• Price When Reviewed: 1449 . 2450

  • Pros: Hair & Fur and Syflex Cloth in Essentials. Direct X 10 support. Improvements in audio, modelling, instancing and vertex colour.

  • Cons: Fairly steep learning curve. Price increase for Essentials. No Foundation version.

  • Expert Rating: We rate this 8 out of 10We rate this 8 out of 10We rate this 8 out of 10We rate this 8 out of 10We rate this 8 out of 10 We rate this 8 out of 10

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Point releases in 3D packages generally don’t deliver the biggest new feature sets, but the big news with this update is that Softimage has restructured its offerings as well as changing the price.

Along with 30 "customer-driven" enhancements, XSI 6.5 brings tools previously only offered with the Advanced package to XSI Essentials, in the process creating serious competition to Maya Complete and Houdini. The transferred features are Hair & Fur and the Syflex Cloth module, which really bump up the desirability of Essentials.

For its part, XSI Advanced gains additional render nodes – an extra five batch-rendering licences are added at no cost, which would previously have set you back £5,000, and provides support for 36 render nodes in total. There’s been a price drop to around £2,450 for Advanced, but perhaps not surprisingly Essentials actually increases in price to around £1,450 – still slightly cheaper than Maya Complete. Like the new offerings from Autodesk, Softimage|XSI offers Windows Vista support (unofficially since v6.01) and consequently supports Direct X10 shaders.

Looking at some of the new features, modelling enhancements include the new Tight packing method for laying out polygons, aiming to replace the previous method, now called Rows. You can now also snap to components on instances, including snapping the temporary tool pivot.

Scrubbing audio playback in sync with animation is important when checking sound in clips, but when scenes are comprised of heavy geometry the viewport can take longer to update. Softimage has therefore added a new option to set audio to play only after the viewport display update calculations have finished.

There have also been tweaks to the Shaderball engine, which provides pictorial previews of all the materials in a scene, as it now provides support for hardware renderers. Also in v6.5, the property editor that controls vertex colours (or CAVs) can now handle HDR values – this will benefit game developers who often use vertex colours as an efficient method of colouring models and to cut down on memory-hogging lights. RenderVertex can now bake the results of HDR image-based lighting into an object’s vertex colour property.

But many new buyers of XSI Essentials 6.5 will probably be after the Hair, Fur and Syflex cloth features. The Syflex toolbar has to be activated to give access to the latter, but after that it’s a simple process. Similar to Maya’s nCloth, the workflow is conversion of the mesh to a cloth object, applying forces like turbulence and drag, constraining points on the cloth and introducing collisions, then running a simulator to see it animate.

Maya’s Nucleus-based simulator only introduced turbulence in the latest edition, but also came with a number of useful simulation presets. However, as it’s only available in Maya Unlimited, currently shipping for £4,899, users might vote with their wallets as to the preferred simulator.

Version 6.0 was groundbreaking in its own right, but Essentials 6.5 will be of interest to anyone looking for the XSI production level tools at a more affordable price.