Monday, 22 October 2007 16:42

Linux frag-fest: the games Linux plays

You know Linux will handle all your web browsing needs, your e-mail, your office apps. But when it comes to gaming, what do you do? If you’re a hard-core gamer are you stuck in a Windows world, or the netherworld of dual-booting? Fear not: Linux can play hard and here’s how to get going.
Firstly, by “gaming” we’re talking about shoot-em-up, space-sim, fun bleeding-edge action and adventure. Forget Solitaire, Freecell and Purble Place: there’s no end of card games and even cutesy Kill Bill (Gates) amusements. Linux users are well catered for here in that regard. Spare a thought for the person who has committed to switching platform. They fire up Ubuntu and then think “What now?”

Not to worry! Linux is happy to oblige, with several options. The best route is out-and-out straight Linux versions of games. Other options are virtualisation and emulation.

Linux ports
Some vendors are more Linux-friendly than others: id Software has long been known for its Linux leanings. You can easily download a wealth of Linux engines for timeless classics like Doom straight from id’s FTP server.

This isn’t restricted to titles that date back to DOS days; Doom III, Quake 4, and Enemy Territory: Quake Wars are all available, and id provides FAQs to help you get them working with a minimum of fuss.

Similarly, Epic Games have released Linux variants of many of its popular Unreal titles. You can find downloads for the original Unreal, as well as Unreal Tournaments 2003 and 2004. Search for files here. In addition, Epic Games have announced that imminent title Unreal Tournament 3 will also be coming to Linux.

Not to be outdone, our allied pals, the U.S. military, have brought their defence force-sponsored army sim, America’s Army, to Linux. The full download is available and completely up-to-date with its Windows sibling.

That’s three major providers of quality, modern and popular franchises. Likewise, other vendors have ported their games to Linux. However, it’s important to note there are generally several caveats.

Firstly, support is almost always limited. Activision explicitly states they will not provide any support for the Linux versions of their games. For the most part this is no big deal; fortunately, Linux has long enjoyed a robust community where assistance is never far away.

Secondly, you mostly always need to have purchased the Windows version. America’s Army is an obvious exception, being free on Windows as well as in Linux, but what id Software provides, for example, is a run-time engine – which they give away for free – but the actual game content is still copyright, and is still commercial, and without this the engine will do very little.

Thirdly, the Linux release of Enemy Territory: Quake Wars did lag behind the Windows release. Perhaps in time, Linux and Windows games will have simultaneous releases but for now it has to be accepted that gaming companies will be focusing more heavily on the lucrative Windows market.

Perhaps a step towards influencing this situation is for Linux gamers to show their numbers by sending positive feedback to software companies acknowledging the Linux ports they have made thus far – or encouraging other companies to follow in the steps of id, Epic and the US military. (Well, let’s not go too far with the latter!)

Not every game has a Windows version. Popular multi-player online role-playing game World of Warcraft is a compelling example. It is played daily (and that’s literal in some cases) by millions of people around the world. Yet, there is no native Linux engine for World of Warcraft.

Once again, the terrific Linux community come to the fore. Ubuntu’s community pages list comprehensive – and contemporary – instructions which will get you raiding and grinding in no time. The key to their success is Wine, a free open source implementation of the Windows Win32 API.

Wine is a special type of software application which seeks to emulate calls made to Windows system functions, thereby enabling Windows applications to run on Linux systems. Phooey to applications; what we’re keen on here is gaming – and pleasantly, many people use Wine to successfully play World of Warcraft as well as many other games. Indeed, it’s possible that the Ubuntu instructions are more helpful than any official Windows-based documentation for the game, with clear guidance given on matters like improving framerates and opening firewall ports for fast patch downloading.

Another popular title that is known to work under emulation is CounterStirke. As with World of Warcraft, detailed steps to get the game working are online; this includes downloading and running the necessary Steam installer.

Wine isn’t the be-all and end-all; in addition you ought to investigate Cedega 6.0. This is a commercial emulator which aims to target modern and graphically intense releases like Oblivion, Battlefield 2142, Madden 2007 and Need for Speed: Carbon. Rather than strive to emulate the Windows API in general, Cedega seeks to emulate specific games and thus work towards 100% compatibility of defined titles.

In theory, Cedega is the way to go, given it has a paid team working on it and that they are focusing heavily on video and audio performance. Additionally, Cedega is actually forked from the Wine source code and thus it is reasonable to assume it offers all Wine can do in addition to its own benefits. You can read more at Cedega's site.

This said, many Linux users report Wine works perfectly fine for them with all they throw at it. Your mileage will very likely vary depending on your gaming preferences and your hardware specifications, but do give Wine a try; after all, it’s free. More information on Wine is here. Cedega costs money, so you will need to purchase it to use it but logic suggests it will offer greater success.

If you emulate a Windows game, you will need to purchase it; as far as the vendor is concerned, you’re buying a Windows game for a Windows computer. There’s no free route here.

Not all gaming needs are that sophisticated. You might just want to dust off Dark Forces, or Prince of Persia, or the original Warcraft, or Rise of the Triad or any of a number of classics. What these all have in common is that they are DOS titles; they didn’t run under Windows and do not require a Windows emulator.

Here’s where DOSBox comes into its own; again an emulator, this free open-source app emulates 286 and 386 processors and a suite of popular video and sound cards from that era. A very lengthy list of games known to work with DOSBox is online and you will find hundreds of titles here. Of course, actually finding the old (and commercial) DOS games may be a bigger challenge – but if you have them in your library, chances are very good you can play them.

Finally, you might hope for a better experience using virtualisation. In this case, rather than run a Windows emulator – which may have varying degrees of success – a Windows virtual machine will likely give a much more realistic Windows environment. VMWare’s server and player systems are available for free, but you still need a legitimate copy of Microsoft Windows to make your virtual machine.

The biggest advantage of virtualisation is it gives a greater guarantee of a Windows application working. However, the biggest drawback of virtualisation is it largely ignores your computer’s hardware and instead tricks the virtual machine into thinking it just has bog standard hardware. This avoids any tricky driver problems, but will mean fast-moving games with flashy visual effects will look terrible. Virtualisation shouldn’t be discounted completely; some people do report they have successfully run Maxis’ The Sims on a virtual PC.

End matter
Dispel the myth: Linux is as much a gamer’s platform as is Windows. You need not fear that if you choose to adopt Linux you have to abandon your favourite fun pastimes.

You will need to research carefully though; if you are keen on a game, first check for a Linux port. That’s always the best option. Sometimes the Linux port may not even be by the original provider. I’m a keen Warcraft 2 player from years ago. Blizzard don't have a Linux version, but happily, the free third-party engine Wargus helps slake my Warcraft 2 thirst.

Failing a native Linux version, do check out the Wine application database and check for any successful experiences by others. You’ll find interesting performance comparisons online too, comparing Windows XP with Wine.

If Wine doesn’t work for you, you might like to try Cedega or a virtual machine but definitely ask around: Linux gamers are always happy to lend a hand.

You can find a wide range of native Linux games listed online at Ubuntu’s help community. You needn’t even restrict yourself to just what you know from the Windows world; take a good look: there are loads of exciting Linux-only games there too. Whether you’re a shooter, a strategist, a racer, a flight-simmer, a platform game enthusiast or even a humble Tetriser, there’s more than plenty to float your boat.

Finally, another great site with loads of helpful information is the Linux Gamers’ FAQ. And not once did we ask you to reboot into Windows :)



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David M Williams

David has been computing since 1984 where he instantly gravitated to the family Commodore 64. He completed a Bachelor of Computer Science degree from 1990 to 1992, commencing full-time employment as a systems analyst at the end of that year. David subsequently worked as a UNIX Systems Manager, Asia-Pacific technical specialist for an international software company, Business Analyst, IT Manager, and other roles. David has been the Chief Information Officer for national public companies since 2007, delivering IT knowledge and business acumen, seeking to transform the industries within which he works. David is also involved in the user group community, the Australian Computer Society technical advisory boards, and education.


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