It's no secret that mods brought bedroom programming back to the masses. Not since the golden glory days of home computers like the Spectrum, C64 and latterly the Amiga have gamers been making quite so many games. Now with ever more flexible engines, increased access to powerful design tools, a helping hand from the original game's creators and - in some cases - publisher backing, mod development is a highly attractive and even lucrative hobby.
Power to the people!
Successful mod teams, such as those responsible for Counter-Strike or Day of Defeat, don't get anywhere by knocking together a half-baked idea in their basement though. It's the sheer level of sophistication and professionalism with which these teams bring their creations to life that makes their mods as compelling as the real thing, usually a first person shooter.
New York-based Trauma Studios has achieved a great deal in the six or seven months since its inception, and its Desert Combat mod is fast becoming "the next Counter-Strike". Currently residing in the Alpha phase and weighing in at 334MB, this monstrous "total conversion" is easily the most popular Battlefield 1942 modification yet - the website's counter is sitting at fourteen and a half million hits at the time of writing.
The appeal of the mod is quite obvious. The game takes the basic capture-and-hold model of Battlefield 1942 and drags it into the 21st Century with the application of modern vehicles and weaponry, a scenario particularly popular with enthusiastic war gamers thanks to the renewed conflict in the Middle East - Iraq is the new WWII, whether that seems insensitive or not.
It's a simple concept, but in practice it dramatically transforms what is already one of the most solid and enjoyable multiplayer experiences on the PC. For the most part you'll be playing on the original BF1942 maps, and you'd be forgiven for thinking this might feel strange on some of the more stylised levels like Berlin when contrasted against the modern weaponry, but it honestly works a treat. However, the mod obviously comes into its own on the open, expansive desert maps.
One of BF1942's most popular aspects was the ability to pilot aircraft, to the point where players would irritatingly queue up at plane spawn points just to get a go. Desert Combat takes DICE's original achievement up a notch though, with the inclusion of fighters that move across the maps at some incredible speeds, huge bombers and - most impressively - a compliment of helicopters that take a great deal of mastering. Moving forwards at any sort of speed in these throbbing beasts and bringing them down the right way up is an achievement in itself, and becoming skilled at piloting one of these unwieldy tin cans will make you something of a boon to your side. As for the fighters, the only major drawback of having such fast-moving aircraft is their ability to travel from one side of the map to the other in a miniscule amount of time, and dogfights become something of a nightmare as you wrestle with the keyboard and mouse to keep up with the pace.
Ground-based vehicles also surprised us with their speed and agility when compared to Battlefield's trudging monstrosities. The variety is greater too, with an assortment of nippy humvees with mounted weaponry, armoured anti-aircraft missile launchers, multiple rocket units, and even a SCUD launcher for the Iraqis [so that's where the WMD are hiding -Ed]. There's a mass of opportunity for a wider range of attack and defence methods, assuming your team is able to use all this kit properly.
The troops themselves have of course been tooled up with plenty of fancy new weaponry, and each of the player classes have been reviewed and adjusted along with the addition of Special Ops and Heavy Assault roles. Liberties with realism are taken for the sake of balanced gameplay - Iraqi weapons closely match those of their Coalition counterparts for a start, which obviously makes for a fairer game and lends Desert Combat an almost Counter-Strike flavour, particularly on the less open maps made up of lots of architecture. We certainly found ourselves in familiar CS roles, peppering targets with bursts of fire and hammering buttons quickly between death and spawn.
The CS similarities become particularly evident on one of the three original maps included with the mod, Lost Village, which has Coalition forces crossing a lake to capture an Iraqi-held village. What results is a calm-before-the-storm type scenario, as the Iraqi side awaits the thud of approaching chopper blades and paratroopers landing on the rooftops. There are plenty of opportunities for sniper roles within the village, anti-armour soldiers on the roofs, and heavy weapons specialists can entrench themselves to try and stave off the relentless assault forces. In our opinion, it's probably the mod's most accomplished map.
This isn't to say the other two - Al Khafji Docks and Battle of 73 Easting - are at all shabby. The former has opposing forces struggling over capture points in a dock and on board a ship, with huge steel shipping containers providing cover, while the latter has a lot more in common with the original Battlefield maps as an expansive desert map with capture points located in three small bases.
42. It's the meaning of life, you know.
Combined with the ability to play on the original maps, Desert Combat is already an immensely strong mod even at this early stage. The weapon and vehicle models have been lovingly crafted with skill and detail, and even the level-loading music rivals the quality of the original. In the long run, Trauma Studios could put Road To Rome and possibly even Secret Weapons of World War II to shame, and that's a testament to the quality on show here. If the rumours of commercial interest are true, then good luck to them - we can't wait to see what they've got in store for us next.