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Heavy Gear II
(IDG) -- If you are of the generation that grew up with Gundam, Macross (that's "Robotech" for the Americans), Votoms, and other Japanese animation-inspired fantasies, you may have dreamed of piloting one of the giant robotlike mechs and running rampant across a city. Heavy Gear II comes close to being an ideal expression of that dream.
HG II is a mech simulation in combat scenarios on land and in space. You are part of an elite special ops Gear unit of the Allied Southern Territories in their war against the Confederated Northern City-States. This conflict is set somewhere in the distant future on the planet of Terra Nova and on the various other human planetary settlements. Your main vehicle is the Warrior Elite, designed for multipurpose fast attack or stealth missions.
I installed HG II on two machines: the Penguin Computer Gaming System and a generic 350 MHz AMD PC. The Penguin machine had 256 MB of RAM and a 500 MHz Athlon, while the generic box had 128 MB of RAM. Both systems had the 3dfx Voodoo3 graphics card with 16 MB of RAM.
The game can run with either a 3dfx Voodoo series card (any of them), or the Matrox G400, under the Utah-GLX beta version of XFree86. If you have gotten the beta version to drive the G400 card, then you're luckier than most. At this point, I'd advise using the Voodoo2 or Voodoo3 cards. The game may run under the new XFree86 4.0 direct rendering interface for a variety of 3D cards but has not been tested extensively on it. Our attempt to get the Voodoo3 working on the new GUI failed with a crash during the initialization of the graphics card.
Seeing as this game was a beta during the review, I had some difficulty getting it to work on our test system. HG II would run, but there was no hardware acceleration for the sim, and the picture moved at only one frame per second. This was a problem with the graphics libraries not working properly. On advice from Loki, I reinstalled the 3dfx driver, glide graphics libraries, and XFree86 version 3.6.4. There was an additional bug in the glide2x library, such that you have to run Glide version 2.60-14 for the game to work properly. Furthermore, the Mesa 3D graphics library for the Voodoo3 card that I had installed was version 3.2 and had small incompatibilities with the version that the game required. I upgraded to the fixed 3.2 version that Loki made available with the beta.
Once I had the correct graphics driver and libraries installed, the 3D graphics smoothed out nicely. There were no noticeable problems with the 3D rendering as I panned across the screen from the sim cockpit, nor from outside my mech.
There are a number of options to set the level of graphical detail for the game. Although the game works just as well when set to minimal features, the bells and whistles do enhance the visual effect of the game. These features include specular lighting, shadows, trilinear filtering, and other special effects.
Mech-based games aren't easy to learn, because working the full range of motion of a two-story-tall robot with just two hands is a complex task. HG II puts the numeric keypad to full use as you move, rotate, angle, kneel, crawl, skate, and jump your mech. In addition, you use your mouse or joystick to rotate the upper body of your mech and hence your guns. If you use the mouse, the default configuration defines the left button as the weapons fire key and the right button as the change weapon key.
Movement in space is based on thrusters that turn your mech in pitch, roll and yaw axes. As it should be in space, firing your forward thrusters keeps you moving in one direction until you hit something or fire reverse thrusters. It is easy to get disoriented in space, so you should keep an eye on your velocity and keep visual references to guide you. If you approach a large ship or a platform in space, you can touch down onto it and move as if you are on land.
You'll have an easier time with the controls if you place the keyboard at your left, so that your left hand is centered over the keypad, and place your joystick (or mouse) mostly in front of you. This will keep the most frequently used buttons and keys within direct reach.
Joystick support with the beta version was initially limited to some of the more common models. The problem has to do with properly calibrating the many extra buttons and hats that joysticks come with today. With the release version of HG II, more than 30 different common joysticks will have been tested and calibrated for the game. Kneeling and crawling (or moving in the prone position) helps increase the stealthiness of your mech. The stealth bar in the bottom right of your display shows how well you are hidden, as well as whether approaching enemies are about to discover you. Using passive radar will also increase your stealth.
Depending on the mission, the weaponry available for your mech will range from high-speed chain guns to missiles. As a last resort, when you are close to your enemy, you can switch to hand-to-hand combat.
Precision with your weapons during the mission certainly helps, but this isn't a sharpshooting event. In most cases, your weapons have a decent blast zone, so unless you are trying to shoot something a kilometer or two away, you have a reasonable chance of hitting it. However, it can still take a few hits to bring an enemy down, and worse, your mech is usually an equally inviting target during your attack.
With active radar you can directly target your enemies, home in on them sooner than you can with passive sensors, and thus intercept or avoid them quicker. However, active radar gives away your position almost immediately and thus should be used only when you are already in combat.
Heavy action ahead
Heavy Gear II beautifly demonstrates the full 3D graphics capabilities of Linux. The real-time rendering of the graphics, along with the rendering enhancements such as specular lighting and the smooth texture maps, can make the difference between a boxy and flat-looking game and a believable simulation.
HG II was also the first game to support the new OpenAL audio effects layer, which provides 3D sound on Linux. OpenAL is supported by Loki with the help of Creative Labs. Currently, OpenAL works on a software layer on top of the sound card, but sound card vendors are encouraged to develop drivers for their cards. Unfortunately, it didn't seem very 3D to me when played over two speakers. This could also be a problem with my Aureal sound card, which still has buggy drivers. I really didn't notice any significant difference in playability between the generic PC and the Penguin Computer Gaming System. The game really does churn the machine with all the graphics, but the end result is marvelous.
The game is available directly from Loki and at various retail outlets. Priced at $29.95, it is even affordable.
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