CD Rom Update

As you progress through various incarnations of computers, it seems there is always a piece of hardware or software that, once added to your machine, makes the whole thing hum. On the ZX81 it was the 16k Rampack, on the Beeb it was Wordwise, on the Amiga it was the second disk drive. In the case of the PC, it has definitely been the CD ROM drive and attendant soundcard. Ostensibly this was fitted to free up my rapidly dwindling hard disk space and to access more fonts, graphics files and Photo CD images, but it was also timed to run with the movement to CD based games. The results, on both sides, have been interesting.

Hardware first, and I'll keep it short. Firstly, regardless of what the Mitsumi salesmen might say, you must get a double speed drive and preferably a triple if you can afford it, to add some future proofing. I also prefer the caddyless variety. I have a Panasonic double speed drive running off a SoundBlaster 16 interface and it is admirable for what I ask of it, though I do occasionally get some breakup on replayed speech (no idea why). Secondly, what you won't achieve is massive savings in hard disk acreage. Sure, you can prune your fonts down to the minimum and load them in as needed, but many of the packages (especially games) require files on the hard disk to run or save. Short of re-installing every time, you tend to leave them on so you save space, but not as much as I had hoped. Add to this the Invasion of the DLLs, which are surreptitiously installed to the Windows directory every time you test software, and you will end up about square on the deal.

On software, this splits into utilitarian and entertainment, though the two overlap considerably as even the previously boring subjects have been multimedia'd to good effect. The first purchase you will probably make is one of the CD magazines now appearing on the shelves for around a fiver. This is an easy and cheap way of acquiring disks, but with few exceptions they are disappointing and some are worthless (they make extravagant frisbees though). Most utilise far less than the 500Mb capacity and typical contents are buckets of variable animation, hacker reels, unplayable game demos or dubious shareware. That said, I have had the chance to play around with Adobe Photoshop (a real thrill, but no file saving allowed), professional authoring software, 3D graphics suites and a large number of games (that I wouldn't have bought otherwise) as a result of some of the demos supplied, so it pays to be selective. For instance, the latest PC Home (No 7) disk has a full blown copy of Fauve Matisse, albeit the b&w version, which is now my bitmap editor of choice this is an incredibly good freebie so it is worth checking out the disks each month. My concern is, as time goes by, there will be less and less to fill these beasts every month. The magazines themselves, CD Rom Today and Multimedia Now, are pretty dire at the moment as all they can do is review the old stuff and answer queries there aren't more than half a dozen releases each month so current material is thin once you've reviewed every soundcard on the planet.

The CD really starts to score in the multimedia titles now appearing. Granted, there is still a lot of dross, but with Microsoft/Dorling Kindersley in the market you are ensured a steady flow of good quality titles (but I suggest you avoid the imported MS Bookshelf which is very patchy). I haven't cracked on Encarta yet, as I was fairly unimpressed when I saw a demo and the subject coverage is really only at high school level, but if you have kids and don't have a book-based encyclopædia, then it should be on your short list. I suspect the same applies to the classical music titles. Whatever, the best two purchases I have made in any category are Art Gallery and Cinemania '94. Art Gallery is a straight lift from the pictorial guidebook system used at the National Gallery and contains every picture in the collection, even those held in storage. It is fascinating to browse around, reading the biographies, taking the spoken guided tours, jumping off to look at what takes your fancy. The sections on picture restoration, composition and perspective were worth the cost on their own. You can even copy the pictures into paint packages to do with what you will, copyright permitting of course.

Better still is Cinemania which is essential for the film buff. I could run out the statistics on the thousands of subjects covered but you really have to experience it to get the impression of its size and scope. For a start you have all of Maltin on disk, cross referenced by star, film title, director and so on. Useful in itself (you can ditch about ten inches of books immediately), but that is the tip of the iceberg. Add in two or three more reviewers, Pauline Kael, hundreds of pictures, sound clips and even video footage from some famous movies. And it is all there in high digital quality down to, 'I don't think we're in Kansas anymore'. It is a deadly piece of software because you go in to look up the films that are on that week and end up spending an hour reading about Peter Weir, Cop au Vin, Kurosawa (when is Ran coming back on?), Woody Allen, Miou Miou, Last of the Mohicans, Ally Sheedy, The Breakfast Club and Reds and then watching the Ben Hur chariot race again. You could browse for weeks in there. The only slight drawback is that it is instantly out of date (but then so are the books) and it is rather Hollywood-centric. Old films, particularly British and silents, are given short shrift as an example, there is no mention of the early Wizard of Oz movies, Will Hay and George Formby are not even graced with a description and the Ealing Comedies are given an odd appraisal. This is understandable, due to editing time and space if nothing else, but sadly there seems to be little to fill the gap from the UK market. Either way, the volume of data is staggering. You can search for Isabelle Adjani (and why not?), see her picture, read her biography (unbelievably, she is 39), check her filmography and then zoom into One Deadly Summer. This entry will have one or perhaps more reviews of the film and often an critical piece into the bargain. Click any highlighted name and you are off again. No reader of Empire should be without this disk.

Anyone with an interest in graphics will want to consider Corel Draw 4, or probably 5 by the time you read this, which gives you virtually everything you need, including bags of fonts, on two CDs. I have little doubt that Adobe Illustrator may be the more powerful package, but its learning curve proved way too steep for me. Corel, by contrast, is less daunting, but does pretty much everything asked of it at its own speed just like the Rules Bank. For the photographer, you may also wish to experiment with Photo CD from Kodak by which you can have your pictures loaded onto CD (about £22 for 36 exposures) for viewing, editing on screen or loading into newsletters...

Now the games that are arriving on CD should really be exciting, given the massive scope, but again one needs to be selective. There are three categories of games out there at the moment: straight ports from floppy disk (rip-offs really), games with some improvement (eg speech, animations, big loading sequences) and true CD Rom designs. The latter are few and far between but there will be more and more appearing over the coming months. In fact, many games will be CD only in future. Digressing slightly, this strikes me as a bit dodgy for two reasons.

Firstly, I see it as a move by the companies away from floppy to help guard against piracy (fine) but also so that are cashing in with still higher prices to try and claw back some lost sales even if the RRP hasn't changed greatly, retailers are bemoaning reduced margins on CD products. Secondly, there is a growing trend in both business and entertainment fields for bloated software. The CD Rom version of Strike Commander would take 150Mb if installed on disk. Okay, so that includes speech and pictures, but many program files are HUGE these days. This is fine if I am going to get relevant sound or film sequences, but not if the programmers are sitting there writing sloppy code and bunging in more pretty pictures to keep the punters happy with perceived value. At this point I join the backlash against style over content. It just seems that the programmers (with some notable exceptions) are happy to simply add another module or overlay rather than make efforts to keep the code size down. And speed is suffering as well is there a software/hardware manufacturers conspiracy to get us all to buy Pentiums or are the programmers not as good as in the old days? Meanwhile, we users rapidly run out of hard disk space and processing power.

So what games are worth having now? Probably none at all, on balance. Dune was probably the game offering the most interest but it turned out to be a strictly linear exercise that almost devolved into story telling. You meet a character, he tells you a bit of information and where to go next. You make a pretty irrelevant decision, go off as directed and it carries on that way, slowly revealing the story. It reminded me of the excellent Portal in its unfolding plot, but came nowhere close. Unless I am mistaken there wasn't anything else I could do to get off the preset path. Great graphics, disappointing gameplay.

The flight simulations are where the CD Rom scores as they quite happily live on CD with a few time sensitive files on disk. I have now decided that the genre, as it stands, probably isn't for me but for those that like (or can handle) that helpless feeling of having a bandit on your tail or being pummelled by SAMs, I would recommend TFX, Strike Commander and Tornado. For those like me, I would stick with Comanche (not much easier, but at least you get to hide behind hills and shoot tanks) or programs that offer an Invulnerability toggle.

This brief selection excludes a large number of titles which fall into the arcade or adventure camps and if you enjoy the likes of Sam & Max, 7th Guest, Indiana Jones or Sherlock Holmes I would say you are currently catered for best of all. These games, with their massive picture and speech databases and low speed requirements, are ideally suited to the form. I just wish I had the ability to play the things. Well, I don't care actually, but you know what I mean. I am trying to break my duck with Myst, but three hours in I have yet to crack a single puzzle and fear I must wait for the 'How to play' magazine article. In Myst, like no other adventure game before it, the lack of progress hardly matters (for now) as the game is just amazing as it stands. I am quite happy to walk around the island admiring the graphics and knowing that this is what my golf, wargames and Sim Cities will look like in years to come. I might even be tempted back to the fantasy genre if the graphics are as good as Lands of Lore II.

In summary, I have recently recommended that a friend of mine install a CD Rom in his new machine. Six months ago I would have been indecisive but now I am 99% sure it will be useful, even a requirement. None of the games are taking advantage of the medium at present, but they will, probably by the end of the year. Business software is already coming on line and boy is it a doddle to install. And as I've said before, the scope is enormous. I'll be there waiting.

Mike Siggins

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