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CROSSOVER: LINUX GAMING

SAMSUNG NEXT-GEN NETBOOK

WINDOWS ISN’T THE ONLY OPTION

VIA’S ATOM KILLER PUT TO THE TEST

ISSUE 228 JULY 2009

PERFORMANCE GEAR & GAMING

ISSUE 228 LISTEN… YOU SMELL SOMETHING?

LISTEN… YOU SMELL SOMETHING?

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Illustration: Paul Blachford

Graham Morrison predicts the Linux gaming revolution is good for Windows too.

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irst off, if you’re obsessed with PC gaming, Linux isn’t the operating system for you. You won’t be able to run the latest releases, and you’ll find that you’ll get better performance and full DirectX 10 support by sticking with Vista – as painful as that may seem. However, if your gaming needs are a little off the cutting-edge, Linux can be a viable alternative. And it’s an alternative that has many advantages of its own. There are no viruses, no wayward processes chugging away

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in the background, no spyware, lie-ware, trojans or worms, and you have complete control over your system. Not only has Linux become much easier to use over the last few years, it’s now capable of running many of the more high profile game releases, giving you the best of both possible worlds. The switch has recently been made even more tempting thanks to the latest release of the Ubuntu distribution, an amalgam of the best open source and free software wrapped around a custom-built installation and configuration. Ubuntu is partly responsible for the incredible success

of Linux since its first release in 2004. It’s a distribution that focuses on normal users rather than just the uber-geeks. Ubuntu’s motto is ‘Linux for Human Beings’, and the 9.04 release gets closer than any other Linux distribution in bringing Linux to ordinary users. It installs through a GUI, and requires very little user-interaction. The desktop is easy to use, featuring smooth transitions and bundles all the software you could possibly need. Even hardware compatibility and configuration has become largely a non-issue. If your memory of Linux is pre-Ubuntu, you won’t recognise it today.

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Game On

The only significant problem you’re likely to encounter if you switch to Linux is getting your gaming fix. With only a few notable exceptions, including the amazing World of Goo, there are very few native Linux conversions of recent games. Which leaves you with two possible avenues. You can either dual-boot Linux alongside your Windows installation, giving you 100 per cent Windows compatibility and a Linux desktop, or you can run those Windows games on your Linux desktop. The magic behind this shape shifting ability is an open source project called ‘WINE’. In true GNU/Linux fashion, this is an indecipherable acronym that references itself. You see, ‘WINE Is Not an Emulator’. It’s developers prefer to think of it as a compatibility layer more akin to a wrapper around Windows technology that’s a bit-for-byte translation of what various DirectX and Windows libraries do. WINE is a masterpiece of programming, and a major project in the world of open source software development. It enables Linux users, and other Unix-like users, to run Windows binaries from their desktop without having Windows installed or any other Microsoft files knocking around. It accomplishes this by recreating the various Windows system calls, functions and procedures without any idea of what the original Windows code looks like, and it wraps itself so tightly around its own implementations of these components that native Windows applications never have an idea they’re running on WINE. And even more impressively, it can do the same trick for games. A large chunk of WINE is dedicated to recreating the intricacies of the various DirectX components, transposing graphics calls into equivalent OpenGL instructions. Audio calls into OpenAL. But WINE is able to do this with such efficiency that if your Linux system has the horsepower, you can run many modern, resource intensive Windows games and get similar performance to a native Windows installation.

Dumping WINE

But WINE can be a tricky beast to tame. To get the best out of it, you’ll need to resort to the infamous Linux command-line, a process that will immediately break the belief that Linux has left its geeky credentials behind. Fortunately, before you turn the page, you need to know that there’s a better 54

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For compatibility and portability, Valve’s games running from Steam are some of the best titles to run in Linux

solution. It’s a commercial application that costs about the same price as a new game, but packages WINE into a seamless desktop application that removes the pain from installing and running your favourite Windows games. That application is called Crossover Games and you may have heard of the Crossover brand before. Another product, Crossover Linux, focuses on the more prosaic job of getting older Windows applications like Office 2000, Photoshop 7 and

developers - code created goes back to the original project. This improves WINE for free, and actually re-enforces the open source model by showing that people are prepared to pay for a valuable service. Almost all the DirectX compatibility that’s currently built into WINE is thanks to Crossover Games development, and compatibility is going from strength to strength. Second, thanks to the nature of games software, Crossover is constantly being updated with new titles, and you

“You can either dual-boot Linux … or you can run those Windows games on your Linux desktop” Dreamweaver MX running in your Linux desktop. The ‘Games’ edition allows itself to be slightly more cutting edge. Which roughly translates to ‘it might crash’ , and rather than losing a year’s worth of accounts, you’ll lose your high score in Grid Wars instead. The Games edition also enjoys a much quicker update cycle as Crossover developers try new technologies in their constant quest to catch-up with Microsoft development. If you want both application support and the ability to run games, then the Professional edition of Crossover includes ‘Games’ as a single package. If you think a commercial solution runs against the grain of Linux evangelism, then there are several good reasons for supporting it. First, its development directly helps WINE as Crossover’s developers are WINE’s

can vote for those you want to see better compatibility for. If this were a free project, there would be no incentive for similar development, and Linux users wouldn’t have such a great solution for running Windows games.

Hard choices

And this is where hardware comes into the equation. Linux can still be picky. Good Windows games performance needs solid Linux driver compatibility, with the biggest hot spot being your choice of graphics card. Currently, there’s really only one option, and that’s something from NVIDIA. AMD/ ATI cards can be made to work, but they’ll leave you reformatting your hard drive, begging Steve Ballmer for forgiveness. Either way, the latest release of Ubuntu handles proprietary driver installation automatically. After

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you’ve installed the distribution and booted into the normal desktop, Ubuntu will detect whether you’re using hardware that could benefit from a proprietary driver and ask whether you want to proceed. This is necessary because Ubuntu is predominantly open source, and that means the code for all the software can be freely modified, and freely distributable. NVIDIA and AMD’s drivers are not, and as a result, their stability is out of the hands of the Ubuntu developers. The good news is that you shouldn’t have the same problem with audio hardware, as the vast majority of modern devices will work from the first boot. Things are slightly different when it comes to controllers. Linux isn’t a popular gaming platform, and as a result, controllers that aren’t a keyboard or mouse are poorly supported. You’ll find that many Logitech joysticks work, for example, but a steering wheel is unlikely to be functional. There’s no custom calibration tools and no button configuration utilities either, and feedback is always hit and miss. You might think that you could simply install the Windows drivers and tools through Crossover, but this won’t work. Your stick either will work or it won’t, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t give it a go. If you’re after a quick and cheap solution for arcade titles, then console controllers work well with a corresponding USB converter, and that’s probably the best way to proceed if you need to use a controller. It’s also worth noting that,

unlike Windows, the 64-bit versions of distros like Ubuntu won’t hold you back in the compatibility terms. A 64-bit install can obviously take advantage of more memory, as well as running more efficiently, and both WINE and Crossover will run 32-bit games and applications from a 64-bit desktop.

Crossing over

When it comes to playing the games, Crossover Games is relatively straightforward to use. And in comparison to getting certain SecuROM titles to work on Windows, it can be considerably easier. But your first step has to be a check for compatibility. Crossover hosts an online database that lists around 200 games titles that are known to work, and a few that don’t. Compatibility is graded by gold, silver and bronze awards, and if your game wins any of these, you should be able to play it through without too much difficulty. Crossover judges compatibility against its own very high standards, and tries to be completely truthful about the faithfulness of a working game. It’s for this reason that there isn’t a single game that has been awarded a gold medal, but there are over 20 with the silver title. According to Crossover’s standards, this means the silver games ‘install and run well enough to be useable’, and titles include many Valve titles such as the Half Life 2 Episodes 1&2, Portal and Team Fortress 2. World of Warcraft, EVE Online and Guild Wars are reported to run well, and the latest 7.2 release of Crossover adds better

If Crossover supports the game you want to play, the installation wizard will step you through the install routine

support for Spore and City of Heroes. Heroes In our experience, performance is usually a little below the equivalent XP speed. Using the Half Life: Lost Coast benchmark as an example, the Linux version (with the same settings) ran around 20 per cent slower, which doesn’t make any difference considering the age of the game and that most modern hardware should be able to run it without difficulty. Even if a title isn’t in the database, it doesn’t mean you definitely won’t be able to run it. WINE, and hence Crossover Games, attempts to run any Windows executable you throw at it. If you like games from earlier on in the decade, for instance, there’s a good chance that these games will run without any mention of their compatibility in the database. But you might also have some luck with newer games. We were able to get Oblivion

GNU/Linux starter’s guide For the pedants, Linux really refers only to the name of the kernel. This is the chunk of code that sits at the centre of the operating system, handling drivers, file systems, memory and general housekeeping operations. It’s the code that Linus Torvalds originally developed, although hundreds of people now contribute to the project. The real name for the full operating system is GNU/Linux. This is to show that the complete environment is really a combination of GNU tools, utilities and applications sitting on top of the Linux kernel. GNU was a project started by free software advocate Richard Stallman in the 1980s, and it’s a philosophy that’s based on the scientific model of shared knowledge pushing development forward at a faster rate. The

mechanism to ensuring that people do share is the GPL licence under which most free software is released. In simple terms, this means that if you use GPL software, you must make any of your own modifications available under the same licence. This has led to free software flourishing as people develop and share. A Linux distribution is really just a pre-configured package of free software built around the Linux kernel. It will include a graphical installation routine, a wide choice of packages and software, and a desktop environment. Most people use one of two desktop environments, either Gnome or KDE, although you can run both if you like. If you want to download new software, you need to either use your distribution’s package

manager, or download packages that are specifically built for your distribution. You can’t just simply download an executable and expect it to run that way. Other than these differences, there really is no difference between Linux and any other modern operating system.

Ubuntu’s 9.04 release is widely considered to be one of the best Linux distributions available

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You can do things with games windows on the Linux desktop that you could never get away with on Windows. Here’s a dual-screen snapshot of Lost Coast running.

and S.T.A.L.K.E.R. to run by clicking on the executable from our shared Windows partition, although we couldn’t perform the same trick with Bioshock, presumably because of the copy protection. We were also able to successfully run the Steam .EXE in the same way, running it from a mounted Windows partition. Steam even found the installed games list from our Windows installation, which saved both the space and effort from downloading them twice. Steam is one of the best reasons for using Crossover. Thanks to its civilised anti-piracy mechanism and the download model, plenty of games and demos in its roster will run. From the Crossover application window, you can download and install and run the latest Steam client, which will in turn download your games to the Linux desktop. And if they don’t work, you

can always revert to Windows and use the same Steam account and play the game that way. Our biggest problem came from using a dual monitor configuration in Linux, as most games could only detect this as a single massive resolution through Crossover. Fortunately, there are two solutions. Either use the game’s properties field to set a screen resolution or windowed mode, or force a virtual resolution in the Crossover Games configuration panel. In our experience, Linux is much better at running a game within a window alongside your normal desktop applications, which can be a real boon if you like to run more than one EVE account at the same time.

The competition

If you want to delve into the details, there’s plenty of room to change things in Crossover. Games are installed into

something called a ‘bottle’, which is a term for a separate virtual Windows installation. This means you can keep bottles completely isolated from one another so that there’s no conflict with shared libraries or other files. It also means one bottle can emulate Windows XP, while another could attempt Windows 2000 or Vista. These options are dynamic, and you can change almost anything about each bottle through a properties manager that looks and feels much like the real thing on Windows. If you’re looking to run Bioshock and Oblivion then there’s a competitor to Crossover that will run both without problems. Transgaming’s Cedega is a private and purely commercial fork of the WINE project. It doesn’t release its modifications back to the WINE project, and it uses a subscription model to keep its customers up-to-

Why not just WINE? The programmer’s source code for Crossover Games is built on the code from WINE, and any changes the Crossover developers make to improve compatibility is passed back to the WINE project. This means that, in theory, if a game works in Crossover, you should be able to get it to work in WINE. This is true, but there are a couple of important caveats. Crossover is designed to make WINE as easy as possible to use. It features preconfigured setting for games that score well on its compatibility database, and it can handle game installation and execution automatically. Accomplishing the same thing using WINE is something of a challenge, but if you have some Linux experience, it’s not impossible. It will involve using the command-line to edit the WINE configuration file, and you will need to

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ensure details such as the operating system type, location of the optical drive, memory allocation and file system structure reflect what the game expects. If you dual-boot your Linux machine and have access to the Window partition, the best place to start is by simply installing WINE and attempting to run the game executable. If all this sounds like hard work, then you may be interested in a project called ‘Play On Linux.’ This basically encapsulates the procedure we’ve just described by providing a point-andclick GUI for installing and running common Windows applications and games on WINE. It does this by using a script for each installed component, and users can create and submit their own scripts to the project. The games compatibility list includes Age of Empires 2, Call of Duty 2, Far Cry 2,

Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, S.T.A.L.K.E.R, Spore and Oblivion, which is an impressive list, and Play On Linux is currently your best chance at building a working configuration for your favourite games.

WINE can be installed with using just a couple of mouse clicks from Ubuntu. Just search for ‘Wine’ in the Synaptic package manager

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Crossover for free If Crossover Games has tickled your tinkering taste-buds, then you’ll be pleased to learn that there’s a demo version available. The good thing is that it’s completely unrestricted, which means you’re free to try out your games before splashing out. The only downside is that the unrestricted version will last for only seven days, and you need to provide your email address to download the package from the Crossover website. But if you do decide that Crossover Games is a keeper, you can authenticate your current installation by entering your email details after

date. If your subscription ends, you’ll still be able to use the software, you just won’t benefit from any updates. While this closed model goes against the philosophy of using Linux it does offer the Transgaming developers certain advantages. The biggest of which is their ability to licence the official anti-piracy code so that games can be installed and run from the original optical media. The result is that games like Bioshock run well on Cedega, along with over 40 other games that have been certified. For several years, Cedega was the chosen platform for the semi-official

you’ve made the purchase. The app will then be registered automatically. Even if you don’t plan on using Crossover in this way, trying out the demo version is still the quickest and easiest way to see whether your games are going to run or not. You won’t have to worry about messing with the WINE configuration files only to be disappointed when the game fails. Then when you’ve proved the games do run, you can simply remove Crosssover Games and install WINE, knowing that it’s going to be worth the effort getting it to work.

EVE Online client on Linux. Using a slightly modified Windows executable tested for compatibility with WINE, it enabled Linux users to play EVE Online on their desktops. But in February this year, EVE support came to an end. The producer in charge of both the Linux and Mac clients cited lack of growth in the Linux market for the decision, and it seemed clear from the tone of his message that Linux uptake had been disappointing. Fortunately, the game isn’t over for EVE heads. Cedega still certifies the game as compatible, and the standalone premium Windows clientseems to work well on Crossover

“Over the course of the next 12 months, the situation is only likely to improve for Linux games”

Transgaming’s Cedega has official support for Oblivion, including installation off its protected DVD

You can download a trial version of Crossover Games from www. codeweavers.com

Games. Many EVE users have even reported success using an ordinary WINE installation.

Supporting DX 10

In March, the CEO of the company behind Crossover – Jeremy White – laid out a roadmap for future development. He mentioned that his developers had spent the last year working hard on under-the-hood improvement such as .NET support, Gdiplus and DirectX. As a result of this hard work, DirectX 9 compatibility is looking good in both Crossover Games and WINE. But his plans for the next release include the far more ambitious DirectX 10, and if development goes well, there may be a compatible version of Crossover Games released by the end of the year. If Codeweavers can achieve this magic trick, there’s a good chance that WINE could even be ported back to Windows, bringing DirectX 10 compatibility to older versions of Windows, such as XP and 2000, an irony that won’t be lost on Linux users. While it’s obvious that Linux is never going to be a hard-core gaming platform, Linux is also far from being a barren wasteland. Technology like WINE and Crossover present enough potential to satisfy most persistent gaming urges, and over the course of the next 12 months, the situation is only likely to improve for Linux games. There’s also a world of independent, free and open source gaming to delve into as well, and commercial smallscale games like World of Goo have been very successful on the Linux desktop. As with most things to do with Linux, getting things to work and run properly can be something of an adventure game in itself. But to those of us with a passion for the free desktop, that’s the whole point. ¤ June 2009

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