In the world of Windows gaming, a vast portion of the 3D titles released use Microsoft’s Direct3D API. Only a handful of games, mostly games based on the Quake engines, use OpenGL as their primary renderer. Thus, it is no surprise that the leading games using OpenGL were the first 3D games to make their way onto the Linux platform. Unfortunately, to move past those limits into the world of 3D games that are not first person shooters something will have to change. One option is that Windows game programmers start coding with OpenGL in mind either by using it as an alternative renderer or at least by separating their engine enough from the renderer to allow the easy porting to the OpenGL API. Another option is to give Linux programmers, like the ones at Loki Software, experience porting Direct3D games that may not have had OpenGL in mind when originally created.
Heavy Gear II is a first step towards this latter solution. Originally coded with Direct3D, it is the first conversion of such a title to OpenGL under Linux. (Note that other conversions on other platforms have achieved the same goal. A prime example is the Tomb Raider series ported to MacOS by Aspyr Media.) While not completely a step away from the first person shooter, HG2 at least widens the range of titles available for Linux gamers and hopefully
demonstrates more the viability of Linux as a gaming platform.
In this regard, Heavy Gear II is a success: it recreates under Linux the original experience that Windows gamers. From a technical standpoint then, Loki has won that battle. At the end of the day, however, people still ask: “What’s the game like? How does the game play? Is it worth my hard earned cash?”
Read on for the answers to these questions…and more.
As a Gear pilot amidst a war to save Terra Nova, you must guide your Gear, and those of your teammates, through several missions ranging across several terrains, past various hazards, and even into the depths of space. Each mission presents a unique range of objectives leading towards the completion of the level and victory. The way in which those
objectives must be obtained is, for the most part, up to your individual strategy and strengths. A plot unfolds piecemeal as a natural part of the pre-mission briefings, radio chatter during the missions, and post-mission debriefings. In addition, Heavy Gear II provides a series of historical missions whose story lines flesh out the fictional background of the Heavy Gear II universe.
In addition to these mission-based gameplay options, Heavy Gear II provides two modes that concentrate purely on combat: Multiplayer and Instant Action. Multiplayer is exactly what we have come to expect from today’s combat games, with a few differences, mainly in the client and server model. In addition, if you are unable to get online or are cursed with a laggy modem connection, the Instant Action is an addictive substitute. True to its name, it provides a slick and quick interface to jump into a game of your favorite configuration and blast away some CPU controlled Gears. (Do not try this late at night when you need to get up at a reasonable hour the next day. Trust me. You will find yourself saying “Just one more game!” hour after hour. Evil stuff, I tell ya.)
The Lone Gear Pilot
As I have mentioned, the single player mode is a string of missions tied together with a bit of narrative. Normally, I find this kind of brief/fight/debrief style formulaic and, in fact, felt rather lukewarm about this portion of the game when the beta test began. However, after banging through the first few missions, the story actually began to grow on me. Do not get me wrong: great science fiction it is not (although there is a level here that remind me of the great Ender’s Game). But the bits of story do seem
to flow with the levels, and the goals are varied enough to mix up the action and force you to adjust your strategy to each situation.
For me, getting to the point that I could think about strategy was a struggle in itself. I am a first person shooter veteran, of sorts, and I feel that controlling a Gear is a level of complexity higher than what the normal point-and-shoot Quaker is used to. I recommend really spending some time on the tutorial missions included as part of the single player game, and familiarizing yourself with the various controls. Further, do not be afraid to experiment with different key bindings; my suspicion is that real
Gear players do not use the default keyset. Alternatively, I am told that a few dollars invested in a good PC joystick can make a big difference. Unfortunately, I have not had the pleasure of trying that method of control. (Yes, the Linux version supports joysticks!)
Once you have mastered the controls, there is still the matter of arming and outfitting your Gear. Here, a good bit of planning that can make an upcoming mission as easy or as difficult as you’d like it. While each mission sets limits for how powerful you can make your Gear, within those limits is a great deal of flexibility, allowing users to take completely different approaches to each situation. My personal strategy is to stay as far back with as much cover as possible and snipe enemies whenever possible. Yet, on levels for which I chose to play the role of the sneaky sniper, a heavily armored and armed Gear (in the hands of a more skilled pilot than this writer) could just as easily waltz through like a swarthy metal Rambo. All of this to say that if you choose the default equipment for your gear, you are really missing out on half the fun the designers intended for you.
[Tip: On the beta testers list, Andreas Reichl gave many tips while playing through the game. One weapons configuration that worked well for me, based solely on his suggestion, was: Very Heavy Autocannon (VHAC), Gatling Laser Cannon (HGLC), Medium Anti-aircraft Cannon (MAAC), and perhaps a Heavy Laser Cannon (HLC) for space missions. Thanks Andreas!]
There are some striking levels scattered throughout HG2, but the quality does vary a great deal over the course of the game. On a planet surface, we are treated some some special effects like gently falling snow and pelting rain. Further, bodies of water, buildings, hills, valleys, and even fairly well-detailed trees bring these alien landscapes to life. Yet, even these are not enough to overcome my instinct to yawn when the occasional “follow a valley, meet waves of foes, and have a big ol’ fight at the end” mission pops up. That kind of mission might have been novel years ago, but most game players have moved on by now. For some really interesting combat, however, try some of the missions set in outer space. Besides taxing your Gear controlling skills to the maximum, the clever twist of giving you a full six degrees of freedom in which to maneuver opens up the door to wildly
different strategies on these levels.
Finally, when you have worked your way through the Campaign and Historical missions, you are left with Instant Action. As I remarked above, this playmode is quite addictive. Comparable to the botmatches found in both Q3A and UT, IA allows you to tweak the settings to find for yourself a fun match with your favorite team of Gears, team of enemy Gears, map, and difficulty.
Once you find a setting that is just right for your skill, away you go for hours and hours of combat.
Playing With the Pros
The cool thing about Heavy Gear II‘s multiplayer component is that if you have a connection to the ‘net you can immediately start chatting with other players. Simply choose an online server and, once connected, you can see other players
online and chat with them. Further, you can see what games are currently in progress and even arrange to start a game of your own. With a little poking around (and hopefully reading the manual) even novice users can find a game to play online in very little time.
Unfortunately, there are two points about multiplayer that should be noted before you dive right in. First, the server/client structure is different from what most of us know from playing Quake-like games online. Essentially, there are no dedicated servers and all servers are listen servers. The server that I mentioned above is really only a meeting place for players and a gateway to arranging games. When you start your own server, that server is running locally on your machine and the players that join your game will be clients to your machine. So if you are playing with a 33.6 modem connection to the ‘net, all the people connecting to you will probably have horribly laggy connections. Luckily, you can see your ping to a hosted server while at the main multiplayer menu so you will know which games might give you a good connection. The second point I would like to make is that many of the players out there today have been playing these kinds of games for months, if not years. Needless to say, I was a pretty poor player when I tried to join some of their games. I played like a clueless newbie at times and I know that I looked like one to all the other players out there.
Even with my 56k modem, I was able to find games with a low enough ping to make the gameplay reasonably smooth. Occasionally, I would see players warp from place to place (a sign of a temporarily laggy connection) but in all the experience was slick enough to make me think that modem users will probably find it acceptable.
Graphics & Sound
In a preview, I commented upon what I felt to be the similarity between the HG2 engine and the Battlezone engine. While I have been assured that they are, indeed, different engines, my initial impression still stands: it looks like Battlezone to me. That is not bad, mind you; I really liked the look of Battlezone, back when it was released. But I am willing to admit that I am spoiled by the detail in first person shooters and I long for the day that an outdoor game can have utterly realistic detail in the buildings, trees, and landscape. I also found the jarring blockiness of the various (non-Gear) vehicles that you see from time to time in game. Transports with hexagonal wheels just are not horribly convincing.
The Gears, one must remember, are the centerpiece of this game. As such, the lack of detail in the environs is more than made up for by the added detail on the Gears themselves. The variety of types and colorings of Gears is represented well by the HG2 engine, making the identification of friend and foe an easy task. Despite an unrealistic sense of agility in these metal hulks, the animations and intricate polygonal models are enough to convince me that these Gears could actually exist.
Like any good combat game, detail has been paid to weapon effects and, in the case of Gear combat, damage effects during a fight. After rockets are fired, smoke trails hang in the air and drift away as if in a light breeze. Projectile weapons spark off metal exoskeletons, and greasy plumes of smoke effuse from wounded Gears. All of these visual effects are accompanied by an array of aural accents, making easier the task of recognizing the armament of your opponents. While Heavy Gear II uses
OpenAL, the new open 3D audio standard, the effect is rather muted when using two speakers beside your monitor. (The original game supported Aureal’s A3D for 3D sound.) When using headphones, the effects are certainly more apparent and vibrant, but I hesitate to comment on the 3D effect for a lack of experience with 3D audio in general.
Linux Specific Issues
During the beta test, there were some issues getting all the parts of Heavy Gear II working correctly, but in the end it seems as though most of them were ironed out nicely. In particular, getting HG2 installed and working with OpenGL was a big hurdle for a while. I am happy to report, however, that when the final copy arrived at my door, I was able to safely wipe the beta test from my hard drive, install directly from the CD, and start playing immediately from the shortcut on my desktop.
Normally, in this space of my reviews, I will spend some time talking about issues that the Linux programmers could have fixed to make things better for users. Unfortunately, many of the Linux-specific things I am about to mention
are, for the most part, out of the hands of the Loki coders.
First up, we have the some graphics issues that affect 3dfx cards and, to a lesser extent, other cards. One quirk that bother me when playing with my Voodoo3 card is that along the edges of some polygons off in the distance a stray bit of color will manifest itself. Sometimes the color is black and it is not hard to ignore; other times it is cyan and it pokes you right in the
eye. The second issue is that the clipping plane is visible since fogging in the distance is not enabled. This means that objects can come into view with disconcerting discreteness. Both of these issues I believe are issues with Mesa and will eventually be remedied. However, fixing Mesa is not the job of Loki’s programmers. These are, I believe, indicative of the growing pains that Linux gamers will have to endure over the coming months, as more and more weaknesses of Linux are ironed out.
The only other major problem, apparently, is when using an NVIDIA card and their recently released closed-source drivers. After each mission, when the game switches out of OpenGL mode, the game will crash. That is certainly a frustrating bug and it will hopefully be ironed out in the next patch of HG2.
Another glitch that occasionally bothered me was a misalignment between the landscape and the sounds associated with it. This can be seen as early as the first campaign level: you can hear the water sounds before you enter it, in some places, and when exiting the water the splashes will end prematurely. A minor issue, and one that is apparently part of the original Windows game, but one that I noticed nonetheless.
As has been pointed out before, Heavy Gear II has pushed, further than any other game, the limits of Linux as a gaming platform. It incorporates the hardware video acceleration, joystick support, and cross-platform networking. The result is a very solid conversion, and is in fact the first Direct3D game ported to Linux. From a technical standpoint, the game accomplishes what it sets out to do. If you want an action game that is not a traditional first person shooter, this game may be what you are looking for. If you have played the Gear games under Windows but now use Linux, then you should definitely give this game a look. I enjoyed the campaign and I still enjoy the Instant Action; but in the end, I still prefer more traditional shooters to controlling a Gear.