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Alan Wilson, vice president of Tripwire Interactive, tells me his studio probably wouldn’t exist without the Make Something Unreal Tournament that Nvidia and Epic Games hosted in the early 2000s. "I’d say it’s 99 percent certain," he says.In 2003 he and his roughly 60-person team were the rock stars of the Unreal Tournament modding scene, having successfully and breathtakingly transformed sci-fi arena shooter Unreal Tournament 2003 into Red Orchestra, the brutally realistic shooter set in World War II’s Eastern Front. Is it possible everyone involved could have used the experience to launch individual careers at big game studios? Of course. It happens with mods all the time. But only Epic Games’ support—and the award of a then-outrageously expensive Unreal game engine license—could have transformed the whole team into the studio we now know for Killing Floor, Red Orchestra 2, and Rising Storm 2.
You’ve probably heard this story before. Hell, we’ve told it ourselves. But the lesser known backstory is that Tripwire was only one of the successful indie studios that grew out of the Unreal Tournament modding scene and the the Make Something Unreal competition. Compared to the more familiar tale of major studios or publishers buying the rights to a mod and then turning it into DotA 2, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, or PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, the Unreal Tournament modding scene stands out for having created fully fledged studios. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say the indie scene we know today wouldn't be the same without it.
Notably, Tripwire’s other hit Killing Floor grew out of the modding scene for Unreal Tournament 2004. But beyond Tripwire, there’s Coffee Stain Studios, best known for the oddball Goat Simulator—itself a creation of the Unreal Engine—but who also created the stunning first-person tower defense game Sanctum as a mod for UT3. There’s Sjoerd De Jong’s Teotl Studios, known for The Ball and The Solus Project, and New Zealand’s Digital Confectioners, who successfully launched shark survival game Depth, itself once an Unreal Tournament mod, on Steam.
Still others followed the "adoption" model like DotA and Counter-Strike, including the team behind Alien Swarm, an Unreal Tournament 2004 mod that was picked up by Valve and released as a new game in 2010. Psyonix didn't directly emerge from the Unreal Tournament modding scene, but as Gamasutra reported in 2015, its hit Rocket League ultimately has its roots in a mod founder Dave Hagewood made for UT2003.With a list like that, it’s tempting to wonder if many moderns games don’t allow extensive modding out of fear it could create too much competition. Epic, though, has long encouraged this kind of creativity. Unreal Tournament led to the founding of so many studios in part because Epic allowed its modders almost total freedom with its Unreal Engine in an age when "modding" often meant swapping weapon skins and making theme levels. Combining active support and encouragement from Epic itself with a large, enthusiastic modding community centered around a single popular series where it was relatively easy to make a name for oneself, the scene created a perfect storm we haven’t really seen since.
Hearing early Unreal Tournament modders talk about the freedom of the Unreal Engine sounds almost like hearing tales of religious conversion. More than a decade later, there’s still a note of reverence in the words of Sjoerd De Jong, founder of Teotl Studios (and, these days, the European evangelist for the Unreal Engine), as he speaks about his first experiences with Unreal. "It was 'What You See Is What You Get' in 1998, and way ahead of other tools when it came out," he says. "It was a revolution in terms of game dev tools. Unreal (and consequently Unreal Tournament I) was the first game that was able to blend different light colors together, it was able to display lighting directly in the viewport in the editor, it had a procedural texture generator and editor, it had volumetric fog, it had superb reflective surface support, it had dynamic lighting. And so on."
Anton Westbergh of Coffee Stain Studios had the same thoughts about it years later in 2009 when he was working on the original mod form of Sanctum. "Sanctum was a first-person shooter and a tower defense game, so we had to find an engine that allowed our team to get cranking quickly and since we were very visually driven, the potential and power of the Unreal Engine was appealing," he says. "It was easy to get up and going, and make something that looked great."
The team that would become Tripwire was among the converted. Early in the 2000s, they dabbled in the mysteries of the engines used by Medal of Honor: Allied Assault and Battlefield 1942 for their ambitious project, but cast them aside once they discovered Unreal.
"In terms of graphics, the Unreal engine is one of the best on the market," modder Antarian said in an interview with IGN at the time. "Its ability to support massive maps and models with huge poly counts and texture sizes allows us to make some truly stunning environments."
So liberating was Unreal Tournament 2003 as a modding platform that there’s barely a trace of it in the original Red Orchestra mod. Here instead was a game with "real-world" iron sights rather than crosshairs and grenades that damage from a distance, all set in the bleak eastern front of World War II where Nazis clashed with Russians amid ruins held up more by luck than gravity.Red Orchestra transcended modding. Gaming had really seen nothing like it until then, and elements of it made their way into shooters that followed. The effort made Tripwire a proper studio almost by default. But Sjoerd De Jong discovered the Unreal Tournament modding scene came with other benefits besides providing a blank canvas. The business of promoting his mods, he notes, translated into the business of running a studio.
"Modding taught me a whole number of things that I otherwise wouldn't have easily mastered, I think," he says, describing his process of envisioning, developing, testing, and marketing his more than 50 popular maps and seeking out reviewers for them. "It taught me to deliver and get stuff done. It taught me to work with what I have (the game), and then be creative with those building blocks. It taught me about limitations in general, because modding is all about working within an existing game."
But at the heart of it all was always the accessibility of the Unreal Engine. "Like, buy a $10 copy of UT2K, and you're creating real games stuff," Wilson tells me. "Now you have the whole Unreal Engine (and others) completely free to use. We give talks at schools and colleges and always hammer home this point: this stuff is completely free to you to pick up."Epic’s commitment to this type of creative freedom was so potent that in 2004 it partnered with Nvidia to kick off the first Make Something Unreal contest, which was aimed at granting $1 million to modders who produced the best work so they could advance their careers in game development. Few projects like it had been seen before or even since.That first year, Tripwire’s Red Orchestra won the award for "Best First-Person Shooter" handily. As it turned out though, the $1 million prize really amounted to around $50,000, as most of the prize money was wrapped up in licensing. But it opened many doors that would have been closed otherwise. "It gave us exposure, publicity, feedback, experience, and an engine license we couldn't have afforded on our own at that time," Wilson says of Tripwire’s win.
Anton Westbergh’s team won fourth place in both the Best FPS Mod and Educational categories with Sanctum in the 2009 MSU competition, and he discovered cash prizes weren't the only benefit of winning. "It gave the team a big morale boost," Westbergh says. "Without the success in the competition, I'm not sure Coffee Stain would have been around."
Four Make Something Unreal competitions were held in all, but there hasn’t been one since 2013. That’s partly because in 2015 Epic simply started giving out grants to anyone who created something with the Unreal engine that impressed them.
Yet Tripwire, for its part, hasn’t forgotten the role the contest played in its own creation, and to that end it’s currently hosting its own contest to encourage modding for its game Rising Storm 2: Vietnam, which it’s running in partnership with Antimatter Games. On January 15 of next year, the lucky first-place winner will receive a $27,500 top prize. "Anything that helps focus the creativity of all these community content creators is worthwhile," he tells me.
So why haven’t we seen another wave of successful indie studios growing out of a specific game’s modding community? In De Jong’s view, the conditions are no longer the same. "People looking for a career tend to be more focused on going with indie game dev than with modding nowadays," he says. "A shame, I think."
He points out that fewer games support modding, and that there’s now a larger focus on business models like free-to-play that don’t play as nicely with mods. For that matter, he says, modding is simply less prestigious. There’s less demand, and great mods aren’t as frequently in the news.
"I remember when I was making levels back in the days we had lots of community sites, and each of them had a Level of the Week, Level of the Month, and so forth section on their front page," he says. "The content was pushed forward, and most gamers too within the Half-Life/Quake/Unreal communities back then played custom levels and mods very often. Nowadays that isn't the case anymore."
Wilson scoffs at the idea, saying that "the floodgates opened a decade ago and it hasn’t really slowed up yet." He points to other games that started out as mods like DayZ and PUBG, and reminds me that Tripwire's own Killing Floor and the Red Orchestra franchise allow for content creation.
Epic, fittingly enough, played a major role in this shift to indie game creation when it opened Unreal Engine 4 to everyone—license-free—in 2015. All Epic asked was a 5 percent royalty on gross revenue after the first $3,000 per product, per quarter. You don’t have to look far to find the fruits of this development, which extend to everything from blockbusters like Gears of War 4 to the quiet Myst-like Obduction or the long-awaited Shenmue 3.
All the same, though, the associated freedom makes the fight to the top so much harder. Modding communities in the busy early days gave hopeful developers an already-large and enthusiastic community. Standing out was comparatively easy, thanks in part to the developer attention De Jong described.
Nowadays, though you may be starting with the Unreal engine at your command, you’re starting from scratch with everything else. That means not only does your game have to be good, it also has to rise through cluttered spaces like YouTube, Reddit, and Twitter, all while wrestling with the Kickstarters and Patreons and other precarious means of gaining funding. Compared to the glory days of Unreal Tournament modding, it’s work that’s done in comparative isolation.
Were the old days better? That’s not an easy claim to make, considering that we’re smack in the middle of a golden age of indie gaming.But I do believe the path from mod to studio was slightly better then, bolstered as it was by well-meaning publishers and developers, a gaming community that loved mods more and was more tightly focused on specific games, and competitions hosted by big-name manufacturers and studios that gave modders high-profile venues to showcase their greatness. Fittingly, it was a bit like a tournament, and one that unfolded in an arena where fans could cheer on the favorites they’d come to love.The modern approach feels more like shouting in a crowd, hoping your voice will be heard among the hundreds of thousands around you. Compared to the wonderful alchemy allowed by Unreal Tournament and Epic in the last decade, success in those conditions feels almost unreal.
Here's how big a deal Doom's shotgun was: in a game with another weapon called the Big Fucking Gun, the shotgun is the one we remember best. It's reliable at practically any distance. One clean shot to the chest will eviscerate most enemies. Somehow that pump action reload animation and its cha-chick are satisfying every single time with only five frames of animation. How many other games are confident enough to give you a gun this good 10 seconds into the first level?
Before Doom, shotguns were for shooting clay pigeons. After Doom, they were for annihilating demons. And for annihilating practically anything else: as Doom birthed a new genre, you could rely on the trusty shotgun to be there almost anytime, more steadfast and reliable than a squirrely pistol or a ammo-hungry rifle. It's our pellet pal. Our blunderbuss buddy. In the wry words of John Romero, when we spent half an hour reflecting on the design and history of Doom's shotgun: "No other game has a BFG 9000 in it, but lots of games have shotguns."
Today we're celebrating that lineage by talking about some of our favorite shotguns and why we love them. Step one: make it kick, and make 'em bleed.
"Number one, the damage it does is the most important part," said John Romero. He was talking about weapon design in general. There's so much that goes into a good game gun, but those pain points have the biggest impact in making a weapon feel powerful. "If it does more damage than any other gun, it doesn't matter if it has no sound effects, you're going to be using it," he laughed.
OK, but all that other stuff is important too. Animation, sound effects, the works. When they all come together, you can just feel it. It's an almost animal hell yeah. Fullbright's Steve Gaynor practically got poetic describing this sensation:
"Shooter games can be about a lot of things—the complexity of tactics as you use the environment to your advantage, the cat & mouse drama of chasing and being chased, sneaking up on your prey or falling into your enemy's trap—but it's also always about that aesthetic moment where the trigger's pulled and the audiovisual effects deliver that moment of utterly blowing a videogame creature away. And that's what the shotgun's all about. It's loud. It's sudden. And above all, it's effective."
So how do design all that stuff to feel just right? Bill Munk, animator and creative director at Tripwire, had this to say about developing Killing Floor 2:
"We start with the gore system, which is a very important ingredient that makes shotguns feel devastating. Second is the impulse force applied to the creatures when they get hit, this is really important to not only make the shotgun feel powerful but also adds to the enjoyment of taking down a target. Third is the damage each pellet does, it's a hard balancing act because depending on what you shot, if it doesn't die or react the way you picture it, everything falls apart and the weapon feels unsatisfying. To balance shotguns in KF2 we first start with the price for the ammo, the weight of the gun and the time it takes to reload. Shotguns generally have massive damage but become less effective at range due to the spread of the pellets which also is a nice tool to balance these high damage weapons.
"Last but not least are the shoot animations. This is an area we've put a lot of time and research in. We animate the shots at high framerate so that we can animate the violent force when you fire a shotgun. This is a detail you barely notice in realtime but can feel the difference."
And when Killing Floor 2 slows down into Zed time, you can really see that animation at work.
You can see even more detail in KF2's shotguns firing and reloading here. They're ahead of the curve in animations, but the fact that Doom's shotgun still feels good with only five frames of reload animation shows how much the damage, muzzle flare, sound effects, and other elements of a shotgun can make it feel satisfying without much real detail.
Take Resident Evil 4's starting shotgun, a standard pump action. It's much simpler than Killing Floor 2's weapons, but blasting zombies with it feels a bit like smiting them with the fist of God. Part of that comes from RE4's once-novel over-the-shoulder weapon aiming. It's incredibly physical. You hold a button down to aim and Leon plants his feet. The camera zooms up to his shoulder, and it feels like you're aiming the shotgun with the whole of his body. The muzzle jerks sharply upward when you fire, and a single blast can send a whole crowd flying backwards. Leon pumps out the spent shell before recentering his aim. It's not fancy, but it feels sublime.
No game gun sounds more pleasing to the ear than a shotgun except for, maybe, a bolt-action rifle. And those two weapons have something in common: both are about a single moment of release, followed by a peerless sound saying fire again, baby.
Most game weapons are about a constant stream of sound. The blam, blam, blam of a pistol, the ratatatat of an SMG, the heavy thugthugthugthug of an LMG. With a shotgun, it's all about that one shot. It's a crack of thunder, not a boom. "You need a good, sharp, aggressive sound to drive the shotgun's presence home, not some underplayed thud but a good, bracing crack," said Gaynor.
But the reload can be even better. Only a heavy bolt can match the click of a double barrel popping open and closed or the cha-chick of the pump action. That sound effect really hasn't changed much since Doom 1, and it's easy to see why.
Sound is a big part of why we love shotguns, but it's also crucial to the "feel" of hower powerful they are. "I'd say sound is 70% of the feel of a great shotgun mostly because I've played games while they are muted and they lost the feel," said Kynan Pearson, who's worked on the Halo and Metroid Prime series. "The reload noise, the boom and the pain noises create a fantastic symphony of death."
Producer Matt Powers, who worked as a producer on the Medal of Honor and Call of Duty series, wrote about this on Gamasutra:
"I kept getting feedback that our shotgun was underpowered…people really kind of hated the shotgun. When I looked at the balance numbers, the shotgun was actually a little overpowered if anything. So…after much consternation I decided to attack the balance issue from the side of perception rather than through the actual numbers themselves. I went to our audio director to talk about changing the sound. He added a bit more low end to the fire sound, pulled out some midrange and bumped up the high end to give it a sharper punch. I did not tell the team that the only thing I changed was the sound, I just asked them to give it another try to see if the changes I made addressed the balance issues they were seeing. The feedback came back unanimously positive."
Animation, sound, weight. Those are some of the ingredients of a great shotgun. So how did id make the first FPS shotgun, with no history to draw on, back in 1993?
Our love affair with the shotgun started with Doom, but for Romero, it started with two other sources: Rednecks, and Evil Dead. In one of id's earliest games, a 2D sidescroller called Dangerous Dave in the Haunted Mansion, you blast ghouls with a shotgun (and can even shoot at diagonals!). In Dave's first game, you had a pistol, but changing that to a shotgun in the sequel was an obvious move. "You're a redneck in Louisiana, of course you'd have a shotgun," Romero laughed. "We mentioned it when we were talking about Doom, we're like 'Hell yeah man, we had a shotgun in Dave and it was awesome. Why not?'"
Doom's shotgun wasn't originally in the plans for the game at all. The small team at id had the pistol, and plans for a rocket launcher, but they needed something in between. So they designed a rifle with a bayonet. The only problem: it wasn't cool enough. "We didn't like the fact that when you jabbed, it just didn't look good. It looked lame," Romero said. "We'd already had lameness issues with Catacomb 3D earlier, when you're using your hand to throw fireballs and stuff. That didn't look or feel cool. With Doom, we did have the bayonet in there, and I believe we even had it working, and it was just like, you know what? No amount of frames will make this look good."
As they started brainstorming sci-fi weapons like the BFG, their thoughts turned to Evil Dead 2. And voila: a shotgun and a chainsaw appeared. "We basically went, 'a shotgun would totally blow away that stupid rifle.' We made the shotgun, we made the chainsaw. It totally felt right in the game. We put it in, and it was just perfect. The gun cocking animation, the sound, it was perfect. The shotgun blast was great and did a good amount of damage. So that's what happened."
The Doom faithful may know that the shotgun was a cap gun model bought at Toys R Us and scanned into the game using a video camera, then edited and animated in a Carmack piece of software called Fuzzy Pumper Palette Shop. It was named after a Play Doh toy. What's surprising about Romero's story is how little tuning it took to get Doom's shotgun just right. They added a spread and randomness to the firing, but treated the shotgun pellets as if they were bullets, making the gun easy to implement. And because they "wanted every gun to be effective at super far distances," handicapping the shotgun's range wasn't an issue.
"It was important that whenever we added any gun to the game, it never nullified a previous weapon. There had to be a reason for keeping the pistol around and everything else," Romero said. "The shotgun, I believe used the pistol randomness, and also added some to the spread, but not too much. So you could kill stuff at a distance. It was not like a sawed-off shotgun that would have a massive spread."
That would come later, of course, with Doom 2's double barrel super shotgun. First person shooters have since skewed towards treating shotguns more like the sawed off: close combat killers with a very particular purpose, a more compartmentalized approach to "balance" that gives every weapon its role.
"I feel shotguns live and die by where they sit in the balance," said Pearson. "It's easy to make a shotgun too effective or nerf it so it's not dominant in the weapon selection. I feel like shotguns need drawbacks, but part of the satisfaction is the exaggerated quality of wrecking opponents at close range. I prefer tight spread with damage dampening at distance. Everyone has different preferences so it depends on the game."
We can still delight in a good kill with a well-balanced modern military tactical 12-gauge, but our favorite shotguns are the ones that defy those restrictions. Look at the shotgun in Halo: Combat Evolved, which was overshadowed by the pistol but still had tremendous range and a vast ammo reserve.
Other shotguns do something unique to stand out, either in how they affect enemies and the world, or in how they let lead fly.
When I get a headshot with a pistol I expect, at best, a backflip or an exploding skull. But much of the joy of a shotgun comes from its physicality. I want my enemies blown backwards by raw force. This is where other elements of the game come into play to make the shotgun itself better. A perfect example, Gaynor explained, is Bioshock's shotty:
"It reinforces what makes a great shotgun on its own—an awesome muzzle flash, great pump action animation, amazing sound design, and high destructive power—but also how important its effect on enemies can be. Not just the blood effects or how much damage it does, but how they flip, spin, and pirouette through the environment when blasted. BioShock used tech that allowed the enemies to do a crafted death animation—ie spinning through the air in response to catching a handful of buckshot in the side—and transition that smoothly into a dynamic ragdoll that leaves them convincingly sprawled on the environment in the aftermath. Blasting Splicers with the shotgun was great because the shotgun was great, yes, but also because the Splicers were such wonderful fodder, their reaction to your blasting being an integral part of the whole exchange."
This is one area where Valve's typically soft weapons really shine: Left4Dead 2's shotguns can lift a group of zombies off their feet and send them flying. They also absolutely shred enemies. Valve's Alex Vlachos gave a great talk about Left 4 Dead 2's wounds at the 2010 Game Developer's Conference, and you can see how the system works in this presentation. This applies to all weapons, but shotguns are your best bet for blowing off limbs or big chunks of torso.
Gaynor similarly praised the F.E.A.R shotgun's "effect on a highly dynamic gameworld, where firing this thing off causes dust, concrete chunks, and broken glass to fly everywhere. But of course it would be nothing if not for F.E.A.R.'s slow-mo bullet time mechanic, allowing you to enjoy the shotgun's effects at half speed, every frame of its destructive power lovingly rendered for the player's satisfaction. Jumping over a barricade, going into slow-mo, and hearing an enemy soldier shout "OOoooohhhhhh shiiiiiiittttttt" as you pull the trigger, causing him to backflip over a railing with balletic grace, is maybe one of the most satisfying interactions in any FPS game. Oh, and if you play your cards right and get up into point-blank range, this thing can straight-up mist an enemy in one shot. That's how badass it is."
Romero and Bill Munk both called out Soldier of Fortune's shotgun for similar destructive power. "Soldier of Fortune, especially for the time, really showed the brutality of a shotgun and made the player feel extremely powerful based on the gore system," Munk said. "But for overall feel I'd have to give it to F.E.A.R. The first time you experience a shotgun in slow-mo seeing every pellet fly and the ragdoll react to it is a thing of beauty!"
Soldier of Fortune sure wins for nastiness, though.
God I love the flak cannon. In my imagination, the flak cannon is what would happen if the god of death metal looked at a normal shotgun and turned it into an industrial tool that could conveniently be used to shred men into paste. It's not simply firing a shell when you pull the trigger: a metal piston slams forward to propel a disc the size of a hockey puck out of the muzzle, where it separates into a spreading pattern of glowing superheated scrap. You can watch every piece make bloody contact with your enemy, but it also has a utility unlike any other shotgun: bouncing those metal meteors around corners to shred bad dudes from afar. Is there any wonder it's our favorite gun ever?
When Doom gave us a shotgun to blast demons, it was novel. Now that every shooter has its own take on the shotgun—and it's usually pretty straightforward—we love the flak cannon and other alternative shotguns for stepping out of that mold.
The flak cannon's secondary fire is a perfect example: it concentrates the heavy damage of the shotgun into a single arcing grenade that's harder to land, but offers concentrated damage you won't get at range with a spreading flak cloud. Romero himself designed a shotgun that was meant to diverge from the straightforward utility of Doom's shotgun: Daikatana's Shotcycler-6.
Daikatana had rocket jumping, but because its rocket launcher fired two shots, it would really hurt. "I thought, can I make a safer rocket jump type weapon?" Romero remembered. "With the Shotcycler-6 I can do six shots, and if you jump it'll take you up to another place. I thought that would be kinda cool for people who are good, and know the secret of the shotgun jump. So it's basically six shots, who doesn't love that, with kickback enough that you can actually get propelled up in the air, almost like a rocket launcher."
Gears of War 4's Overkill is a madman's fusion of double-barrel and auto shotty: it fires a shell from one of four barrels on mouse click and on mouse release, giving you the flexibility for tactical timing or a panicked barrage of eight shots in the span of a second.
Bulletstorm's ridiculous four barreled shotgun has a charge shot that simply vaporizes enemies, burning them away to nothing but bones. It's a fitting middle finger to the concept of balance.
And though it was a short-lived glitch, not an intentional design, I have to sing the praises of the most overpowered shotgun of all time: Battlefield 3's briefly broken underslung M26 DART. A patch made every 12 gauge flechette pellet deal the full damage of the assault rifle's primary bullets, making the spread an ungodly cloud of death. And yet it's so politely soft-spoken.
Videogame shotguns are rad. When you use a good one, appreciate it: marvel at its kick, its cocking action, its thundercrack, and the knockback like no other.
"There's something inherently satisfying about video game guns that are built to be 'one shot, one kill' like, say, a hefty magnum revolver, or a bolt-action sniper rifle," said Gaynor. "And that's also the shotgun's job... with the added benefit of not really having to aim. Who could ask for more?"
Long live the gib.
Welcome to our roundup of the best total conversion mods ever. Presented in no particular order, these are the mods that radically transform our favorite games into something different, with new and improved art, gameplay systems, locations, and adventures. Crafted through years of work, sometimes by large teams of volunteer modders, many of these mods have gone on to become PC gaming classics in their own right.
Here are the best total conversion mods ever made.
Link: Sven Co-op on Steam
First released way back in 1999, Sven Co-op is still being both updated and played today. A cooperative mod for the original Half-Life, the mod allows groups of players to battle their way through the Half-Life campaign, where they'll find increased challenges and far more enemies, as well as new maps filled with puzzles and challenges. Over the years hundreds of new levels have been added along with new weapons, improved AI, and lots of customization options. Even if you don't own Half-Life, you can play it for free on Steam.
For Game of Thrones fans, this mod is already at the top of your personal list or will be the moment you try it. It transforms CK II’s medieval Europe into the beautifully realised continents of Westeros and Essos and populates them with characters and events straight from the source material. Marry, mingle, or murder your way through the Starks, Lannisters and many other notable dynasties. Best of all, random game events will quickly spin the world into an enjoyable alt-reality of the fiction we’re so familiar with. This is an absolute must-have for gamers who are fans of the George RR Martin novels and the HBO series.
Link: Aliens TC ModDB page
Way back in 1994, this pioneer of full-conversion mods successfully recreated the 1986 sci-fi action film Aliens in Doom. It didn’t settle for just plopping face-huggers and aliens on a map, either: its custom levels mirror familiar locations and story beats from the film and even provide sound effects and voice clips lifted straight from the movie. Hearing Sergeant Apone through your headset reminding you to “Check those corners... check those corners!” not to mention Ripley furiously shouting “COME ON!” when climbing into her signature loader to do battle with the alien queen genuinely made me feel like I was part of the Aliens universe.
You may have heard of it? The multiplayer Half-Life mod featured such team-based missions as hostage rescue and bomb defusal, each team with its own equipment and goals. With its quick rounds and exciting gunplay, Counter-Strike became an instant hit, and the community began creating maps of its own. Counter-Strike’s emphasis on teamwork and communication helped define a new genre of shooters, and the modders behind it were quickly hired by Valve.
Link: Nehrim site
Every full-conversion mod comes with a high degree of ambition, but it’s a truly special situation when the mod’s creators have the talent to match. Nehrim: At Fate’s Edge, created by German modding team SureAI over four years, does what the best full conversion mods do: reshapes the features that are lacking in the original game and provide hours of exciting new content. With original voice work by dozens of actors, big changes to several of the game’s familiar systems, and its own quests, story, lore, playable races, and a massive and beautifully designed new map to explore, Nehrim transforms The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion into an entirely new experience.
Link: Garry's Mod ModDB page
Plenty of games have a god mode accessible through console commands, but Garry’s Mod takes the idea to an entirely new level. A multiplayer sandbox limited only by your creativity, the mod has proven to be the ultimate tool for creating webcomics, videos and custom game modes, as it enables players to spawn objects and entities and pose them however they like. You can even play Half- Life 2 using all of the mod’s tools, turning Gordon Freeman from a simple gun-toting scientist into the ultimate expression of your will.
Link: Long War at Nexus Mods
Harder, longer, and with hundreds of changes to the base game, Long War extends XCOM's campaign, lets you play with up to 12 squad members at a time, adds new soldier classes, voice packs, weapons and technology, and lots of improved and completely overhauled systems. Long War wasn't just a hit with players but with XCOM's developers, who brought the mod team in to work on launch-day mods for XCOM 2, as well as create Long War 2.
Link: The Dark Mod site
This mod isn’t simply a celebration of the acclaimed Thief series using Doom 3’s engine, but actually an improvement on some of its features, especially the wonderful and engaging new lockpicking system. The open-ended stealth adventure lets you slink through a gorgeous, highly-detailed gothic steampunk world as you fill your pantaloons with loot and try to avoid detection. Most importantly, the mod comes with its own mission editor, enabling members of the community to create and submit their own custom levels and stories. The Dark Mod was released as a standalone game in 2013.
Link: Black Mesa site
It sounded like an impossible project: building the entirety of the celebrated FPS Half-Life in Half-Life 2’s Source engine, but after eight years of work by a large volunteer team of modders it finally became a reality. While it stops short of recreating the entire game (Gordon Freeman’s leap into Xen is the mod’s endpoint), it’s still a remarkable accomplishment. For Half-Life veterans it contains a mix of new design elements and familiar confrontations, and it’s a also great way to experience the ground-breaking adventure for those turned off by the dated graphics of the original.
Link: DayZ mod on Steam
In a game featuring starvation, sickness, and swarms of growling zombies, it still falls to other human players to provide most of the horror. While the standalone version of DayZ became a big hit in Early Access, the original open-world multiplayer survival mod is perfectly playable. The vast map and lack of global chat provide a feeling of intense loneliness, but the prospect of actually meeting someone else is a constant threat.
Link: Complex mod site
The name is certainly apt: this mod takes the real-time space strategy game and adds an almost absurd amount of complexity to nearly every single aspect. Alongside improvements to the AI, physics and graphics, the mod adds scores of new units and maps, constructible subsystems, deeper tech and research trees, and a diplomacy system. It even adds an actual calendar so gametime can be marked in years as in the Civilization series.
Link: Dota Allstars, a recent iteration of the original mod, worked on by IceFrog, who now works for Valve on Dota 2.
An exciting combination of RTS and RPG, the multiplayer battle arena mod for Warcraft III (based on a modded map from StarCraft) is a lot of things: simple to understand, difficult to master, and most of all, utterly addictive. In its early days DotA was a project that was passed from modder to modder, and like an unending stream of creeps it eventually spread through the gaming world to become a massive hit, as well as the first lanepushing game to have sponsored tournaments.
Link: NeoTokyo site
This team-based multiplayer mod for Half-Life 2 is set in a slick, futuristic cyberpunk city and features three different classes to choose from, each with their own distinct weapons and strengths. With lethally realistic gunfire and cloaking abilities available to some classes, NeoTokyo requires more stealthy and tactical play than many online shooters demand. Inspired by anime classics Ghost in the Shell and Akira, NeoTokyo also features an amazing and engrossing custom soundtrack that you’ll want to listen to even when you’re not playing the game. The mod was released as a standalone title in 2009.
Combining FPS action and simulation, this large scale multiplayer-only mod brings wonderfully realised Battletech mechs to life in Cryengine 2, though it began as a mod for Quake Wars. Tanks, jets, mechs and hovercraft strategically battle for territorial control in beautiful, varied, highlydetailed outdoor environments with full day/night cycles. The mod was so impressively made it was even sanctioned by Microsoft, who own the Mechwarrior franchise the mod is based on.
Link: Cry of Fear ModDB page
While it’s a standalone release now, Cry of Fear began as a Half-Life mod. It’s the story of a man who wakes after being hit by a car to discover his city is filled with gruesome monsters and his mind packed with psychological horrors. The mod has some interesting and immersive tweaks, such as an extremely limited inventory—and the fact that the game doesn’t pause while using it—that bring new challenges as you play through a disturbing, winding story with original animated sequences and multiple endings.
Link: Genkokujo ModDB page
The Sengoku period in Japan was a time of turmoil, political intrigue and near-constant warfare. What better time and place for a massive, openworld combat RPG built on the capable framework of Mount & Blade? The mod features actual clans and figures from Japanese history, new skins and armour types, new gunpowder weapons, and dozens of historically accurate locations spread across a map of Japan with twice the playable area of the original game. It also incorporates a number of other excellent M&B mods such as Diplomacy and Freelancer, which add even more great features.
You’re put in control of a clerk who suddenly finds himself completely alone at the office, but you’ll soon start to reconsider just how much control you actually have. While difficult to describe, the mod quickly proves to be a witty and insightful commentary on videogames, particularly the act of making choices. It’s also wonderfully narrated by a voice so soothing you’d like him to read you bedtime stories – if only you could trust him. It’s now a complete game with a lot more polish and an extended story, but the original mod remains a thoughtful, oddball delight.
Every kid who ever picked up JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings novels has longed to step into Middle-earth, and one of the best ways to do it is with this mod for the turn-based strategy game Total War, capable as it is of portraying epic-scale battles. Third Age features over a hundred accurate locations and a dozen factions straight from the fiction. It includes custom units such as ents, trolls, giant spiders and wargs, and lets you play not just as heroes like the men of Gondor and the Silvan Elves, but also as the evil forces of Sauron’s Mordor, Isengard, and even the orcs of the Misty Mountains.
Link: Out of Hell ModDB page
As Donovan Ling, a lone cop investigating a garbled transmission from the industrial town of Grinwood, you quickly find yourself alone and fighting to survive a relentless zombie invasion. This mod is packed with astounding visuals of a city gone to hell, and a chilling original soundtrack accompanies you as you battle your way through more than 20 harrowing and atmospheric maps. Despite an arsenal of deadly weapons and melee attacks, you’ll never really have time to catch your breath.
Link: Natural Selection site
With one team playing marines and the other playing aliens, Natural Selection converts Half-Life into a multiplayer hybrid of first-person shooting and realtime strategy. It brought to life the concept of a commander in an FPS: a sole player who views the map in top-down fashion, giving orders, issuing supply drops, and managing the map in a traditional RTS fashion. The aliens have no overlord or shared resources, so must rely on communication if they want to win. Despite big differences in the two teams’ abilities and tactics, the mod remains a tightly balanced experience.
Link: Team Fortress ModDB page
Long before it evolved into a cartoony hat-trading simulation, Team Fortress was a mod for Quake. It originally featured five classes, later blossoming into the full iconic nine we’re familiar with today, and even provided a tenth class, the civilian, playable during VIP escort missions. Instead of just red and blue teams, certain maps for TF included two additional teams, green and yellow, struggling for map control and engaging in capture the flag games. The mod’s popularity led to a proper release and, much later, the Team Fortress 2 we know today, although the original mod is still played on a few servers.
Link: The Nameless Mod site
With a hundred new skins, sixty maps, custom cinematic sequences,and two storylines providing a hefty thirty hours of playtime, The Nameless Mod grew, over seven years of development, from something of an in-joke to a true mod masterpiece and Deus Ex fan favourite. Part homage and part satire, the mod sports thousands of lines of custom dialogue, tons of tweaks, and dozens of great new music tracks, not to mention books, newspapers and emails.