Version tested: PC
You'd best look away now if you're already pretty familiar with the mod scene. The following isn't for you - it's for folk bored of Half-Life 2, bored of Counter-Strike, and now not sure what to do with themselves while they wait for BioShock and Crysis to show them fun new ways to kill a man. Honestly, there's plenty to do in the meantime. True, for every good mod there's ten incredibly tedious, amateurish or over-familiar ones, but modding is one of the foremost forms of independent gaming. This is where the ace developers of tomorrow are born, throwing as many new ideas as they can at an established template until it becomes completely unrecognisable.
We'll be looking at mods for other games and genres over the coming months, but for now, let's start at the most obvious place. As the premier FPS on PC, and with its developer actively encouraging third-party modifications, Half-Life 2 is the centrepiece of a vast number of fascinating examples. What follows are simply five of the most interesting - not necessarily the best, definitely not all the most recent, but all worth a look to see what someone just like you can do when they raise the motivation to make their own game.
But first, a quick FAQ in case you are an ill-tempered veteran mod-player about to unleash all manner of nasty shouting.
Q. Most of these are old. Boring...
A. You are not the world. Not everyone's heard of these just because you have.
Q. [My favourite mod] isn't in here. You're a total mod-tard who killing would be too good for, and I'm gonna get everyone on my fan-site to leave burning dog poo on your doorstep.
A. No, and neither is his or his or his. The point of this is to demonstrate the breadth of the HL2 mod scene, and not to just show five deathmatch clones with depressingly accurately-modelled submachine guns in them.
Q. How dare you say [some nasty thing] about [this mod]? It's still in beta, you big meanie.
A. Well, one could easily argue that all mods are in beta until some publisher buys them and sticks them in a box or on Steam. The term 'beta' is all too often used as some mutant hybrid of marketing tool and get out of jail free card, so can often be taken with a pinch of salt. On the other hand, these mods aren't being held up against commercial games (unless they actually outdo them). A certain degree of roughness, beta or not, is perfectly tolerable when you're talking about a free game made by enthusiastic enthusiasts from their own enthusiasm.
Q. There's no score on these. Forget did you, idiot?
A. Not at all. It's just that slapping a big number on the end would only lead to comparisons with commercial games. All five of these are at the very least 'good' - we simply wouldn't have included them if they were a pile of old chuff.
Having soundly decimated the ranks and defences of the opposing Termite force, I and my fellow Ants stormed their hive and set about their helpless queen. Even despite the basic animation and weird silence, I still turned my head away from the screen in dismay at the sight. Five huge soldier ants chomped relentlessly at this single, flailing NPC body, whilst the tiny termite players meant to protect her futilely nipped at our giant heels. Yes, we were victorious, but it felt a little like winning a football match by beating the goalkeeper to death. Nature is horrible.
There's nothing quite as alien as the insect kingdom, and this mod captures the spiky horror of it all quite impressively. Claustrophobic organic corridors, a fish-eye camera and the ability to walk along any surface means, a few interface tics aside, there's very little trace of Gordon Freeman here. A few of the player classes have spit attacks, but most of the combat is purely close quarters, desperately biting or butting against agile foes.
Its chitinous capture/build/attack mechanic means it's slightly cynically stepping into the gap that's supposed to be reserved for the HL2-based remake of classic Half-Life 1 mod Natural Selection. It's its own creepy-looking entity though - for one, there's no humans here, and none of the command structure of NS. You and anyone else on your side have to protect the queen, sure, but how you do so is entirely your call. Some players choose builder rather than combat units, very weak in a fight but able to capture and construct resources. Defensive (e.g. aloe vera plants that heal nearby allies, cutely) and offensive (e.g. acid-spitting flowers) structures help you push your side's front ever-forward, while a growing pool of resources allows players to spawn as superior, ever-more monstrous types of insect with improved abilities.
In other words, you know when you're winning because you're massive and have the run of most of the map, while the enemy is tiny and pushed into a corner. It's weird and it's alien and it's clever. It might be in need of a lick of polish (there's some distracting clipping errors and manoeuvring some of the bigger insects through smaller tunnels can be a headache), but it's the most compelling proof here of how inventive HL2 mods can be.
Single-player mods for Half-Life 2 are relatively few and far between. It'd be easy to pin that on amateur developers lacking the skill or will to create compelling plots and characterisations, but frankly the shockingly awful attempts at storytelling in so many professional videogames puts the lie to that. Simply, a single-player game is an awful lot of effort for not a lot of reward. To see a few dozen servers consistently doling out your multiplayer mod to a few hundred perfect strangers is infinitely more satisfying (and potentially lucrative) than some guy maybe popping on your forum to say, "Teh girl charactar was sexey lol."
Metastasis (the first, three-part chapter of a planned ongoing Minerva series) is one of the few that dares. It's been exceptionally well-received in some quarters, and a cynical mind might attribute this to there being something of a lack of choice. Not of single-player mods, but of single-player mods made with this degree of quality. At times, this approaches Valve standards of experience-shaping. If you desperately want more Half-Life 2, this will certainly shorten the ever-growing wait until Episode 2.
To a certain extent, this even outdoes Valve at its own game. Its approach to level design is one of total efficiency - your adventure for each of its two chapters is not made of small, linked level-boxes with a loading screen between each, but rather just one construct without an inch wasted. That building or watchtower you see at the start of the level isn't just background decoration - you will end up there later. As much as is possible is packed into both the horizontal and the vertical axes of each map, making for a seemingly sprawling single level that makes Valve's own approach of shoot for five minutes, wait to load a new section, shoot for five minutes and repeat almost laughable. There are two levels of Metastasis available currently, with a third due soon and a second chapter, Chronoclasm, due soon, so it'll be fascinating to see how far this approach can go.
Metastasis' other hook is its plot, which is admirably downplayed. The titular Minerva is a unreliable, sociopathic narrator of possible technological origin, eking out answers in barely comprehensible scraps and based unquestionably upon System Shock's SHODAN. Frankly though, the deliberately confusing dialogue isn't as clever as its writer probably thinks it is, and it's hard to conceive of a satisfying pay-off to all this Lost-esque riddling. As the faceless Minerva is the only even remotely friendly presence you ever encounter (and even then only on-screen as text cues), oftentimes this technique is vastly more atmospheric than having Alyx or Barney magically pop up and spew 90 seconds of exposition at you.
Unfortunately, the mod's somewhat hamstrung by a tragic defaulting to the miserable find the door or button-to-activate-a-door tasks that made Doom 3 and Quake IV as dreary as they so often were. While the economy of the level design might be ingenious, its actual challenges are not. We don't play first-person shooters because we enjoy looking for doors, and it's sad that a mod that seems to otherwise have some understanding of how to make a good FPS doesn't recognise that.
Moreover, Metastatis really highlights the retrograde elements of trigger-based enemy spawns and artificially locked-off areas that make Half-Life 2 a less satisfying game with each successive playthrough. There are no new foes, and though thoughtful design and especially use of new music creates a suitably menacing atmosphere, there's no escaping that you're in something built from bits of City 17. Still, given HL2's own limitations and the lack of an extensive budget, this was always going to be restricted to a certain toolbox. Given its polish it can be forgiven for sticking so closely to established FPS rules.
The slickest mod here by far, and the one that you'd be least likely to guess from was the fruit of Half-Lifean loins. Which totally scuppers my plan to refer to it as "Half-Life - in space!" It's closest to Battlefield 2 if anything, involving as it does the violence-assisted capturing of spawn points on the map and vehicles you're free to take on a deathride at any point. The classes are fewer for the time being - mostly variations upon the assault theme - though the hacker, who's able to secure a spawnpoint to a greater extend than any other class can manage, is an interesting divergence.
What really ensures that this isn't simply Battlefield 3142 is that the vehicles aren't tanks or helicopters - they're proper, actual spaceships, ones wot fly and shoot lasers. When you hop in one, the interface switches entirely to one resembling the post-Elite space sim familiar to players of something like freelancer or the X games. It's rather more basic than those, but it's a dramatically different discipline to the on-foot combat. The controls change, you'll need to shoot at where you think the enemy is going to end up rather than where he is, and there's some super-cool death rays. The ships are necessary to destroy space-based enemy resource points (and similarly gravity-unboound foes) and to access other, capturable areas of the map, so victory is easiest won by a melting pot of space and infantry scuffles.
It's clever stuff, both tense and utterly frenetic at once, and feeling somehow totally unlike Battlefield despite sharing so many of its mechanics. The only serious criticism is that the ships feel a little floaty-light at the moment - there isn't a great sense of being a hulking slab of flying metal rather than a human being with noclipping turned on.
Still, it's a fresh and exciting creation, and out of all of the mods here feels most like you're getting a totally new game as a free bonus for what you spent on Half-Life 2. Also, spaceships.
Too soon? Well, frankly, yes. If you're not at least slightly unsettled by the thought of an FPS mod featuring detailed Iraq circa 2007 streets and US soldiers versus insurgent cells - or in other words, a recreation of how people are dying right now - then, well... Well, I'll keep my damned pinko scum lily-livered thoughts to myself, but you'll hopefully forgive me if I don't include any gags about this particular mod.
While we have of course been gunning down polygonal representations of just about every nation's military over the last quarter-century so of videogaming, making any complaint about shooting something resembling a real person moot to a certain extent, this is undeniably something of a further step. To Insurgency's credit, it does avoid the sensationalism of perennial straight-from-the-headlines liberal-baiter KUMA\WAR. The setting aside, this is the Counter-Strike approach to West vs Middle East war, politically-speaking - no narrative and no statement is being made here, beyond what you might apply to it yourself. You're free to play as whichever side you prefer, or more likely are auto-assigned to.
It's a shame that Insurgency has chosen a thematic approach that will present an impasse to many, as it's in many respects a mod with a rare degree of polish. Perhaps unsurprisingly, as its project lead was one of the original team behind Red Orchestra, a mod for Unreal Tournament 2003/4 so successful it saw a retail sequel. Though there's a palpable sense of Counter-Strikiness underlying Insurgency, its maps are very much their own, hugely detailed creations and its changes to the standard team FPS formula are far more than mere tweaks. There's a strong temptation to call it Battlefield 2 in the Half-Life 2 engine, a total lack of vehicles aside, but really its having capture points and order-giving commanders masks its true focus.
While Battlefield still supports playing lone wolf run'n'gun to a point, this doesn't really operate without at least an attempt at team-play. In almost every firefight, one accurate shot means a kill (the impressively minimalist interface is even bereft of a health bar), so moving in squads and communicating constantly is vital, as is using labyrinthine buildings for cover and vantage rather than mere thoroughfare.
'Realistic' may be pushing it, but there's certainly a heightened sense of threat and menace. Though still in beta, it's made a decent fist of melding the brutal, unforgiving challenge of a game like Operation Flashpoint with the pick-up-and-play pop of Counter-Strike. The indelicate setting, the one-shot kills and the emphasis on exacting team-play make it an acquired taste for sure, but nevertheless Insurgency stands out as perhaps the best-realised military mod of late. It's picked up a large audience very quickly too - this one will run and run. Perhaps even for as long as the war it's making light of does. Whoops, showed my true colours there, didn't I?
Pirates, Vikings and Knights II
Very much the exact opposite arm of Half-Life 2 modding to Insurgency, this. The name's something of a giveaway in that respect, let's be honest. Despite being just as clearly built upon Counter-Strike guts as Insurgency, the decision to not take itself seriously makes PVKII an entirely different breed of game.
It's quite epically stupid, almost to the point of existing solely so someone can make a funny t-shirt out of its name, but that's precisely its charm. It is, simply, pirates versus Vikings versus knights, warring over loot. Loot is basically a flag (as in capture the...) repainted as a treasure chest, which you must hang onto as long as possible. Whoever controls the loot controls the universe, at least for the duration of whichever cheerfully low-rent map you're on. The trouble with controlling the universe, though, is that a crapload of pirates, Vikings and knights want to take it from you, which is largely expressed by vaguely hilarious flailing with enormous bladed weaponry. And the occasional pistol (for pirates) or crossbow (for knights), but really those are just for winding the other players up.
In a weird sort of way, the reason this incredibly simple (and in all honesty, very amateur-looking) mod works is, humour aside, because of prejudice. Within seconds of a round starting, you'll decide you passionately hate either pirates, Vikings or knights for no particular reason (or alternatively the very particular reason of being killed by one), and will find yourself hung up on frantically attacking every one of their hated number even when there's much more sensible things to be doing.
The result is cartoon carnage of slapping people with giant axes or throwing exploding barrels at them, and a game very nearly devoid of skill. Picking a real strategy of teamwork and communication out of this huge mess is possible, but simply not much fun. This works because it's the anti-Counter-Strike, a no-rules arena of total silliness. You mightn't ever build a globe-straddling FPS Clan by playing this, but you'll certainly spend a weekend or two giggling like a sixth-former drawing genitalia inside his textbook.