December 12, 2001

Review: Mandrake 8.1 Gaming Edition opens Linux to more games, more users

Author: JT Smith

- By F. Grant Robertson -

Unable to run popular entertainment titles, many Linux users have resorted to dual
boot configurations, with Windows strictly for games. Mandrake Gaming Edition 8.1 with TransGaming's WineX attempts to solve this problem and allow a greater number of users to completely make the switch. This is another milestone in the Linux/Windows battle for the home user.

Added to the standard Mandrake 8.1 distribution is TransGaming Technologies' WineX game porting program and an optimized version of Electronic Arts The Sims, all contained on four CD-ROMs. Also included is an installation and users guide and a three-month subscription to TransGaming. The subscription offers updates to the WineX software, as well as voting rights on the subject of which games TransGaming will actively work on to make compatible with Linux.

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MandrakeSoft has always produced a remarkably user-friendly Linux distribution, loaded with wizards and automatic configuration tools that attempt to enable your hardware during installation. Mandrake 8.1 proved to be no different. Only slightly changed from version 8.0, the installation program is simple to use and intuitive. An
installation guide is included, and I found it to be well written and complete with a
large number of screen shots and an excellent section on system security.

One of my favorite options in Mandrake's recent installers is the ability to pick
individual packages, with clear descriptions of what each package does, and a
standard rating system for how useful a package is. This gives you the ability to
pick and choose a la carte-style what you want (and don't want) on your system with the
confidence that you have an idea what you're choosing to install.

The ability also exists to choose a pre-defined level of security, something that can
be convenient for newer users configuring a machine that is on a dedicated
connection. The higher the level of security chosen, the more drastic the changes to
security settings on the finished machine. With the installation guide this is easy,
as the changes enacted are well documented. It would be much better if the on-screen
explanation of these were more verbose. As it stands, the on-screen prompts are vague
on this point, saying only that the higher the level of security selected, the more
difficult system configuration could be. Although correct, this may be a little
daunting to new users, encouraging them to be less secure, and therefore, more
vulnerable to attack. A more thorough explanation of what's involved at this point in
the installation could make a manual-avoiding user's experience much better. That
said, you should always read your manual before installation. You should also
brush and floss three times a day and wear galoshes when it rains. Rarely do most of
us do any of these three things.

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All hardware in my test system was configured automatically and worked the first time.
This has always been a strong point of Mandrake, with its HardDrake hardware
detection and configuration tool. With both text and GUI interfaces, HardDrake is
easy to use. It is still completely possible to configure the system at the
command line, if you prefer. This option of GUI or command-line configuration separates Mandrake from some other Linux distributions.

With everything functioning, it was time to have fun. I'm not a rampant
gamer, but The Sims is a particular favorite. I was impressed with how well The Sims ran under Linux .I didn't experience any odd behavior, other than a bit of slowness, which I attribute to my test machine being just above the minimum requirements. The menus, sound, and animation all functioned as intended. Game play was great, if you haven't played The Sims, you probably should. I can't think of many more compelling titles to bundle with Mandrake. The Sims, in which you take control of the characters' every-day lives, stimulates the micro manager in all of us.

All of the skins, furniture and tiles freely downloadable from Sims community sites
work just as expected with the Linux optimized version of The Sims. A disappointment
comes in the fact that it's not possible to use skins and objects made for the
newer add-on packages to The Sims. Nor is it possible to run the House Party and Livin'
Large, add-ons themselves. This is only an issue if you wish to use objects from the
later versions of the game, but disappointing nonetheless because these later
versions add so many features to the original Sims engine.

What makes it possible to run The Sims and other popular game titles on Linux is
WineX, a proprietary extension to the existing Wine Windows compatibility layer,
developed by TransGaming. Through some changes to the libraries that emulate the
industry standard DirectX gaming platform, WineX enhances the level of compatibility
with game software written for Windows. Although I was unable to test any games other
than The Sims, TransGaming's Web site claims to fully support several titles.
Baldur's Gate II, Alice, Starcraft are among the fully supported, with user feedback
at TransGaming's site indicating that many others work, if with some difficulty,
or broken features.

Annoying quirks with The Sims for Linux were minimal. The display resolution changes
from what was set to 640 by 480 every time the game is brought to the
foreground. I had been expecting to be able to play the game in a window on my
desktop, an assumption that was backed up by a screen shot on MandrakeSoft's own Web site. It is possible to reproduce the screen shot, with some difficulty. It is not
possible to actually play the game in a window.

TransGaming has promised that its closed extensions to the Wine platform will be
submitted to the Wine development team once the company reaches 20,000 paying subscribers to its update service. It is even possible to purchase heavier weighted voting rights, obviously at a higher price, to give more voice to the games you want to see next. This is a somewhat unusual business model and it remains to be seen how well it will work for TransGaming, or the community at large. It is, however, a clever approach, and momentum seems to be moving in TransGaming's favor. Still, there is little doubt that this method of creating revenue will be met with apprehension and even distaste by purists in the Open Source community.

If you are maintaining a dual boot system just to run
The Sims, or any other game on the TransGaming fully supported list, you no longer
are doing so by necessity. Mandrake 8.1 Gaming Edition delivers on the first game in its promise to bring a greater number of first-rate games to the Linux desktop. At a retail of
$69 USD, and a street price around 15% less than that, it is an excellent value
only slightly more expensive than The Sims for Windows alone. The installation was
easy, complete, and well polished overall, making it accessible to new and
experienced users alike.

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