Price When Reviewed: $549 download; $795 including Nav3D
Pros: A high-resolution camera at a low price, with a good screen, reasonable optics and full manual controls.
Cons: A mere 3x zoom, fiddly manual controls and over-zealous JPEG compression.
It’s been a long time coming, and much has been made by developer Digital Immersion regarding the speed and interactivity of this new 3D program, but at long last, Merlin 3D has arrived on our desks.
For those unaware of the program, it’s the sequel to Merlin VR, which had real-time high-resolution texturing, and scene manipulation using a fast display technology. Merlin 3D tries to take this into a more fully-rounded 3D package.
The interface is nice and clear, with a single large viewing pane that can be switched to any view, and a control panel that flanks it on the left, though this can be torn off and repositioned. The control panel features a small, secondary view since the main pane cannot be subdivided.
From the noises that Digital Immersion has been making, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Merlin 3D was the Second Coming for 3D gurus. The product box proudly announces it as the “ultimate 3D Visualization Tool” – but it isn’t. The real-time display is fast and textures are high quality, but that’s only a tiny part of the 3D experience. A quality 3D production tool needs a lot more than this.
Modelling in Merlin 3D is basic by today’s standards. There are a few primitives, profile editing and text creation tools, but the implementation feels clumsy. There are no curves, so you can’t create smooth lathes or extrusions, sweeps or lofts. Instead you can edit the profile of each primitive using a Profile Editor panel. The profiles are polygonal rather than curves, and the system is not very user-friendly, though you can load in a background image for tracing.
There are spot, point, directional and area lights supported, plus projector lights for casting images over your scene. Depth-mapped shadows are on offer, and soft raytraced shadows, too. They take longer to render,
but are more realistic. While standard rendering is adequate, there’s built-in hybrid radiosity, which is very useful, but the program lacks the kind of control a pro user would expect.
Other features include keyframe animation, IK, subdivision surfaces, smoothing and live deformers. But the key tool set is badly implemented, making using these more advanced tools a pain. For example, the main toolbar has Select, Move and Rotate tools, but no Scale tool.
The package can be used with the Nav3D controller and is available bundled with it for $795. The Nav3D is a puck-like 3D input device that you use to navigate the scene and move objects. You use it with one hand while using the mouse in the other and this two-handed input does work quite well.
Where Merlin 3D falls down badly is the interface and general usability. Editing materials is a chore. You have to wait for the preview to redraw before you can make another change, and things like exceptionally poor control of highlight size are infuriating.
Merlin 3D seems to do only one thing well, and that’s display scenes with hi-res textures fast on standard hardware. This is not a compelling enough reason to buy it, though it does indeed perform very well in this area. Merlin 3D is a disappointing 3D package that crams in too many features without a solid framework in which to use them. The fact is that it could be great – but as it stands – there are better, more well-rounded 3D programs about.