• Price When Reviewed: £199 plus VAT

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Bryce is a 3D tool that specializes in 3D environments – something that most packages consider secondary to character animation. Bryce has no character tools, instead offering powerful and naturalistic landscape and object tools – adding trees and organic blobs in this version, along with other enhancements, and support for Mac OS X. The ability to add trees is the feature that has garnered the most interest since this version was announced – no surprise considering Bryce’s reputation as a tool for creating Myst-style landscapes. Previously, you could import tree objects from other packages or stock collections (or use 2D images), but version 5 lets you grow them organically. This makes getting exactly the tree you want so much easier – as often one of the extensive selection of real-world templates (which offer everything from Oak to Willow) will fit your needs. Metaballs, organic balls that warp towards each other and mesh, are also new. Although hard to get to grips with if you’ve never used them before, a bit of practice will show you that they’re very effective at producing a wide range of irregular shapes. However, there are two major flaws with metaballs: as always, they can’t blend with other types of object, though they can intersect with them. Specific to Bryce, in the wireframe view they look like perfect spheres – the warping and meshing only appearing in the tiny Nano Preview window and when you render. If I wanted to be churlish, I could also say that they’re not subdivision surfaces, the clay-type modelling system found in higher-end 3D suites – but for £199, I’m not going to complain too much. Bryce 5 also sees a boosted lighting system. The Light Lab brings all of the lighting controls together, which will make it easier for newcomers to learn, and makes lighting feel more cohesive. It also introduces colour gradients to lights (which you also borrow from Photoshop), as well as soft/ambient shadows and distributed rendering effects such as blurred reflections. You can also mimic depth-of-field effects if you wish. Other new features include larger canvases, more shading controls, five new mapping modes, and a host of tweaks. Last, there’s network rendering using Bryce Lighting, an included application that you can install wherever or however many times you like. Network rendering can be performed over any TCP/IP network. Most criticisms of Bryce 5 seem to stem from the fact that its development has obviously been targeted at providing new features both big and small, rather than fixing its inherent problems. The MetaCreations interface is as good as it always has been – but even some basic commands have to be performed from the OS’s own menu bar. It can still only export terrains to other 3D apps – not even trees can leave the confines of Bryce. Its animation tools range from the limited to the non-existent. You also have only two viewing options: wireframe or rendered – though comparatively fast low-detail renders are possible. However, these criticisms can’t detract from the fact that Bryce is still an excellent program that most design professionals of all disciplines should have in their repertoire. The tool’s raytraced output is very impressive for its class, and renders extremely quickly. Whether you want to quickly sketch something for full modelling and animation later, add 3D to your Photoshop images, or a 3D graphic for your Web site – Bryce is well worth a couple of hundred quid.