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.