Bryce 4

According to the Bible it took God a day to create the heavens and the earth. With a copy of Bryce 4 installed on His Mac, that part of the Creation would have taken just a few minutes (although rendering may have taken rather longer). Bryce has always been one of MetaCreations’ biggest hits, as a Web search on “Bryce” readily demonstrates. There’s something peculiarly appealing about the ability to create ultra-realistic landscapes and render them to photographic quality images, and Bryce 4 is a solid upgrade to an already-successful product. I trust no-one will take offence if I describe Bryce as a ‘toy’ (I’m a huge fan of toys and the Mac itself may be the ultimate toy). Earlier versions, despite their appeal, lacked too many key features for professional 3D modelling, not least the ability to import and export data between Bryce and other applications. But Bryce 4 may win a place in the toolbox of many professional modellers since that key drawback has been remedied with this upgrade. For example, you can now directly import native object files from Lightwave and TrueSpace, as well as VRML1; and, just as important, can export those object files, together with .DXF, Wavefront .OBJ, RayDream Studio and Infini-D formats. Another new feature is support for DEM (Digital Elevation Maps), which makes it easy to create landscapes based on real-world locations. Free DEM files are available on the Web from United States Geological Survey maps, and I’ve found others from Japan and Switzerland, but sadly UK and other European data has proved elusive. While the earliest versions of Bryce limited themselves to terrains and water effects, this upgrade provides a full range of tools for creating objects of all types. The usual 3D primitives (sphere, cube, cylinder and so on) are provided, as well as mesh deformations and booleans. No less important than the modelling tools are the features for creating realistic textures, and Bryce is superbly well-equipped in this area. The CD includes one of the largest collections of textures and materials available with any modelling application, and provides some powerful tools for generating your own. While the result is an application well-suited to creating realistic man-made objects, Bryce’s real strength remains in landscape generation and the upgrade builds upon the excellence of earlier versions. Water effects are wonderfully convincing, and you can even add impressive waterfalls. Procedural terrains make it easy, too, to add effects like snow cover. The finishing touches are provided by Bryce’s new Sky Lab, which gives you total control of sun and moon lighting and models, an astonishing array of cloud effects, and atmospheric haze and fogging. Version 4, then, is very nearly perfect. But not quite. Some basic features you’d expect from any modelling app are missing, including the ability to create text for titles and logos (although text can be imported as a graphic). Neither can you specify actual measurements for your models. You have to eyeball all sizes and dimensions, making it impossible to work to scale. Bryce also lacks a variety of modes for viewing your models: you can work only in wireframe or bounding-box modes, which is quicker but can make life difficult when building complex scenes. Even a simple shaded appearance would be welcome. Then there’s rendering. Although Bryce’s renderer produces stunning ray-traced images, with fogging, transparency and reflective effects, it is very, very slow. A single landscape image of reasonable size requires a lunchbreak to render; even relatively short animations will need an all-night (or all-weekend) run. Finally, there’s Meta’s approach to interface design. Having looked at three of its products in as many months, I suspect you’re as tired of reading my complaints as I am of writing them. Suffice to say that Bryce is well up to the usual idiosyncratic standards, and it simply means that Bryce takes longer to learn than it should.

OUR VERDICT

If you’ve ever wanted to create impressive landscape pictures but your artistic talents atrophied at the primary school level of ‘My Mum and My House’, Bryce is a dream come true. It makes the creation of photo-realistic landscapes a cinch, and you can import the resulting pictures into Adobe Photoshop or Meta’s own Painter for even greater artistic effects. For experienced 3D modellers Bryce provides one of the simplest ways to create impressive results. And this latest version is welcome as textured terrains can now be exported into pro applications like Lightwave, Strata Studio Pro and Cinema 4D. All in all, MetaCreations Bryce 4 is a better toy, and provides more fun, than any other game on the Mac.

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