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My own PC gaming experience is one defined as much by the big triple-A releases as it is the mods that have been created for them. I’d like to share with you some of the most significant of those mods, and thank the creators who made them what they are.
I still remember my first time diving into a Battlefield 1942 match, and being in awe of the fact that the plane which went whizzing overhead was being flown by a real person. But it wasn’t until I tried Desert Combat, which brought Battlefield 1942 into the modern era and turned that plane into an AC-130 gunship, that I got my first taste of where PC multiplayer gaming would be headed for the next decade. Pretty much all multiplayer shooters of significant scale today can be traced back to Desert Combat, and deservedly so.
As much as I enjoyed Desert Combat, and its direct influence on the modern era that Battlefield would travel to for its second instalment, I didn’t fall deep into a multiplayer mod until Project Reality came around. This hardcore realism mod didn’t just remove enemy indicators and up bullet damage – it required you to specialise loadouts and communicate as a squad in a way that only hardcore military sims demand. I even made a video series chronicling our squad’s matches – check out a super old episode below, from before YouTube had widescreen!
Max Payne’s obvious influence, The Matrix, only imparted one iconic aspect to the third-person shooter – slow-motion bullet effects. To complete The Matrix influence, Max Payne needed kung fu – and so that’s exactly what this mod added. Though it didn’t fit the game’s hard-boiled noir tones, the kung fu moves were incredibly fun to use – and actually complemented the game’s shoot-dodging perfectly. Unofficially, this mod is the best way to replay Max Payne.
Mods don’t need to be as grandiose and large scale as the ones I’ve listed here – sometimes they can just be a single level, with a single premise, but done so well that they don’t need anything else. That’s exactly what The Ladder map for Jedi Outcast was: a single, circular arena that spawned increasingly difficult waves of lightsaber-wielding enemies to throw yourself against. The Ladder was what everyone wanted from a Star Wars game at the time: the ultimate lightsaber-duel gauntlet. Pro-tip: enable dismemberment for truly authentic Star Wars imagery.
Despite the ridiculous premise of The Nameless Mod – in which you visit the physical manifestation of an internet forum to solve a Deus Ex-like conspiracy riddled with stale memes – it actually exemplified the gameplay and structure that made Deus Ex great. It arguably surpasses Deus Ex in some ways, chief among them being the ability to actually stick with an in-game faction throughout the entire game, and see the story branch as a result. Who’d have thought a mod could be more Deus Ex, than Deus Ex?
While pining for a modern follow-up to the classic Thief games, I came across this Doom 3 mod which turned the amazing lighting and shadowing (at the time) of the id Tech 4 engine into a stealthy first-person sneak-‘em-up. What those original Thief games had in spades was atmosphere, and The Dark Mod effortlessly recaptured that with a fidelity and a few new surprises that make this one of the most accomplished total conversions in existence. Here’s a playthrough I recorded a few years ago.
There’s little I can say about DayZ that hasn’t already been said, but it’s only while writing this list that, in retrospect, it combines aspects from many of my favourite mods into one intoxicating package. There’s the modern-era weaponry and vehicles. The requirement to communicate with one-another as a tight-knit squad. The pitch-black darkness, permadeath, and sound mechanics that trigger zombies encourage stealth at all times. And the fact that all of these combined create some unforgettable emergent stories that you feel emotionally invested in. Enjoy one of my favourite sessions below, in which we went from nothing, to fighting another squad in a helicopter. Crazy stuff.