Monday, January 25, 2010

The Wonderful World of Third-Party Modding

I've been playing video games as long as I can remember. When I was seven or eight years old, I saved up my allowance for months so I could bum a ride from mom up to Funcoland and buy me a used Sega Genesis. Around the same time, one of my uncles gave my brother and I his old NES with a copy of Super Mario Bros. 3, which is easily one of the top five most good-old-fashioned-fun games in existence. That and Sonic the Hedgehog 2 made up an admittedly enormous part of my childhood.

So I guess you could say I was originally a console gamer. They have (correction: had) simple user interfaces and a gentle learning curve in most games, meaning that an interested and determined youngster like myself would have no trouble kicking Dr. Robotnik's ass out of Sonic's neighborhood. But then when I was about 11 or 12, a friend from school introduced me to the keystone of my future gaming career: Star Wars Dark Forces II: Jedi Knight. Being at the peak of my interest in Star Wars, this game had everything to satisfy my geek cravings -- spaceships, laser guns, and countless thousands of hapless stormtroopers just asking to be blasted to bits. But most importantly, it was the first first-person shooter to allow the player to become a Jedi Knight, and to wield a lightsaber. A lightsaber. Quake II, eat your heart out.

Needless to say, I bought myself a copy and didn't stop playing it (until the sequel came out). Since then I've expanded my library of PC games considerably, including most of the genres available -- first-person shooter, real-time strategy, RPG, etc. At some point along the line, though, I came across some intriguing downloads for Jedi Knight: player-created modifications that altered or added to the gameplay in some fashion. Some were more or less cosmetic, such as the ability to change your lightsaber color, or the outfit your character would wear. But others actually played around with the game mechanics, adding everything from new force powers to entirely new levels, some of which reproduced particular events from the Star Wars films. Memorable examples include Luke vs. Vader at Bespin, and the escape from the first Death Star. What's more, many of these mods were functional in multiplayer games, which added even more to the experience. The screenshot here is the finale of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, a user-created multiplayer level for Jedi Knight: Jedi Academy.

Of course, I began to search for mods for my other favorite games too, most notably Thief: The Dark Project and Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast. I was rewarded with more than enough great mods to give the games a whole new dimension of interest, dramatically increasing their replay value. Indeed, some of the mods make their respective games significantly better by adding features that felt missing from the original. Many mods for JKII add Force powers that were seen in the films, but were for one reason or another not included in the stock version of the game; mods for Star Trek: Bridge Commander add new ships and new star systems from the vast canon Star Trek has to offer.

Some modders take these additions to the next level, combining many smaller mods into one big package. This often has the effect of drastically improving upon a game that has become outdated in its features and graphics or did not meet player expectations to begin with. Such is the case with the Koba yashi Maru mod for Bridge Commander, a "total conversion" that adds dozens of features to what was already an enjoyable game, though seriously undercooked. Now I can board and capture enemy wessels, or command the USS Enterprise-A and a fleet of Federation ships against a Borg Cube, or conduct systematic phaser sweeps of nearby space in the hopes of finding the Bird of Prey that can fire while cloaked (an experience every Trekkie should have at some point). Another fine example is Oscuro's Oblivion Overhaul, which as the name suggests, completely alters the gameplay of The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. This one is perhaps the most impressive modding effort I've ever come across -- it adds literally thousands of new weapons, characters, factions, etc. to already massive game. And more importantly, it corrects some serious inconsistencies in the leveling system that have turned many players away from an otherwise beautifully constructed game (read an interview with the author, "Oscuro," on said issues here). It also makes the game a lot harder, which is good for those of you who were confused at the fact that a level 2 player could stomp the crap out of end-game enemies just because stock Oblivion levels its baddies concurrently with you. It's worthwhile to point out that, though Oblivion is more or less the same on all systems it appears on, only the PC version can be altered to the user's wishes.

Further still, some gamers have taken it upon themselves to expand on the virtual world of a given game by adding some brilliant story-based content. Thief: The Dark Project and Thief II: The Metal Age are two of my favorite games ever, and luckily there have been plenty of devoted taffers out there who learned to code in the Dark Engine and have produced the largest third-party library of single-player content I've ever seen, and is still being added to today (the original Thief came out in 1998). These fan-made missions have kept us all from enacting our larcenous virtual lifestyles in reality, because unfortunately the games' parent company, Looking Glass Studios, went bankrupt shortly after releasing the second title. Another sequel, Thief: Deadly Shadows, was produced a few years later, but it was far inferior to its predecessors, despite having more advanced technology at its disposal. Though a fourth is reportedly in the works at Eidos Montreal, we're all aching to relieve some more noblemen of their priceless valuables in a more updated graphics engine.

Well, until "Thi4f" arrives, we can be satisfied with The Dark Mod, which uses the Doom 3 engine to create an almost-perfect clone of Thief II, but with superior physics and graphics (pic at right). The level-editing program can also be downloaded, meaning that anyone with the persistence to learn how to use it can make their own missions and post them to the Dark Mod website (this is also true of the level editors for Thief and Thief II). Another similar such effort is Thievery UT, a multiplayer Thief game built on top of Unreal Tournament that pits players against each other as either thieves or guards. Their respective goals are simple: thieves steal stuff, guards try to stop them. It incorporates all the classic elements of the Thief series into the gameplay: a lightgem to let players know how visible they are, noise-based detection, and an array of different sorts of arrows to aid you in your burgling (water arrows to put out torches, rope arrows for hard-to-reach places, etc.). To my knowledge, there is no commercially-available PC game that includes stealth-based multiplayer.

Even more impressive, though, are games that are built entirely from scratch. Some fantastic examples include Mount&Blade, a third-person medieval combat simulator (see picture), and Star Trek: Excalibur, a forthcoming title that was originally intended as a mod for Bridge Commander, but was upgraded to eventually become a completely fan-made Star Trek game. (The visuals provided for this one so far are positively stunning.) These mods and user-created games are usually free, and if not, they're very affordable (a permanently valid serial key for Mount&Blade, which gives you access to the current game and all subsequent updates, will cost you only about $30, a little over half the price of a new retail PC game these days). This means that the developers are basically working pro bono to release some really phenomenal work.

All this geeking out really does have a purpose, besides letting you know about the incredible mods I've found over the years. I want to point out that while the video game industry has become intensely commercialized over the past five to ten years, which has in many cases led to decreased quality of the products (see: pretty much any movie tie-in game ever made), there are still communities of gamers out there who do this because they love gaming and they want to contribute to the overall experience of a certain game. In fact, it has often been the case that a modder will add incredible features to a game that, by all rights, the professional developers should've added in the first place (case in point: Bridge Commander vs. Kobayashi Maru). Many of the fan-made missions for the Thief games are arguably better than some of the originals. I think it's important that all gamers appreciate and utilize the truly massive community of computer game modding, not only because it can renew an aging game's lease on life, but also because PC games are the only kind where user modification is even possible at this point in time. Let's be perfectly clear: the level of customization in any PC game is limited only by the game engine in question and the user's determination in learning to modify the code. So until the Xbox 360 or PS3 lets me fly a Borg Cube against the Death Star, I won't even consider buying a console.

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