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%% Forge version 1.0                                   by Kelly Petlig %%
%%                                                 kpetlig@halcyon.com %%
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[This is a review of version 1.0 of Forge, which I received in the 
mail just last week.  This is my overall first impression of Forge and 
how it lives up to the press release in the Apex newsletter.  I will 
assume the reader has a working knowledge of 3D rendering on the Amiga.  
I also won't attempt to teach the reader how to use Forge, or it's 
companion products, Essence volume I and Essence volume II.  All three 
are products from Apex Software, 405 El Camino Real Suite 121, Menlo 
Park, CA 94025, phone number 415-322-7532.  List prices are:  Forge ver 
1.0, $60; Essence I ver 3.0, $140; Essence II ver 3.0, $140.  I have no 
affiliation with Apex Software.]

Apex has added another great 3D rendering product to it's fantastic 
line of tools, Forge.  It's named Forge, suitable since it's a tool to 
forge new textures with Essence.  You must have Essence version 3.0 or 
later in order to use Forge effectively.  Theoretically you could use 
Forge with older versions of Essence or Imagine's own textures, but since 
they weren't created with Forge in mind, like Essence version 3.0 is, 
they are missing internal information that Forge needs to properly load 
them.  It is beyond the scope of this article to reiterate a review for 
Essence, but I will briefly introduce it to those who are unfamiliar.

Essence is a library of algorithmic textures for Imagine, and now 
Forge.  Using fractal noise and a bit of magic, Essence comes up with 
bump maps and color maps to make realistic looking textures that can be 
applied to surfaces in Imagine.  Ranging from crumpled paper to cedar 
shingles, the patterns are seemingly random, yet infinitely precise and 
reproducible.  There are two volumes of Essence as I write this, and who 
knows how many to follow.  Before the release of Forge, Imagine was 
required to tap the powerful textures of Essence.

Installing Forge from a single disk using the Commodore installer is 
painless and quick (it took me a less than a minute.)  Forge requires 
AmigaDOS ver 2.04 or later, at least one meg of memory, and because of 
the mathematically intense nature of Essence and Forge, a math 
coprocessor or 68040 processor.  As an option you can install the 68040 
optimized version, which will take maximum advantage of the 68040 
instruction set.  It is recommended to install it in the same directory 
as Imagine, but not required.  This is especially true if you don't even 
have Imagine.

Forge itself is a simple program, as the textures really do all the 
work.  Forge opens a 16 color (256 for AGA) high res custom screen at 704 
by 441 (using TEXT overscan prefs) and will preview images dithered with 
twelve colors (252 colors for AGA) in a window on this screen.  Forge can 
also render in full 24 bit at most any resolution, generating IFF, JPEG, 
TIFF or PPM files.  Down the right half of the screen are all the 
variables of a texture represented with number and slider gadgets.  When 
moving the slider gadgets, the preview window in the upper left corner 
will update automatically.  Using pull down menus, you can load up to ten 
textures at a time.  You can also animate textures by defining two sets 
of texture parameters and morphing between them.

Before Forge, users of rendering packages other than Imagine have 
missed out on the power of Essence textures.  Now a Lightwave user can 
use Forge to render fantastic textures in full 24 bit and import them as 
a brush map.  Forge will also render in 8 bit grey scale to be used as 
bump maps, but unfortunately it doesn't render altitudes as brightness 
levels but just a grey scale version of the color output.  Rendering 
Essence bumpmaps to import to Lightwave is difficult to say the least.  
When saving 24 bit textures for use in 3D programs it is best to stay 
with color variations and not height variations.

You could render 24 bit brushmaps to use in Imagine, but there would 
be little point since it is much more efficient to allow Imagine to 
render the textures directly.  Forge renders textures about the same as 
if in Imagine, which makes sense, since Essence seems to do most of the 
render work.  You can save an attribute to be loaded into the Imagine 
attribute requestor, and even save a collection of them to be used later.

Even though Forge is a tool, it's amazing how much entertainment you 
can derive from it.  If you're the type to endlessly play with Mandelbrot 
or Julia sets, you'll have that and more with Forge.  Essence not only 
has Mandelbrot and Julia sets, but the TreeBark and BBCourt sets.  You 
can make the most beautiful or the ugliest textures you've ever seen.  
There's even a "Randomize" pull down menu that will randomly vary all the 
texture settings.  Ever wanted a Reptile Skin Workbench backdrop?  Just 
load the "Reptile Skin" attribute from Essence and change the view to 
"Repetition Map."  Render at almost any size and you will have a brush 
that can be tiled for a wild backdrop.  One could make a living selling 
these things to Windows users.

Forge does have limited ARexx support, about fifteen commands.  In 
fact, this is how Forge executes "Randomize" and how it displays to the 
24 bit boards it supports.  Forge can lauch up to ten ARexx scripts with 
their own entry or you can call any ARexx script with a file requestor.  
ARexx scripts can not only be lauched at program start or shutdown, but 
also before or after each sequence or each frame.  With all this, you 
would think that ARexx is an important element of Forge, but to be 
truthful, it could use a bit more work.  One bug I found was if you 
launch an ARexx script from Forge that has an error it will not give any 
error code and once caused Forge to crash completely.

As quoted from the manual: "The AREXX commands themselves will not 
be documented in this manual, mostly because it is much easier just to 
present demonstration scripts for you to examine."  Just the same, it 
would've been nice to at least include a short summary of their 
functions.  There are at least two commands that aren't in any of the 
demo scripts that I found by loading Forge into a word processor.  For 
the record, here are all the commands I know of: QUIT, GETNAME, GETMIN, 
GETMAX, GETVAL, GETSTEPS, SETVAL, DUMPPREVIEW, SHOWSTATUS, PAUSE, 
RESTARTPREVIEW, UNPAUSE, REFRESHSLIDERS, FORGETOFRONT, FORGETOBACK.

The project menu has a selection labeled Iconize, which will open a 
small window of not much more than a title bar on the Workbench.  This 
frees up valuable chip memory for serious multitasking.  Clicking on the 
close gadget of this window will uniconize the program, and abortize any 
rendering if you confirm the requestor.  I wish Amiga developers would 
follow a rule on this point, as some programs quit, some uniconify and 
this one uniconizes.  If "WB Render Meter" is turned on from the prefs, 
it will also open another small window with frames remaining and a 
percent finished meter on the workbench.

The prefs requestor is fairly basic, but includes things that make 
your rendering life easier.  Among the parameters changeable are setting 
screen background color and whether or not you want Forge iconified when 
rendering.  Also in prefs there are three different task priorities, 
allowing you to change the importance of CPU time for Forge when 
rendering, pushed to the back, or front and active (which I think should 
be in ALL programs of this nature.)  This way, Forge won't be sharing the 
important CPU time with your stellar conquest battle simulation program.  
I do wish the prefs requestor had an OKAY button, all it has is SAVE and 
CANCEL.

Forge has a real time preview window with a maximum size of 237 
pixels wide by 249 high.  Real time being defined as constantly updating 
and refining even as you change parameters via sliders.  If your 
processor is fast enough, it only takes a several seconds to see details 
of your changes.  Soon after a change takes place, the window refreshes 
with 32 by 32 pixel blocks, then down to 16 by 16, then down to 8 by 8, 
etc., until it finally fills in details pixel by pixel.  Any time during 
this process you can move a slider and it will instantly update.  This 
system works great if you make a mistake and instantly get the garishly 
colored checkerboard texture (read the Essence manual.)  Using the pull 
down menu you can transfer the preview window to a 24 bit framebuffer 
like Firecracker or Opalvision.

Imagine has the ability to load two objects, or two textures, and 
morph between them.  In the case of animating textures with Forge, you 
would define two sets of parameters and morph between them.  Good 
examples of animation using Essence would be polkadots growing or clouds 
dissapating and reforming.  When using 3D programs other than Imagine, 
you would have to render a sequence of texture brushes, which most 3D 
programs accept as animated brushmaps.  Forge can preview the animation 
either by storyboard or actually showing them animate in a postage stamp 
size window.  The animating preview is done by copying the storyboard 
views to the anim preview in sequence.  You can preview at 30fps and it 
didn't even seem to slow down the real time updating on my machine.

Overall, I like Forge quite a bit.  Like almost any program, the 
first release can always be a bit more refined, Forge has a very solid 
foundation to start.  I don't know of any program like it on the Amiga, 
so it's in a class of it's own.  If you already own Essence, either 
volumes, I highly recommend getting Forge.  It will save much time 
tweaking those texture values.  If you're planning on buying Essence 
soon, Forge is even more important since it is extremely useful in 
finding out what Essence can and can't do.  I commend the Apex team on a 
job well done.