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Game Drift Linux review

Linux distro designed specifically for gamers, enabling users to play Windows titles

The GNU/Linux platform as an alternative to Windows is gaining ground, but there’s one area in which the open-source operating system trails its proprietary equivalent: gaming. One new distribution, Game Drift Linux, looks to change all that, equipping the user with everything they need to play the latest games without having to pay the ‘Microsoft tax’ normally associated with a PC purchase.

It’s a neat promise, but can an open-source operating system really attack Microsoft where it has the most strength?

Core specifications

At its heart, Game Drift Linux is a derivative of Canonical’s popular Ubuntu Linux, basing itself on the 10.10 – or ‘Maverick Meerkat’ – release. While an update was planned for earlier this year to the Ubuntu 11.04 release, several bugs – noted in our review of the Canonical operating system – mean that the team made the decision to stick with the older 10.10 and wait for the release of 11.10 for a future upgrade.

Despite its slightly dated base, Game Drift Linux is an impressive distribution. The CD-sized ISO image – which, like Ubuntu, can be turned into a bootable USB drive, CD, or DVD – holds the ability to boot into a ‘live’ environment for testing without committing to a full install, or installing the software outright as an accessory to – or replacement for – your current operating system.

Installation, as you’d expect from an Ubuntu derivative, is quick and easy, and will even leave your Windows install alone if you’re setting up a multi-boot environment, resizing the partitions as required without losing any data.

Sadly, there is one small fly in the ointment: unlike Ubuntu, there’s no 64-bit build, with only x86 on offer as the architecture. As a result, it’s impossible to take full advantage of a 64-bit computer – but we’re advised by the project’s founder Jimmy Thomsen, that an update due to be released shortly will fix that issue with a choice of 32-bit or 64-bit installers.

The desktop
The Game Drift Linux desktop is somewhat spartan, featuring a simple logo and a shortcut to the Game Store – which we’ll be taking a closer look at later.

A browse through the Applications menu, relocated to the bottom-left to make things more familiar for Windows users, shows the secret at the heart of Game Drift Linux’s promise of compatibility with Windows games: a copy of CrossOver Games, a powered-up version of the popular Wine package designed to allow Windows software to execute under Linux.

Aside from CrossOver Games and a hand-picked selection of native Linux games, there’s little else to be seen in the distro. In particular, there’ s a lack of multimedia software for audio and video playback, something that Thomsen again suggests will be resolved in a future release. A copy of Firefox, albeit only from the 3.5 family rather than the current Firefox 6 release, powers the distribution’s main claim to fame: the Game Store.

The Game Store
As its name suggests, the Game Store is a place to find the latest games. For Linux titles – both commercial, like Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory, and open-source, like Tux Racer – each title has a screenshot, installation and uninstallation short cuts, links to the official website, and details of how much data you’ll have to download – and how much hard drive space you’ll lose.

For Windows-based titles, things aren’t quite so impressive: while it lists the games which are known to be compatible with CrossOver Games, there’s no way to install them directly from the Store – and no easy way to find a list of games in a particular genre, or from a particular publisher.

While that’s a shame, it’s also less important: most PC games are either provided on DVDs or downloaded from a commercial digital distribution service like Steam – and software from both sources is compatible with Game Drift Linux, installing under CrossOver Games without any real issues cropping up.

CrossOver Games
Unlike Wine, the project on which it’s based, CrossOver Games is a commercial offering – and while Game Drift Linux is free, if you want to play Windows games you’re going to have to shell out some cash.

Thankfully, the distribution’s creators have done a deal with the company behind CrossOver, and it’s a real money saver: after the week-long trial period is over, CrossOver Games can be registered for $19 – half the regular price.

It’s a risky move: many game-oriented Linux distributions have concentrated on boosting the capabilities of the free Wine compatibility layer, as there’s often a perception that users who have chosen an open-source operating system won’t pay for software.

At $19, however, it’s a bargain-basement price for those who want guaranteed compatibility with a variety of games. To test it out, we installed the popular massively multiplayer on-line role playing game (MMORPG) Guild Wars, and found no problems: the software ran as quickly as it did under Windows, with all graphical effects turned up to the maximum. Sound also worked fine, as did voice chat via the Skype client.

Sadly, there is one major flaw in Game Drift Linux’s plan: if you buy a PC, the chances are you’ve already got a license for Windows included in the purchase price. While it’s technically possible to reject this license and receive a partial refund, it’s not an easy process – and most people don’t bother.

As a result, those making the leap to Linux could legitimately install Windows alongside their new open-source software and enjoy the benefits that come from playing games in their native environment.

That’s not to say Game Drift Linux isn’t without its positives, of course. For a Linux distribution, the ease with which you can install commercial games is superb, and if the next release – as promised – installs some more general-purpose software, it could make a good operating system for those who want to avoid having to reboot their computer each time they switch from ‘game’ to ‘work’ mode.

The one time Game Drift Linux is a must-buy, of course, is if you’re considering purchasing CrossOver Games anyway – at which point it becomes a 50 per cent discount voucher with a free Ubuntu-derived distribution thrown in for good measure.

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