemy appears, he'll get a close-up panel (a comic book convention sometimes referred to as a box or frame) of where he is, so you can home in on his exact location. A direct kill will witness his timely demise in delicious close-up and includes the obligatory "AARRGH!" (literally known as a sound effect by comic book artists)!

While not on a par with the visceral thrills of a Resident Evil, XIII splatters stylised blood in a manor akin to Grand Theft Auto (GTA). This title is not recommended for the faint hearted or younger players - an audience it adroitly askews.

Battling the Dark Side
The single player (SP) mode serves a solid storyline encompassing 13 missions (which cover 34 levels) that should take around 25 hours to complete (depending on the player's prowess). However, the multiplayer (MP) option secures greater repeat play value since it combines all the modes present in the PS2, GameCube, and PC and XBOX iterations. And the crowning achievement is that all too elusive Holy Grail - Mac vs. PC conflict!

It must be noted that Bot AI in SP mode isn't showcased in a glowing manner here, but MP Bot engagements can get intense!

God is in the detail
Although my preview hardware was within the minimum system requirements (Mac OS X 10.3.3, 800 MHz iMac G4, 512 MB RAM and GeForce 2MX), sound was choppy and poorly synced. The sound effects are all in a real time. Therefore evincing the need for more powerful hardware such as nVIDIA's GeForce FX 5200 Ultra and ATi Radeon 9800 Pro cards.

Adorned in the stylistic trappings of the graphic novel tradition and powered by Epic games’ UnrealEngine2 (a.k.a. Unreal Warfare Engine); Ubi Soft invested 2 years of R&D! XIII promises to deliver a unique, if not signature, FPS experience for those gamers whose hardware can smoothly run Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell and the Unreal Tournament franchise.

Feral Interactive sent IMG a preview based on a very robust beta build (1.0 RC5), which is the current version being tested by Ubi Soft. Last minute tweaks and installation changes (my preview copy was sent on 3 CDs) notwithstanding, it gave this reviewer an excellent insight into what to expect. The retail edition of XIII will bow on a single DVD. Feral Interactive's Edwin Smith kindly shed light on the decision to adopt the DVD medium:

• To preclude the need for a multi CD ROM release
• Only one installer needed
• Nice and clean look and feel with 1 disk, which is more "Mac like"
• Add enhanced video files with higher file sizes, desktops and even other demos to a game DVD
• Anti-Piracy

Thursday 9 February 2006

Left To My Own Devices

The following chronicles my web exploration and site building exploits. The original article appears here.

Before Google
For anyone who maybe remotely interested. My online adventures began in the summer of 1995. A friend and I spent a leisurely Sunday afternoon in Bournemouth University's main library surfing the net using Netscape 3 Gold (back in the days before the advent of 'free' browsers and IE domination).

The first site I ever visited was Sony USA. And the first search (using Yahoo!) was for actress Winona Ryder. Does anyone remember this site from Eric Harshbarger?

After graduation, and now in gainful employment at Reuters Business Information (RBI), I signed-up with AOL UK (1997).

Google Earth
In the spring of 1998 Macworld UK magazine carried a free copy of Claris Homepage on a cover CD.

Claris Homepage may have lacked the 'killer' features of GoLive and sexier Dreamweaver (the de facto WYSIWYG), but it was simplicity itself, and, above all, no hefty price tag if the medium left me cold. So, whilst off work and suffering from flu, I started to put together an inaugural web site: an eclectic mix of original work and pop culture commentary (Buffy, Party of Five and Dawson's Creek had captured the zeitgeist of the day). This went live on AOL within a week. The first 50 hits came soon after!

By 1999 AOL UK had all but alienated its Mac customers due to tardy application updates and lacklustre support, and I searched for an alternative ISP and web host.

Things That Make You Go Hmmmm
Regrettably this was a time prior to the wonder known as the SuperDrive (CD/DVD burner). Despite owning an Iomega Zip 100 Drive the notion of regularly backing up critical data (on my trusty Performa 5200) had yet to enter my design DNA. In a move that would cost me two-years of web development (including graphics, text et al), I accidentally deleted my offline site. For the record let it be noted that Microsoft's Outlook Express 4.x (for Classic OS) should take some of the responsibility too!

The next two years went by and I couldn't muster any enthusiasm to rebuild the site from scratch - work and the transition from Classic OS to OS X took their toll. Then a friend asked me why I hadn't setup a new site? The honest answer was creative apathy. Apologetically I loaded Adobe PageMill 3 (included with my iMac DV SE) and...

Step By Step
Adobe offered registered PageMill 3 users a free upgrade to GoLive 5! In the space of a weekend (burning the midnight oil as-it-were) I'd assembled a basic site and uploaded this to my iTools (.mac) iDisk after some trial and error (mostly the latter) - there were no tutorials explaining how to use original templates and requests (to other iTools webmasters) for help went unanswered. Where had the sense of community gone?

Once I rolled out the site (2.x) the next phase was to promote reciprocal links, SEO (Search Engine Optimisation) and consider affiliate marketing (pays the hosting bills and adds a high degree of editorial responsibility on my part).

American Idol
A cute recollection. I'd applied to join The Iconfactory's deskbase in 2003. That same afternoon I received a confirmation, from Mindy Weaver, warmly welcoming me to their extended family. At the time Kelly Clarkson's 'Moment Like This' was playing on the radio.

Express Yourself
By 2004 this site had come of age and I could no longer ignore the allure of the brave new frontier: blogging + RSS (Really Simple Syndication).

Although blog templates are often criticised for their homogeneity, ease of use and extendibility far out way any negatives. Critical code updates can be applied to an entire site sans the time-consuming tedium of modifying each page individually. This leaves authors to focus on 'content'.

Think About The Future
2006 and, now that the blog is well established (Buffy and Dawson have graduated out of our lives), it's time to revisit this site again replete with a new 'bag of tricks'! The incumbent GoLive has made way for the sassy Macromedia Studio 8 triple threat (Dreamweaver, Fireworks and Flash).

What "dreams" may come?

Monday 6 February 2006

Flash Gordon

The first step in 'remastering' my portfolio site is complete (see here)! So, this morning I took a look at Flash 8 and created the following sample Flash Video (FLV) clips:

This clip showcases original CGI material generated using Bryce.

This clip is a short montage of photos and music (using a portion of Jennifer Lopez' Waiting for Tonight). Not for commercial use.

Both clips were edited using iMovie.

Saturday 4 February 2006

Not Just a Pretty Interface

Apologies for the recent disruptions. Yesterday I attempted to back capture older posts and convert them to MP3 files. This should be completed during the next few days.

With so much time spent on refining Blogger's code candy, my portfolio site has played second fiddle! However, I'm now making the transition from using Adobe's GoLive CS to Adobe (formerly Macromedia) Studio 8. Studio 8 is considered the 'professionals' choice and I'm inclined to agree.

Dreamweaver 8 is light years ahead of GoLive CS and I'm currently using the built-in code rewriter engine to remove GoLive's 'garbage'. Whilst a WYSIWYG editor is no substitute for a powerful text editor, Dreamweaver offers the best of both worlds. I have yet to experiment with Fireworks and Flash (arguably the reason why Adobe purchased Macromedia).

Here's a very cute new Mac OS X application that resides in the menu bar. Menuet:

Menuet allows iTunes users to control the app in a variety of ways, including hot keys, click controls, a menu featuring full browse and smart browse options, and of course the uniquely skinnable remote. Included in version 1.0.1 is an initial set of eleven skins, ranging in style from minimal, to futuristic, to whimsical. Skin support was a focus in Menuet's development, and feedback was taken seriously from community designers, including IconFactory veteran David Lanham, to insure powerful and flexible specifications that support most iTunes functions, animations, and more.

Well worth the $12.95 (£7.50 GBP) fee for a single user license. Please tell them who sent you.

Thursday 2 February 2006

Where does he get those wonderful toys?

In January I turned my attention away from RSS to the template and ways in which I can add non-intrusive functionality. From Play Tagger to Google automatic language translations (This blog is now available in German, Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese, Japanese, Korean or Chinese with the aim of reaching a multilingual readership). For highly informative Blogger tutorials and tips, visit A Consuming Experience.

The balance between tools and cosmetic clutter is a precarious one. If I'm failing on the latter, sorry, but the former should make things about square between us!