By Michael Burns | on December 06, 2007
Price When Reviewed: 2695 . 595 . 295
Pros: Review. Interactive viewports. DirectX 10 support. Character animation and modelling enhancements. Windows Vista support. Improved mental ray rendering and workflow.
Cons: Windows (64-bit/32-bit) XP and Vista only. Some ‘new’ features carried over from 3ds Max 9 Extension 1. Only plug-ins for Version 9 and later supported.
3DS Max 2008 is the tenth full release of the venerable Autodesk suite, supporting Windows Vista and XP in both 32-bit and 64-bit versions. There’s an integrated driver for Direct X 10, optimized selection and transform performance, improved DWG support and an integrated FBX translator that improves support for animation, mesh, material and lighting data.
If you’re on a subscription contract with Autodesk, you’ll already have received some of the following enhancements last year in 3DS Max 9 Extension 1, but there are a few new features for everyone in this release.
Chief among these is Review, a more interactive way to work with some of the more advanced imaging features in Max. Thus you can now display within the viewport interactive previews of GPU-based shadows, the effect of adjusting shader settings within the Arch+Design mental ray (mr) material, and the effects of the Daylight system, including reflections derived from the sun and sky environments.
Having such interactive displays in the viewport is a tremendous help for setting up scenes, materials and lighting. Some similar shadow preview features exist in ZBrush, while both Maya and Cinema 4D offer interactive preview rendering, but it’s the faithful connection to the mental ray materials and sun/sky system that’s so interesting here.
Still on the subject of mental ray workflows, the new Sky Portal allows smoother control of lighting simulations by defining where and how the external light enters an indoor scene. In practice this involves defining an area of the scene such as a window or skylight.
The Sky Portal requires less render time than the Global Illumination option and high-dynamic-range (HDRI) based lighting is also supported. It’s quick, effective and straightforward to set up. Meanwhile, the new mental ray Glare shader can be used to create a realistic halo around very bright areas in the rendered image.
Other new enhancements for mental ray include a camera-based interface for managing exposure settings. This mr Photographic Exposure Control lets you modify rendered output with a general exposure value or specific shutter speed, aperture, and film speed settings. It also gives you image-control settings including separate values for highlights, midtones, and shadows. Again, it’s aimed at the use of HDR images, now commonly used for realistic rendering.
The mental ray Architectural and design (Arch+Design) material also improves realism with a choice of options (with built-in tooltip descriptions) to support most hard-surface materials such as metal, wood and glass. Especially tuned for fast glossy reflections, refractions and high-quality glass, its new features include self-illumination. The ambient occlusion settings for this material have also been improved, with the selective shadowing effect this provides now able to take colour from surrounding materials. The result is a far more realistic effect.
Hellgate: London. Image courtesy of Flagship Studio.
A further viewport enhancement is the revised Adaptive Degradation system, which is intended to improve interactive performance. A list of rendering modes in the Adaptive Degradation tab under the Viewport Configuration dialog allow you to define a priority for the display of objects in the scene. Priority controls include distance from camera and pixel size. Previously, the whole scene was degraded uniformly, but now objects with higher priority will use the higher, more faithful display settings, while lower-priority objects, typically smaller and/or farther from the point of view, will use the lower display settings.
Game developers will welcome the integrated DirectX 10 support, which complements the existing DirectX 9 driver and lets you use the latest Direct3D shaders. When DirectX 10 is active on your system, a simpler, more straightforward interface is available for configuring Direct3D.
Modelling has also been enhanced. When working with an editable poly object or using the Edit Poly Modifier, you can now preview selections made at the sub-object level – 3DS Max illustrates this with a yellow area. This makes it more accurate for selecting individual edges and vertices, particularly within dense meshes.
It also complements other new features, namely a constraint to transform sub-object geometry along the normals of selections, as well as the ability to adjust segment settings for the Chamfer tool at the sub-object level. A multi-preview selection is also available, which as you select an edge, polygon, vertex and so on, switches the sub-object level to match, negating the need for hotkeys.
On the subject of hotkeys, Max 2008 offers a selection of new press/release keyboard shortcuts for working with Edit Poly objects, which when used let you temporarily override one action with another. So you can be using the Bevel tool at the polygon sub-object level, but if you hold down ‘6’ you can switch to use the rotate tool to manipulate the model, while releasing the key returns you to bevelling mode.
As 3DS Max is so popular in the games development arena, any release is bound to bring some enhancements to character animation and this version is no different. Biped, the internal system for building and animating skeletal armatures, has been improved. You can already stack complementary biped actions in layers, to make a character run while crouched for example, but you’re also now able to load and save individual biped layers
as BIP files for isolating character motion or for cross-project use.
Animators now have the ability to simultaneously rotate multiple bones inside a bone chain, both for bipeds and in general, and can make use of navigation hotkeys to traverse hierarchies. In addition, bones and IK goals now default to a size of two inches, while set-up time can also be reduced because the size of subsequent objects defaults to the last value set.
There’s a lot of customization available in version 2008 and extensibility is further served by ProScript, a new interface for working with MAXScript that includes many workflow enhancements. It’s the attention to the user experience shown by Review, and the other enhancements as well as the obvious speed bumps, that makes Max 2008 worth a look.
Those thinking of upgrading from 3DS Max 9 will be pleased to note that plug-ins for that version and scenes created therein are fully supported by the 2008 version – the same doesn’t apply to prior versions however.