All work and no play? Loki Entertainment Software has begun porting popular games to Linux. We examine the first.
Who cares if IBM, Dell, Compaq and Acme want to ship 16 processor Linux servers with terabyte Oracle databases? The rest of us would just like a pleasant diversion on our humble Linux workstations. A ripping good game, for example — one that’s a tad fresher than xgalaga, would be very much appreciated.
Thanks to Loki Entertainment Software, there is now such a thing as a commercial Linux gaming market. Their premiere title is Activision’s Civilization: Call To Power, converted for Linux 2.x.
Civilization: Call To Power (CivCTPto its friends) for Linux is put together just like any regular commercial title. And once you get it installed, it looks and feels every bit as good as the Windows version of the game. Playing it on a full screen, you won’t find anyone who would ever suspect it was a game running on Linux. This is no minor feat, and considering how closely the game followed on the heels of the PC release, Loki should be congratulated for pulling it off. They have done a seamless job of bringing the first installment of what we hope will be a long line of major games to the penguin world.
Rightfully so, Loki put a great amount of effort into creating a virtual carbon-copy port, and passed that test with ease. They’re obviously crack game developers. But CivCTP is definitely serving as a learning experience for their nascent publishing team. You see, there’s no installation guide. Nothing in the manual, no included booklet or reference card. Now, it may be true that most Linux users are bright enough to know
to insert the CD, mount the player, and browse for a README file. And that would be the right thing to do, of course. But a little documentation here wouldn’t hurt.
Having read the README file, you would no doubt attempt to follow the instructions to run the included install.shscript. You would then discover that there is no such thing. There is, however, an install script, which runs just fine.
Then there’s the sound issue, which can’t be ignored quite as easily. CivCTP supports the OSS (Open Sound System) sound interface, and so users who are lucky enough to have an OSS-compliant card, with OSS properly configured, will enjoy the full audio accompaniment CivCTP has to offer. Unfortunately, Loki offers no OSS configuration information in the game’s documentation.
In a mature Linux gaming market, vendors will be able to take it as a given that users will have all of their ducks in a row and don’t need help getting their computer ready for games. But given that Loki is presumably marketing their product to many people who haven’t thought of their Linux machine as a games computer and have not researched the nuances of the Open Sound System, they would have done themselves and these gaming converts a great service by lending a helping hand.
CivCTP ran successfully under both Red Hat 5.2 and Caldera OpenLinux 2.2. The game runs on modest X11 setups (consider 800×600 at 16 bit to be a good functional minimum), and is singularly disinterested in your choice of X environment or window manager: the entire CivCTP GUI is custom-coded with the exception of the occasional file requester. The game defaults to an enormous 1280×1024 screen size, which can be changed through the game settings menu. This very important feature is not mentioned in the main documentation, but is part of the Loki Web update.
CivCTP is more scientific in its approach to resource management than its Civ I and II predecessors. Instead of friendly icons to represent food and resource production on a full-screen city view, players are now faced with cold, hard numbers on small popup windows. The sticky problems of balancing research, trade, and taxation have been joined by such administrivia as public works investment and setting the length of the workday (too long and the workers are discontent, too short and no work gets done.)
|Winning Looks: Loki’s Civilization: Call to Power features a new console-driven interface and sharp, realistic graphics.
Some of the changes between CivCTP and its counterparts are common-sense corrections to some of the glaring shortfalls of the old system of civilization management. Improvements like roads and pollution control are no longer performed by settlers (which are relatively expensive commodities), but come out of a public works budget built on diverting production out of city improvements and into the common good. Having nomadic tribes build roads and railroads is not out of line with history, but after a while it got to be silly from a game-play perspective.
The movies are a nice touch. As with Civilization II, each Wonder discovery (Wonders being unique and terribly important projects, like the Great Wall of China) is rewarded with a short film showing the effects of its introduction. Some of these snippets are more dramatic than others — the AI Entity, in particular, is extremely creepy.
Leaving the movies on the CD-ROM saves about 200 megs of hard drive space, and since they play back perfectly well from any reasonable speed drive, it’s probably worth saving the space. (Don’t forget to mount your CD-ROM before playing!) And of course, any modestly capable Pentium system will be fast enough to play back the movies. The MPEG code was the first major project Loki undertook when porting CivCTP.
Military units are now supported out of your civilization resources as a whole rather than by their home city — another solid improvement from the overall perspective of the game. Ramping up for war also requires more than one turn, which curtails the fun but unrealistic total war blitzkriegs that were inevitably launched in older Civs.
Fans of the original Civilization inevitably felt let down when they progressed beyond the bounds of the game’s library of technology and sat around developing nondescript “Future Tech” discoveries that had no purpose or use other than scoring points. Atoning for that oversight, CivCTP allows players to indulge their interests in dystopia and other futuristic terrors, if they so choose. Late in the game, you can choose to develop the “AI Entity” (in effect, Big Brother) or mind control devices in order to improve the attitude of your citizens. Ecoterrorists and specialized viruses can be sent to wipe out entire cities quickly and efficiently. And it goes without saying that the other civilizations of the world are trying to beat you to the horrific punch.
The endgame in the previous incarnations of Civilization always felt a little forced. The task was to build a spaceship to colonize a distant world, forcing you to divert city building resources from capital improvements or military production over to building parts for the ship. If you beat the other civilizations to outer space, you won the game — regardless of what else might be going on. Again, it felt like a forced way to end the game (which might be stagnating late, given that the player could have a huge dominant position over their adversaries), but it seemed like a reasonable goal for a near-utopian society.
Realizing that the endgame ante needed to be upped, Activision has made colonizing space and even the deep seas a routine part of the game. In CivCTP, the “space colonization victory” is replaced by a project to clone an intelligent alien life form. But the mechanics of building the parts in the cities remains the same — so the endgame situation is still similar to that which existed in previous Civ incarnations.
The Loki team has done a good job with this one and has proved that Linux can indeed support quality commercial games. On its own merits Civilization: Call to Power is a solid, thoroughly entertaining game, and once you get it running you won’t be able to tell whether you’re playing it on Linux or Windows.
Jason Compton is a freelance technology writer based in Evanston, IL. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.