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Open-source, networkable shooter has Linux gamers buzzing


April 12, 2000
Web posted at: 4:11 p.m. EDT (2011 GMT)

(IDG) -- Ever wondered what it would be like to take Worms, the MS-DOS side-scrolling war-fest, and recreate it in a manner that many, including myself, could only dream of? Imagine this title without the mundane turn-based play, featuring Quake-like weaponry and a far more addictive, fast-paced multiplayer emphasis. The final word for this dream is simple: NiL.

NiL is a remake of a little-known title called Liero, a freeware game that runs on DOS. I interviewed the author of NiL via email and discovered some interesting facts behind the game development and design. I discovered that the creator, designer, and all-round good guy behind NiL, Flemming Fransden, had stumbled across Liero at a demo-party in the former East Germany. When the author of Liero was apparently uninterested in making the source code available or porting it to other platforms, Flemming set about reimplementing Liero from the ground up -- under the catchy name NiL -- for Linux.

NiL takes place far underground where players are personified as cute little blue worms. But, don't let the game's seemingly innocent appearance fool you. Using worms armed to the teeth with weaponry normally reserved for first-person shooters, NiL combines the best features of the Quake series of online gaming with the comical traits of Worms. Together, this allows for a lively and dynamic environment where you can tunnel and blast your way around the screen, creating your own escape routes from the surrounding mayhem. NiL also sports the right price -- free.


Appearing only a few months ago on several popular Linux resources, NiL has already had a significant impact on the Linux gaming scene. Enjoying gameplay and user interest generally only found in upscale commercial releases, NiL has been met with what can only be described as overwhelming enthusiasm, even though it is quite different from other titles in its approach to today's gaming audience. Its combination of simple ideas is a relief from modern releases, and it is attractive to a much larger audience than most games, thanks to its open source licensing and addictive play.

Settling into its new home at the excellent developer resource, Sourceforge (see Resources for a link), NiL has seized the bulk of my spare time, with article proposals and deadlines taking a backseat to this habit-forming alternative. I have spent an enormous amount of time playing and testing NiL, as well as editing and installing updated versions and third-party software. The game seems to thrive on new additions. An outstanding feature of NiL's new homepage at Sourceforge is that players will never be left in the dark -- after your free registration, you can enable an option to let the NiL homepage automatically send you an email when there is an official update, so you will always be aware of the latest features.

What's NiL about?

The dynamic play in NiL takes place underground (in something like an ant mound) where players can dig and blast their way through and around the map. Playing over a LAN or the Internet, they try to destroy either their friends or, inadvertently, themselves (which is quite easy with blast damage from close range shots). Every game takes a side-on view where players can move around in any direction in two dimensions. There are a number of ways to navigate (or destroy) the surroundings -- from tunneling around the map to blasting away walls -- all of which help shape the randomly generated terrain. Fossilized bones and granite boulders add to the environment that NiL generates. You'll find the laws of physics have been suspended, such as when rocks hang in midair when the earth below them has been blown away, but it's all in the name of giving you someplace to throw your grappling hook. Now that's divine intervention.

Figure 1. Tunneling through the terrain

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You'll soon notice that each game in NiL starts in what looks like the same map. That is actually far from the truth. Although the levels may look the same at the outset, each is randomly created in runtime within the game. There's no need to implement new levels, because the game is never the same; the battle arena is shaped however the bullets fall. Still, it would be nice if some new textures were added to the level-generation process, a la Worms, only without the turn-based play.

Each player who joins a NiL server is represented by an Avatar, in this case a little blue worm. To succeed in this chasm of mayhem, you'll need to select your weapon of choice (for me, this was definitely the Shotgun) and maneuver yourself around the ever-changing world with the use of a nifty grappling hook. The similarities between Worms and NiL soon fade into the background: It's out with turn-based play and in with survival of the fastest.

NiL is still early in development but is already quite playable, and it should keep the biggest kids occupied, even if they are not fans of either Worms or Quake.

Employing your weapons as drilling implements is half the fun of this game, but watch your ammo. Each weapon automatically replenishes its ammunition, but because of the long ammo-reload times, you have to cycle constantly through the weapon list to keep a loaded gun up. To accomplish this, you must hit a separate key to bring up each weapon, taking your eyes off the screen and your finger off the trigger. And the reload situation is unlikely to change in future releases; otherwise, players would constantly use the Big Nuke and the other most-deadly machinery. Although such a challenge might make this game more interesting for some, a smoother method to change weaponry would be helpful. The ability to define a key to quickly cycle through weapons, a la Quake, would be a very welcome feature. Support for remapping and defining keys is scheduled to be included in future releases

I had one major gripe about the health and weaponry allocated in NiL. Because weaponry does so much damage, it would seem in line with many popular multiplayer games to dole out enough health to take the hits. For example, in NiL a player's health is diminished significantly with one hit of a Shotgun -- two hits and you're pushing up daisies. Although this may seem realistic, I found out fast that chasing a few players around the tunnels is really just a great way to get yourself killed in one shot. A better balance between damage and health is needed simply to make the battles last longer. And let's not forget the fearsome Big Nuke -- get caught too close to ground zero and you're, well, nuked.

Should that happen, take heart: Recently, the use of a central regeneration area has been changed to a random process; now when you die you can be reborn in more than one place on the map, making the pastime of "camping" (waiting in a single spot for an easy kill) a little harder.

The atmosphere NiL generates is furious and dynamic, with highly energetic, no-holds-barred gameplay. Certainly the most appealing feature for me was the grappling hook and rope combo -- one of many features cloned from Liero -- which allowed for humiliating, Tarzan-like, bombing raids against unsuspecting brothers and sisters.

NiL's simple idea, comical displays, and ease of play have certainly helped make it a popular choice in the world of open source games. As the NiL homepage states, the game is best described as Quake in 2D, or Worms done right. If that doesn't appeal to you, I don't think anything else will.

NiL is still in its infancy, just now reaching the six-month mark. Although early in development, the fact that it's extremely playable and easy to use (if not easy to install) will appeal to the most battle-hardened Linux gamers. Its steep learning curve is not something to shy away from -- much like learning a foreign language, once immersed in the game play, players will pick up the necessary skills along the way. The basics of NiL are pretty easy to grasp, as it is only a matter of remembering which button brings up which weapon and truly mastering the grappling hook -- the skill that really separates the butchers from the meat.

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NiL homepage
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