August 5, 2005

Nexuiz: Open source deathmatch

Author: Jem Matzan

It started with the opening of the Quake 2 source code. Then GNU/Linux saw a port for Quake 3 Arena, then Unreal Tournament 2003, UT2004, and Doom 3. We have good first-person shooter (FPS) games for GNU/Linux, but they're all proprietary and restrictively licensed. But Nexuiz is different. It's a free software multiplayer deathmatch game available for 32- and 64-bit GNU/Linux, and 32-bit Windows. It has nothing on Unreal Tournament, but it holds its own against other games and on older hardware that can't be upgraded enough for newer games.

Nexuiz is free software, so anyone can download, modify, and share it as they see fit. It's put together by volunteer programmers and artists, and for the most part they did a great job on it. The program itself is stable, and it worked on most of the distributions I tested it on. The sound and animation are decent, though not up to modern standards. Playing Nexuiz will give you a Quake 3-like experience in terms of gameplay, graphics, and sound.


In a first-person shooter, you run around and shoot other players, usually with the objective of getting the most kills in a certain amount of time. As of Nexuiz version 1.1, you can also run around and shoot computer-controlled players, or "bots." The bots are not terribly intelligent, so practicing offline won't necessarily give you better online skills.

Free software games: A lost cause?

That games must be proprietary is a notion that most modern gamers are used to. We grew up with Atari, Nintendo, and Sega, and games came on cartridges. We didn't mind sharing them, but it was impossible to copy a game and give it out to friends. And since games were affordable, it wasn't unreasonable to expect your friends to buy their own copies.

Still, it's a recognized focus of the Free Software Foundation to encourage programmers to produce free software games. Until the release of Nexuiz, such games were limited to text-based programs like Adventure and NetHack, or arcade games like Tux Racer and Frozen Bubble. These games are hardly competition for blockbusters like Tomb Raider, Resident Evil, or Final Fantasy 7. Nexuiz and PlaneShift are the first free software games to exhibit any sort of competition for their proprietary counterparts. I don't think we'll ever see a free software game that truly competes with a proprietary game, but nearly all of them are still worth playing.

The irony of a free software 3D game is that you're practically guaranteed to need a proprietary video driver in order to get the most enjoyment out of it. Even if the game should be under the GPL, it will still rely on proprietary software to operate as intended.

As a hard-charging UT2004 player, I found Nexuiz's gameplay to be terribly disappointing. The controls were too sluggish for me, and no amount of adjustment could make them sensitive enough for my taste. The usual WASD-key/space/mouse controls are the standard configuration, but something about the game's responsiveness and the physics of the character's movements didn't feel right to me.

Online play wasn't too bad, but Nexuiz only has one game type; it's deathmatch against network players or bots, or nothing.

Graphics and sound

The graphics look old, as you can see from the screen shot. The player graphics are unrealistic and hard to see. The weapons don't shoot anything fancy, and it's hard to tell what weapon does what, as many of them seem to be similar. I'd like to see a greater diversity in the weapons -- not only how they look, but how their payload looks.

The sound is of the same era as the graphics -- turn of the century. I would put Nexuiz's sound on the same level as that of Doom 2. There are no real voices, grunts, screams, or anything believable coming from the players.

The upside to primitive graphics and sound is that the game will run better on older hardware. You don't need a killer gaming machine to play Nexuiz, and the detail levels are adjustable in case you have a really old machine.


Nexuiz (click to enlarge)

Is Nexuiz ready to take on Epic's Unreal Tournament 2004, Id's Doom 3, or other modern FPS games? Definitely not. The graphics, sound, and gameplay are nothing new -- they're reminiscent of games that were cool and new five years ago, but have since lost their luster. Nexuiz offers nothing to get excited about, except for the idea that a game like this can be free software. Unfortunately, unless it improves drastically over the next several releases, it won't have enough online players to make it worthwhile. If you're still playing Quake 3 Arena, you might like Nexuiz, but it won't sway any Unreal Tournament 2004 fans.

I really wanted to like this game because I like first-person shooters and I like free software. But Nexuiz is no replacement for a well-made proprietary game. Office suites and operating systems are one thing, but games seem to be a whole different category of software development. Nexuiz -- unpronounceable name and all -- is a good try, but I think I'd rather give up first-person shooters entirely than ditch my proprietary GNU/Linux games.


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