August 26, 2008

Frag 'em in your own backyard with Sauerbraten

Author: Mayank Sharma

If you like first-person shooters, you'll love Sauerbraten. This open source game might not have the visual finesse of other FPSes, but what it lacks in the graphics department, Sauerbraten more than makes up for with its various single and multiplayer modes, including an experimental role-playing game mode, and a unique WYSIWYG in-game map editor. Sauerbraten blends the best of FPSes like Quake and Max Payne to give you a unique gaming experience.

This verdict isn't a surprise since Sauerbraten has a very good pedigree. It's based on the redesigned Cube game engine developed by well-known Dutch programmer Wouter van Oortmerssen, who is a professor of software development and has written a few programming languages. The latest edition of Sauerbraten, which includes Capture The Flag gameplay and therefore called the CTF Edition, was released in June and runs on Linux, Windows, and Mac OS X.

It's simple to get started with Sauerbraten on Linux. Just download the 301MB zipped archive, extract it under a directory such as /usr/local, and run the ./sauerbraten_unix script. The script automatically creates configuration files under ~/.sauerbraten that control various game characteristics such as screen resolution. You can also specify some options while running the sauerbraten_unix script, such as whether to launch the game in server mode. Some settings, such as mouse sensitivity, you can alter from within the game either by using a slider in the graphical setup menu or from the chat console.

Sauerbraten is similar to the venerable Quake series of games, both in terms of look and feel, and by being a user-modifiable game. Not only is it available under an open source license, it also allows you to edit maps on the fly in 3-D. To do so, launch the game as you do normally by selecting a map (in this case the map you want to edit), and while it's running, press "E" on your keyboard. This puts the game in edit mode, where you can edit the map by modifying octrees -- cubes made up of eight smaller cubes. In edit mode you move around the map as you would in a normal game, selecting and modifying octrees with your mouse, placing and moving entities like ammo boxes, armor, and even monsters, and defining particle behavior for elements like smoke, water, and weapon fire. It might take some getting used to, but once you get the hang of it, creating and editing levels is as addictive as playing the game itself.

Single player gameplay

Many first-person shooters focus on multiplayer environmentsm, but Sauerbraten offers several interesting single-player gaming modes as well. In the traditional stage-based mode, you start as Private Stan Sauer, make your way to the big valley, fight hordes of invading monsters as a one-man army, and conquer the four bases. The objective in these stages, as in any FPS, is to run around the maps back and forth, grabbing keys, opening doors, dodging fireballs, and staying alive in the kill-or-be-killed environment.

Then there are deathmatches which are you-vs-them handicap contests. You are put in a map with monsters and the only objective is to kill all the monsters, in the fastest time possible with the least number of respawns.

To assist you with the bloodshed, your John McClane-like character in an Ellen Ripley-type environment has access to a full arsenal of weapons that includes a handgun, shotgun, rifle, and machine gun, as well as the FPS favorites rocket launcher, grenade launcher, and chainsaw.

The monsters in Sauerbraten lack the intelligence of their cousins in other modern FPSes. They block each other, keep running into walls, and some back off and stop firing if you run back out of the room, or retreat some distance. You score off each hit depending on the distance between you and the monster and the size of monster, with high points for the really big and nasty ones that can survive multiple rocket attacks. You can respawn infinitely, but each respawn costs you points and the monsters steal some of your ammo and armor.

There are 11 single-player maps plus three demos that teach you basic Sauerbraten skills such as opening doors and jumping. The maps don't list their level of difficulty, and some maps have a more complex layout than others, but all involve a fair amount of going back and forth. You can play a deathmatch in any of the 60-plus maps.

To add to the fun, Sauerbraten also has slow-motion variants of both the stage-based and deathmatch gaming modes. In the slow-motion variant of the game, your health controls the speed of the game -- the closer to death you are, the slower the game. If you've played Max Payne, you'll know what I'm talking about, since it isn't unlike Max Payne's famous bullet-time.

It's fun to run through a corridor, jumping just before the door on the left, twisting in mid-air, and firing your handgun at unsuspecting monsters. To do it in slow motion is almost cinematic. For more fun, you can switch from the default first person view to third person. There's no difference in gameplay, but fans of third-person shooters like Tomb Raider will enjoy the ability to change perspective.

To give its players more gaming options, Sauerbraten developers are working on building a role-playing component into the game as well. It's called Eisenstern, and it includes four maps. To start a RPG game you need to lauch Sauerbraten with the -grpg option. Like any other RPG, you have to move forward by buying and selling stuff, and doing "jobs" for others, such as kiling wolves with a chainsaw for an apple.

Multiplayer gameplay

If you are tired of battling computer-controlled drones, you can run Sauerbraten as a server and host a multiplayer game on your LAN, or join a multiplayer game online via the Internet. There are more than a dozen multiplayer game modes, including deathmatch, instagib (classic 1-shot-1-kill), efficiency (spawn with random ammunition), insta arena (last man standing), tactics (efficiency-based last man standing), capture (keep bases under your control for as long as possible), capture the flag, and instacapture (capture with instagib). Most of these are available in team play variants for which you can choose to play on either the good or evil team.

You can browse all the ongoing Internet and LAN games from within the game and join any one. On a 512Kbps connection I didn't notice any lag or delays in any Internet multiplayer game. But thanks to my poor FPS skills, I usually lasted only 20-30 seconds before I was fragged, especially since I decided to stay at the base and guard my team's flag.

If you are hooked on editing maps, Sauerbraten also allows you to do so by collaborating with others. In the list of multiplayer gaming modes, you'll find a few games where various users collaborate with each other to design maps. Most of them are locked to public users, and for good reason, since you can virtually destroy someone's castle in a matter of minutes.

In summary

Sauerbraten is a fully loaded first-person shooter. It has single-player modes with interesting motion delay, several multiplayer gaming modes, and enough maps to keep you involved for as long as you wish to play. You can host your own Sauerbraten server on your LAN or join one of the dozens of online servers.

But if you have to point to the one thing that separates Saurberaten from the rest, it has to be its in-game 3-D map editor. You can also take your map-building expertise online, and work with map editors from around the world in an online collaborative environment.

It might not be visually stunning like some of its competitors, but Sauerbraten is unlike any other FPS that I've ever played.


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