Dec 21, 2012
Running a website called Dead End Thrills (about pictures of grafix), I spend a lot of time playing with visual mods. When PCG asked me to list my favourites from 2012, I agreed thinking I could do it in the style of the prize round from Bullseye. "You'll be up all night 'cause it don't look like shite." "Act well-heeled with this depth-of-field." But that wouldn't work overseas, they said, and stopped being funny after two examples.
Here's a straightforward top ten, then, in no particular order.
Battlefield 3 screenshot by Jim Snook (jim2point0)
No sooner had Nvidia's Timothy Lottes introduced FXAA (a 'fast approximate' antialiasing solution effective, unusually, upon deferred rendering and shader aliasing) than 'some dude' (their username - bet it's a lady) weaponised it into a DLL injector for most DirectX games. Copy it into the same folder as the game's binary and it hooks the calls to DirectX, softening the edges most AA methods can't reach.
Then things got interesting. Tonemapping, digital vibrance, luma sharpening and other neat effects got thrown into the mix, giving us the power to customise the look of most modern games. It's also one of the most reliable, no-nonsense screen capture tools: just hit your assigned hotkey and a lossless image plops into the game's folder.
Christian Jensen's SweetFX is the next evolution. Using SMAA for antialiasing, its features include S-Curve contrast adjustment and a filmic Cineon DPX treatment. Popular presets for these injectors include the Mass Effect 3 'Illumination' mod and James Snook's work with Borderlands 2 and Dishonored. When it comes to cheap, powerful tweaks to colour, image quality and luminosity, PC gamers have never had it so good.
Smarteck's Mass Effect 3 textures
Back in February, the official Mass Effect Twitter account confirmed that “when the full game releases, hi-res textures will be built into the game!” And so we learned that when BioWare uses an exclamation mark, it's because it can't quite believe what it's saying - because it isn't true. Altogether now: 'Crikey, these textures are taking a while to update. Oh, they have updated and the costumes still look like Ceefax.'
Some months later Smarteck, a member of BioWare's long-suffering community forum, has led an effort to retexture not just Mass Effect 3 but all of its DLC as well. Inspired by the sterling efforts of 'Jean-Luc' with his ME2 textures, he's made the game's costumes and environments palatable, if not strictly 'hi-res'. Some detail texturing here and artistic licence there can't always cover the initial upscaling that's gone on.
The other quirk is that you need ancient memory patcher Texmod to actually inject the stuff into the game. It adds something in the region of ten minutes to the initial load time and can cause issues of varying severity if you try and inject too much. All of that said, it has the not-insignificant effect of making the game compatible with your eyes.
Durante's 'DSFix' for Dark Souls
Screenshot by Midhras
I'm going to paraphrase a bit here. From Software: "We can't do it." NeoGAF poster Durante: "I bet I can do it in half an hour." 23 minutes later: "Look at that! Sometimes I surprise even myself." An awkward silence now follows into eternity, save for all the whooping and cheering of users who'd just about written off the PC port of the magnificent Dark Souls.
Unlocking the game's internal frame buffer with his 'DSFix', Durante revealed assets that were clearly fit for more than pitiful sub-720p rendering. Then, among other things, he added ambient occlusion, uncapped the framerate and improved the game's texture filtering. And there was much rejoicing - and nagging for further features.
It's hard to recall a PC version that's been rescued from the brink of utter rejection quite like Dark Souls, and certainly not rescued by players themselves. The wrong lighting model going into Resident Evil 4, the performance tailspin of DX11 Arkham City: such things are usually patched with some urgency by the developers. Souls fans had barely lit the torches, much less found the pitchforks and a way to still type, by the time the game was fixed.
ENB Series for Skyrim and Fallout 3
Outspoken graphics programmer Boris Vorontsov might just be one of the most important people in PC gaming right now. No joke. His ENB wrappers and injectors have brought to many games the kind of generational leap in quality people expect from modern graphics cards, but seldom receive beyond those tech demos where fairies in Nvidia-branded loincloths ride turtles into battle with Decopunk death balloons. Those exist, right?
But where do you begin? Vorontsov has banned the hosting of his core dlls anywhere but on his own website; then you have the community-made presets. That's where effects like indirect lighting, subsurface scattering and complex ambient occlusion are wrangled into something complementing (or wildly departing, depending upon taste) the game's original look.
The last year has seen several masters of this bizarre artform emerge. In one niche you've got Midhras and his deep and luscious 'Midhrastic' presets for Skyrim and Fallout 3. In another, Trillville (aka Anthemios) and his muted but cinematic 'TV ENB', again for both games. And there's the fantastical (but surprisingly GPU-light) Seasons Of Skyrim by Bronze316. There's loads, basically, so get looking.
Sikkmod/Wulfen's Textures for Doom 3
Additional screens: 1, 2 and 3.
Not strictly from this year but here by virtue of significant recent updates. If Rage left you questioning the genius/foresight/influence/marbles of one John Carmack, let the properly modded Doom 3 splash all over your grumpy face like a hyper-demonic poo pump (or whatever those things are).
To put it really crudely, user Sikkpin brings the effects while Wulfen (and to a lesser extent another modder called Monoxead) brings the textures. There's a lot more to it, though. Sikkmod adds a beautifully implemented list of options to the game's menu, letting you toggle but also heavily customise things like ambient occlusion, colour grading, bloom and HDR. The icing on the cake, though, is the experimental parallax occlusion mapping (POM).
Given supporting ultra-quality textures like Wulfen's, POM adds a relatively primitive relief effect to the game's grungy surfaces. It's also an effect, though, that makes you want to reach out and touch all the stuff you really don't want to have on your fingers. The caveat - and it's a big one - is that it's far more demanding and less reliable than tessellation in a DX11 game. When the effect breaks, it breaks bad. Still worth it? Absolutely.
REX: Real Environment Xtreme
Alternative screens: 1 and 2
Of course you're aware that the flight sim community takes things rather seriously. Where modding is concerned, they build planes like they're actually building planes. The manual for one of these suckers is bigger than the manual for my car; in fact, the 2005 Honda Jazz feels less realistic all round. Meanwhile, when these modders are building the weather, they do it better than God. His clouds have been rubbish for years.
You'll get the lot if you invest the considerable time and money required by Flight Simulator X and its biggest mod, Real Environment Xtreme. The latest version is called REX Essential and is soon to be improved by REX Essential Overdrive. Assuming your mind can handle something so essentially overriding, what that gives you is almost 10gb of clouds, runways, dawns, dusks, reefs, waves... an awful lot of photorealistic stuff.
The way the mod works is to build a weather profile for the particular flight you add to your planner. It takes a while to import the necessary textures and runs a background app to keep track of them, but it's well worth the rigmarole. Add it to things like TileProxy and a high-fidelity terrain mesh and you have a game that makes Microsoft Flight look like... well, Microsoft Flight.
Screenshot from Morrowind Overhaul site.
The heart says Skywind but the head says Morrowind Overhaul, the one you can actually play. The magpie in me likes Skywind’s shiny stuff, but the historian bristles at the idea of just transplanting Morrowind into the framework and tech of a really quite different game. Not that it stopped the Dragonborn DLC, but that's not quite the same thing.
The screenshots of Skywind are marvellous, of course, in that specific way that most ENB-assisted shots are. Beautiful art and beautiful technology on occasionally decent terms. Can the authors pull it off without inflicting a violent mood swing on the game? We're a long way from finding out: they just made the difficult decision to take several steps back in order to bypass some serious obstacles, and now there's just a skeletal worldspace to explore.
Morrowind Overhaul has had a lot longer to gather its greatest hits collection of mods for the original game. Crucially, it suffers none of the legal issues surrounding asset-porting that affect Skywind and its Oblivion-based predecessor, Morroblivion, so isn't such a kludge of community-only content. And hey, even if you don't like it, the divine beauty of its installer will still come to you in dreams.
GLSL shaders for Minecraft
When no one can even agree on Notch's motives for the game's look - I want to call it 'Voxel Art' but its polygons won't let me - you can imagine the confusion over how Minecraft should be modded. Maybe that's the beauty of it. At the very least you get the comedy of people striving to make it 'photorealistic', as if waiting for the mod that shrinks each block to 1 cubic pixel so they can make a perfect replica of Crysis.
Better, I think, to flatter the blocks without pretending they're something they're not. I'd love to see realtime radiosity in Minecraft but suspect my computer wouldn't. (You should have heard the noise while rendering these 4K screenshots.) What we do have, though, is the ongoing work on daxnitro's abandoned GLSL Shader mod. Some of it's awful, like the lens flare and depth of field effects, but you can turn those off in the shader files and still enjoy sumptuous light and shadowing.
What I was looking for was a realtime version of the renders described here. It warms me to know I'm still looking at a game. I have to warn you, though, that finding the right shaders for the right version of the mod, for the right version of Minecraft, was an utter chore. Each small update of Minecraft requires a new version of the mod, and each new version of the mod tends to break something, whether it's the lovely new water shader or Nvidia compatibility. It might not even work at all.
You need to learn this stuff for yourself, really, as there's a lot of trial and error. Start by reading the thread for Sonic Ether’s Unbelievable Shaders (SEUS). Then look at Sonic Ether’s updates page on Facebook and figure out why he chose such an abhorrent solution as Facebook for an updates page (hint: you can’t). If, like me at 2AM, you’ve followed all of these instructions and have more questions than answers, you could always try chocapic13’s preset here which I turned to in desperation, and which actually worked.
Crysis 2 MaLDoHD Mod
Screenshot from MaLDoHD site
Real soldiers don't look at the enemy, they look at the floor. They stand by their fallen comrades, lower their guns and think, "That is a dirty puddle, all right, but is it a wow puddle?" Then they get shot. Bleeding out, they look up at the sky and think, "No, those clouds aren't doing it for me at all. This is simply unacceptable."
Thanks to the jargon-tastic MaLDoHD mod, the shoegazing soldier doesn't have to die disillusioned any more. Fears that Crysis 2 would become any less MAXIMUM with age can be safely laid to rest.
He's suffered for his mod, this Maldo. His computer "burst" in October, reveals his blog, and some believed he was dead. So you'll just have to settle for the "1894 textures and 1297 materials" in the existing beta version of MaLDoHD; those, and all the effects such as SSDO, object tessellation and penumbra shadowing. Sucks, huh.
The RAR file is 1.5gb and expands to over 2gb. The configuration process remains, as even MAXIMUM GAMER Craig Pearson had to admit, "a bit of a faff". His install guide still applies, though, so check it out.
Deus Ex New Vision
Screenshot from Deus Ex New Vision ModDB page.
Any visual mod for Deus Ex has its work cut out. My lasting memory of the original graphics is how freshly waxed the floors looked, not how the characters resembled ice sculptures on a balmy day. Accept the rather mathematical art as a style choice, though, or a trade-off for the game’s complexities, and you’ve ticked the first box for installing New Vision.
As well as enabling DX10, New Vision gives most of the game’s textures a fourfold increase in size and quality, bringing them into line with a modern game. It does it by exploiting the seldom-used S3TC standard of the original Unreal Engine.
Installing it is simple, especially if you have the Steam version which includes the required patches. The single installer asks if you want to install a modified launcher (you do if you want FOV options and enhanced resolution options) on top of the new textures, then you just run the game as usual.
Sucked helplessly into Ion Storm's universe for what’s probably the tenth time, you might just realise that old geometry and HD textures aren’t always a bad combination. New Vision is the work of top-tier artists with an obvious respect for the source material, and these are genuine 1024x1024 textures rather than horrid upsamples. Rather than drag the game kicking and screaming into 2012, though, they invite you back to 2000 with augmented eyes.
So it turns out RAGE has DLC. DLC that's coming out a year after the game, with all the marketing bluster of a mouse's fart. But hey: we enjoyed RAGE back in the hazy mists of 2011, so perhaps it's time to get excited. Scorchers will set you back a relatively modest $4.99, and it's actually sounding pretty substantial, offering half-a-dozen new areas and a shiny (well, rusty) new gun, among other things.
Here's the skinny, from Bethesda's newly minted Scorchers webpage:
"Battle an all-new maniacal bandit clan, wreak havoc with new brutally efficient weapons and explore undiscovered areas in RAGE's new official add-on pack, RAGE: The Scorchers™. Fight alongside new allies to thwart the Scorcher clan's deadly plot to destroy the Wasteland. The add-on pack also includes 'Ultra-Nightmare', a new high difficulty mode, as well as an 'Extended Play' option that allows you to play past the original ending of the game - giving you the opportunity to finish collecting items and achievements."
So it seems almost akin to Fallout 3's Broken Steel expansion, offering up additional story quests and the ability to return to the world after the credits have rolled. Also of note: a new season of Mutant Bash TV, and a new Nailgun weapon with "three distinct ammunition types". It's hitting the post-apocalypse next week - Tuesday to be exact, three days before our own apocalyptic event.
Quake II was one of the first FPS epics to espouse the pristine logic of firing rockets at one's feet to jump higher. Id's memorable shooter didn't skimp on the bullet count either, and in celebration of its 15th anniversary yesterday, Creative Director Tim Willits shared a few did-you-knows (via Eurogamer) surrounding the art and multiplayer.
For instance, just three artists crafted the 2D and 3D visuals for Quake II's entirety, delivering an orange-tinged world of metal and flame shuddering beneath a massive human military offensive. An earlier suggested title for the game was WOR, but id changed the name after realizing Quake II's fast-paced action better suited the renowned series.
Lastly, Willits' multiplayer arena of choice, The Edge, hides over 50 trick jumps for handy hoppers, though Willits only designed two of them. The rest were discovered by early adopters of ye olde drum-and-bass jump videos.
The remainder of December holds further commemorations for PC gaming greats of the 1990s. WarCraft II hits 17 in just two days, with id following right behind with a 19-year-old Doom anniversary on Monday. Planescape: Torment, Black Isle's masterful RPG, turns 13 next Wednesday. Id returns yet again with tough platformer Commander Keen's 22nd birthday on the 17th, and nothing boosts holiday cheer like the sorcerous cultists of Raven Software's Heretic which dings 18 on the 23rd.
Dec 5, 2012
The team over at RGB Classic Games is giving us our nostalgia fixes in the form of Java-based DOS emulation. They currently host over 300 games from days of yore including Doom, Commander Keen, Earthworm Jim, and many more that didn't get spotlighted because they were too far down the alphabetically-organized page. And it's totally free.
It almost seems too good to be true. You might expect the hammer of legal action to be looming just above the dusty library of classics, but the site's intentions appear noble. As it explains: "The highest ideals of this site are to support the authors by providing links to their web sites and ordering information for the full versions of games that are still sold, and to encourage the authors of classic games to preserve their games for future generations by making them available for sale or as freeware. If you enjoy a shareware game, please consider buying it from the author.
"All of the games on this site are freely distributable because they are shareware, freeware, or because the copyright holder has officially and legally released all rights to the public domain (abandonware)."
Assuming that's the case, the site shouldn't see any problems, but if it does offend a copyright holder, we'd expect a simple removal of the game in question to suffice. Cue up some Nirvana and have a look for yourself.
Clear your schedule and make room on your hard drive: there are over 9000 mods up for consideration as ModDB's 2012 Mod of the Year award nominees, and only a little over five days to nominate them. A big green button on each mod's page makes it hard to miss the opportunity to give your favorites a bump.
There isn't much time, so we'll get straight to it after this obligatory acknowledgement that we said "over 9000" on the internet: tee hee, references. Moving on, DayZ and Black Mesa are tough to ignore, and The Sith Lords Restored Content Mod was a valiant community effort. Those might be the most talked about and praised mods this year, and we expect they'll secure nominations, but there are so many more that deserve recognition. Which are you voting for?
If you need a refresher, you might want to browse our recent mod coverage to see if you've missed any driving elephants or My Little Pony conversions.
In the beginning, there was Doom 3. And it was not particularly well-received, on account of that gun/flashlight blunder. Then, after a long time, Doom 3 came back again as the BFG Edition, just in time to see its older version yanked from the face of Steam. Now, at last, this epic tale comes to its thrilling conclusion, because Bethesda have seen sense and put original game back on sale. Hooray!
Doom 3 can now be yours for £5.99, or £7.99 if you want the Resurrection of Evil expansion thrown in too. There are around 92 reasons why you might want the original game rather than the BFG do-over, and they're all listed on the game's Moddb page. Of particular note is The Dark Mod, the ambitious total conversion that transforms Doom 3 into Thief.
In the word of Dethklok frontman Nathan Explosion: "Brutal." Originally released in March, the Brutal Doom mod furnishes Doom's buckets of blood, steaming guts, and ultra-violence with a critically missing element: more buckets of blood, steaming guts, and ultra-violence. We're talking extreme Chunky Salsa Rule here. A freshly spawned Halloween update provides custom fatality animations as you RIP AND TEAR into Hell's minions.
Helmed by the one-man efforts of Sergeant Mark IV, Brutal Doom doesn't just coat everything in strawberry juice. The mod also augments weapon and projectile behavior to react slightly more realistically—slightly; you're still fighting demonic hellspawn in a box in space—such as inflicting harmful splash damage to yourself if you're too close to a wall. Stealth kills and movable barrels are also possible. Headshots count. Limbs sever.
"Everything in Brutal Doom is extremely intense," the good Sergeant writes. "Everything sounds louder, looks bigger, moves faster, and hits harder. The camera shakes every time something explodes near you. Enemies are harder and smarter, and weapons and explosions are loud as fuck.
"Some enemies will scream in anguish and try to crawl away when near death, and they can be used as human shields. Blood will drip through your visor every time you shoot enemies too close."
Doom 3: BFG Edition leapt from the shadows last week and brought along a new 7-level segment, improved visuals, and the unfathomable technological leap of attaching a flashlight to your weapons. Yet, replacing it in the shadows is the original version of id's jumpy FPS which quietly exited Steam, Green Man Gaming, and other digital shops, an otherwise inconsequential swap blemished by BFG Edition's lack of support for previously published mods due to its updated engine tech.
Eurogamer reports that the $100 Super id Software Pack was the sole alternative for purchasing Doom 3 post-BFG, but that also apparently disappeared sometime this week. GameFly, however, is still offering Steam codes for the original. A few gamers expressed concern over becoming locked out of Doom 3's extensive mod collection, but a Bethesda rep told Eurogamer the studio is "looking into" solutions in the short term.
If Dishonored has put you in a stealthy mood, you might want to check out The Dark Mod, the ambitious total conversion that takes the sneaky spirit of the Thief games and splatters it all over Doom 3. As RPS note, the mod - which doesn't so much remake the original Thiefs (Thieves?) as use their mechanics to tell new fan stories - has just been updated to version 1.08. Among many other things, the update notes boast of richer audio, AI improvements, and an updated training mission.
The Dark Mod team are slowly working on making the game standalone, but until they replace all of the Doom 3 assets, you're going to need that installed in order to play. (The recently released BFG Edition won't work, by the way.) It doesn't require that much effort to get The Dark Mod working and, once installed, you'll have access to a whole library of Thief fan missions, some of which compare favourably with the real thing. You can see a video of one of these below.
Doom 3 BFG edition is out this week, which makes it the perfect week for a Doom 3 BFG launch trailer. The repackaged, updated version of Doom 3 comes with 3D vision support and a new seven-level segment called The Lost Mission. The Resurrection of Evil expansion pack is included, along with Doom and Doom 2. The whole package is available at a budget £20 / €30 price point.
it sounds like Doom 3 has been significantly polished up with "improved rendering and lighting," more sensibly placed checkpoints and, countering one of the biggest points of contention, an armour-mounted flashlight. That should stop you from having to constantly choose between being able to see and being able to defend yourself. You can absorb some of that information in visual form with bonus demons in the launch trailer below.