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Games for Linux.

About a week ago, Joe Barr posted a feature on Linux.com titled "New Alien Arena 6.10 blows away its FPS competition" yet gave no real comparisons with other similar games, regretable since his conclusion was that it "blows away its competition".

This was done in the same style as Barr's previous feature, "Tremulous: The best free software game ever?" which described Tremulous but also lacked comparisons and relations to other games. This feature hopes to be a thorough comparison of the major free software shooters.

There have been many free software first-person shooters (FPS) projects over the years, from modded Doom and Quake engines to enhance the existing games (ezQuake, EGL, ZDoom), to free art packs such as OpenQuartz or OpenArena. In 2002, along came Cube, a single and multiplayer FPS based on its own engine, including artwork, maps, models and an ingame map editor. In the freeware (and Linux compatible!) world a little-known game called Legends, a Tribes-inspired game, appeared yet remained closed-source. Filling the FPS gap in the open-source world has usually been left up to commercial companies who release their games with Linux support (i.e. Doom3, Unreal Tournament 2004, Loki Software's work) or freeware games produced by commercial studios(i.e. America's Army, Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory) or simply running Windows games run via wine. In the last few years a few built-from-scratch community-based FPS projects, most built on the GPLed Quake engines, have popped up, among them are Tremulous, Alien Arena, Nexuiz, and War§ow. Some have kept their art assets under a closed license (War§ow), while others have also released their art under an OSS license (Nexuiz), I consider both categories free software since well, software refers to programs, code and procedures, not artwork. For this comparison, we'll take a look at active, robust and community-developed free software shooters. Most released free software shooters are designed for multiplayer, a logical step for a game developed in an online community, however most also feature a bot-based single-player mode. While others have compared such games before, this feature seeks to be a little more thorough and go a step further, ranking the following seven games: Alien Arena, Nexuiz, OpenArena, Sauerbraten, Tremulous, War§ow, and World of Padman. In ranking these games, gameplay, design, innovation and presentation (in that order) will be held as primary criteria.

7. Sauerbraten


Sauerbraten is basically Cube 2, the sequel to one of the most influential free software shooters released to date. The engine is completely reworked with brand new graphics rendering features rivaling that of Quake4. Like Cube, Sauerbraten has a built-in map editor that allows player to edit maps from within the game, making this one of the friendliest games for content-creation. The latest version of Sauerbraten, 2007-09-04, is little more than a subversion snapshot packaged and stabilized for wider distribution; the game is still in heavy development. Sauerbraten gameplay drastically differ from anything Cube offered, with simple Quake-style weapons, game effects, and the same Quake3-like FFA action. It is worth noting that Cube (and Sauerbraten) give you a weapon when you pick up the appropriate ammobox; there is no separation between ammo and weapons.While it has some cool features, the game still feels like more of a concept demo than an actual game, and with only 20-30 servers, half running instagib, there isn’t much of a community following. Single player is reminiscent of Quake1, with enemy monsters in a variety of maps. The menu is actually one of the coolest I’ve seen implemented in a game, it spawns as an object ingame and faces you, however the lack of a main menu upon load adds to the tech-demo feel. Despite the tech-demo nature of the game, Sauerbraten has a good soundtrack, lots of maps, good quality models, well-done artwork and textures. The gameplay isn’t anything astounding but with pretty decent maps and gameplay reminiscent of Quake3, Sauerbraten definitely offers something for people who just want some simple mindless action with some eye candy. Sauerbraten is a really cool project, but right now it remains that, a project of what can be done, more than a game.

6. OpenArena


OpenArena is a project to create GPL-licensed art assets on top of the open-sourced Quake 3 engine. It uses the latest snapshot of the ioquake3 engine and a mix of GPL assets ranging from original work to resources from Nexuiz, Cube and others. OpenArena 0.71 is a fairly large release at over 200MB. Most of the space is spent on many maps and models, some of which are regrettably lacking in quality. Some are straight recompiles of the GPL released Quake 1 maps (oa_dm1-7), which fail to use many of the advanced lighting and detail offered in the new engine. OpenArena seems to generally lack coherent art direction or design; most the maps, models and artwork seems like a half-done mix of Quake 3’s gothic architecture and anime. The gameplay stays true to what was included in Quake3, so it can be rather enjoyable. On the other hand, much of Quake 3 Arena's popularity came from being done in such a simple, directed, and polished manner and OpenArena lacks much of the polish that made Quake3 so enjoyable. However, the project is still in its early stages and the task at hand is a rather large one. The goal of recreating GPL Q3A artwork on top of the GPL code is both noble and a great contribution to the community. OpenArena games still seem limited to FFA and with about 70 servers, the community is rather small. While Q3A gained popularity as a competitive game, the developers of OA don’t see that as a target market so the depth of gameplay is unlikely to expand. At the moment, most the games on this list display far better art direction and design, which is regrettable as OpenArena is the most art-driven and least code-driven game in the group. At the end of the day though, OpenArena is about making a free game that has lots of simple & fun deathmatch action a la Quake3, and that is where it succeeds.

5. Alien Arena

Alien Arena is a Quake 2 based deathmatch game that tries to draw on a conflict between humans and aliens. However this distinction between two player types rarely stretches beyond player models. The latest release, Alien Arena 2007 6.10, still has many visual characteristics that appear outdated and reminiscent of Quake 2. Although there are game modes such as deathball, CTF, and assult, with a dark artistic style, fast gameplay with strong weapons, Alien Arena is predominantly a deathmatch game. The original game modes aren’t very well presented and seem to be underutilized, which is a shame because they seem to be fairly innovative. For example, Alien Arena includes vehicles in certain game modes, but the feature is hidden away on a few rarely-played and rarely-promoted maps. Although the external server browser and main menu are very nice, much of Alien Arena seems to be muddled and lacking polished design. The HUD lacks many critical features like a weaponlist or a clock, and the icons and graphics are not clear. Alien Arena lacks many obvious gameplay features that have become standard in modern games, like removing the quad powerup for the duel gamemode. While many of the weapons seem to be recreations of weapons in Unreal and Quake, the two fire modes for each weapon adds interesting diversity on top of Quake-inspired gameplay rules. But overpowered nature of the weapons, especially the chaingun, leaves much to be desired from the gameplay. The community isn’t very large at about 60 servers, but the game seems to be a bit lacking in clean presentation so it may not be as attractive to new players. Alien Arena seems to be working with lots of new and interesting original concepts but still needs work to match the artistic and gameplay quality of the other games covered here. If the project were to shift gears and focus a bit more on polish, design and presentation instead of creating tons of content (which it already has lots of), it has the potential to move beyond "dark FFA deathmatch action" and really be something quite original and remarkable.

4. Nexuiz


Nexuiz is another game that follows the fast, dark, and intense free-for-all deathmatch style first set down by Quake 1 in 1996. Nexuiz curiously enough is built on the Darkplaces engine, an expanded version of the GPL released Quake 1 source. While the basic graphics are seem to be up to Quake 3 standards, expanded lighting options allow the graphical features to be brought up to just below Quake 4 standards. Although the newest version still follows that simple deathmatch style, the fast, varied maps and lots of explosive action with interesting two fire-mode weapons leads to gameplay that is about as intense as it gets for shooters. Good sound combined with varied and unique weapons attests to the polish that has gone into bringing Nexuiz up to version 2.3. Nexuiz has lots of maps which seem to be slightly varied in style, but still are predominantly covered with dark overtones. While most of the game is cleaned up far beyond its Quake 1 roots, it is still lacking in presentation with the menu being very circa 1990s. The community is strong and with about 80 servers, and finding a game is fairly easy. Nexuiz has lots of content, style and features and is very well done for a FFA game but some areas could use some more work and showcasing of its unique features and modes.

3. World of Padman


World of Padman originated as a modification on top of Quake 3 in 2004. With the release of GPL licensed Quake3 code, World of Padman was released as a stand-alone game on top of ioquake3. From that perspective, World of Padman was designed more in the style of the mod community (art-driven projects) than that of the free software community (code-driven projects) but nonetheless, its free software now. The game is based on a comic book and has unique colorful graphics with clear comic inspiration. World of Padman gameplay is very similar to that of Quake3, a little bit different, a little refreshing, but nothing too strikingly new. Killing other players is satisfying and just silly fun. If anything, World of Padman is proof that deathmatch gaming doesn’t need to be blood-covered, violent and serious; it can be silly, cutesy and fun. World of Padman features several maps, each quite unique and but fitting with a common style. For example, players are characters about 3cm high and fight in real rooms like a bedroom, library, kitchen, etc. It’s not a new approach for maps, but it definitely is fun and interesting; combined with World of Padman’s art direction, this leaves for rather refreshing arenas. And while maps like this sure are great free-for-all fun, they aren’t really designed for competitive play, limiting potential for a hardcore community (the driving force of many shooter games). Gameplay is similar to Quake3 with slower rockets and a very satisfying machine gun being the most notable differences. It has a small community at about 26 servers but the large installer above 500MB might be slowing adoption. The game is very polished , it has several gamemodes (including a unique “Spray your Color” mode) but gameplay still boils down the basic Quake-like fragging. While World of Padman is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a bad game, it lacks the innovative gameplay design goals of several of the games features here, it feels like Quake with polish and restructured objectives. While the game has great style rivaling the stylistic nature of any commercial game, it lacks advanced graphical features of Nexuiz & Sauerbraten or unique gameplay features of Nexuiz & Alien Arena. If you want to see what the gothic Quake 3 would look like if it were designed by color-loving comic artists with a sense of humor and a sense of fun style, World of Padman is exactly what you’re looking for but regrettably that’s about as far is it goes at the moment.

2. Tremulous


Tremulous sets itself aside from all of the previous games in that it isn’t a FFA deathmatch game. Instead Tremulous is a team-based game with aliens vs. humans where each team constructs a base and players are given the ability to obtain individual upgrades. With a kill-based point system, Tremulous rewards combat, allowing players to get better equipment so they can better attack the opponents. The two teams are unique and the concept and style of the game is rather original. If anything, Tremulous can be related to the Half-Life mod Natural Selection, although without the RTS commander mode. Tremulous has had a very constant release cycle with the latest 1.1 being released about a year ago and the community and development remaining active. The game is based on the Quake 3 engine, and although there are only 8 maps, they’re all varied, unique and high-quality. The only notable flaw was that the options menu didn’t show up until the player joined a game. Tremulous has rich gameplay but still very accessible to new players, featuring onscreen help and tips while you play. To further the point, Tremulous comes with a descriptive and friendly manual for those who want to learn the details of the gameplay. The game is simply fun; there is just action for those who want a simple game and tons of features and detail for those that want a bit more. The graphic design is consistent, dark and sci-fi futuristic with a bit of variance but a lot of consistency. The game has a large following as far as free software goes with a about 200 servers and at least a couple games any time of day. The performance is clean and consistent and it looks as good as Quake 3 generation mods. Tremulous is one of the few free software projects to combine an original idea with a polished implementation and good direction. The few maps and one gamemode really keep the style focused and clean. Tremulous could use more maps, more variety, more content and perhaps more robust gameplay, but 1.1 is a great release and future versions are definitely something to watch out for.

1. War§ow


War§ow is a deathmatch shooter with a focus on freedom of movement, attracting new players and fostering a competitive scene. It is built on Qfusion, a heavy modification of the GPL Quake 2 engine. From the user interface, to the gameplay, to even the netcode the game feels more like an improvement on Quake 3 than anything, stretching far beyond the original Quake 2 engine. Along with World of Padman, wSw stands out in this comparison by actually using colorful and clean graphics as opposed to Quake-inspired dark visuals. Warsow manages set itself even further by using cel-shading to create very clean, yet stunning visuals which regrettably can strain slower systems. In addition, the maps all feature a unique visual style that varies between maps yet retains the clean and cyberpunk visual themes.While sticking to basic deathmatch gamemodes, wSw manages to refine them and remain fun and enjoyable. Weapons are generally the same as Quake 3 and 4, although with a more polished feel. wSw however, implements a dual tier system for ammos. Weapons have weak and strong ammos which add more functionality to the gameplay while still keeping the basics simple. War§ow’s main change on top of basic Quake 3 gameplay is an expansion of movement options, featuring strafejumping and bunnyhopping from Quake along with dash, walljumping and aircontrol. Polish and high quality standards are what make War§ow the free software FPS to beat. All aspects, from movement to maps to the gamemodes, seem refined and balanced. It was not until the mid-2007 release of the 0.3x version (currently 0.32) that wSw became refined enough to set itself apart from the others mentioned here. While many of the previously mentioned games have good original ideas and interesting features, they do not present games that match the quality of commercial offerings. In terms of multiplayer features and customizability, War§ow matches and outclasses any released commercial deathmatch game. Many of the other games seem to fall into the common trend in free software projects: lots of great ideas without friendly and useful implementation, while War§ow is in the style of Firefox, polished and accessible. Maps seem to have serious consideration for item placement and flow, voice-overs seem clean and crisp, lag-compensating network code keeps online play smooth. While many games seem to concentrate in only one area, Warsow seems to do well in almost every area. teamplay, 1v1, new players and experienced players all have been considered in design. Out of the previously mentioned games War§ow also has the largest community with over 250 servers. Competitive gaming is a key part of wSw and there exists a very large competitive community, for example, an international LAN competition was hosted in 2007. Competition drives many of the design decisions behind the game, and always leaves players with something to do and strive for. This also leads to the game's largest flaw, a steep learning curve that pushes wSw beyond the scope of many casual gamers; although the newly added Clan Arena mode lets new players have a simple gamemode where they can stand a bit more of a chance. wSw thrives on bunnyhopping and strafing skills which take time to develop, tutorial videos exist but lack of an ingame tutorial seriously limits adoption. The high quality art direction, the implementation of some simple yet effective original ideas, combined with the refined Quake gameplay leaves War§ow the champion of the pack for free software shooters. Warsow was able to do what many free software projects strive for, take an established concept, clearly implement additional original ideas, refine the core of the project, and then present it in a very professional way.

Honorable Mentions

Quake2World - Currently in heavy development, Quake2world is a based off the Quetoo source cleanup of the Quake2 engine. It is full of features and the gameplay is fast and unique, combining the speed of QuakeWorld with features and leveldesign of Quake2, with the possible induction of more features from other Quakes. There is high quality artwork being developed but development is still very much a moving target, with no actual releases; however, there exists a publically accessible SVN and a handful of servers.

Legends - Tribes-inspired gameplay with years of effort behind it. While Legends isn't open-source, it is worth a look if large environments in team-based combat is your thing.

Notes: Since the original writing, Sauerbraten has released a new version that has more RPG elements and seems to make progress in being a more full-fledged game. I actually haven't had time to update the article.

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About Hugo Repetto

Ubuntu is a Linux distribution that offers an operating system predominantly focused on desktop computers but also provides support for servers. Based on Debian GNU / Linux, Ubuntu focuses on ease of use, freedom in usage restriction, regular releases (every 6 months) and ease of installation.
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