Monday, August 3, 2009

Mod Nation

No, not that ModNation (although their offices are just down the street from Hothead ...). I spent most of my gaming time this weekend playing some excellent Source mods. In addition to a few I'd played earlier this year, I think you should probably play them too, if you haven't.

Dear Esther

Dear Esther is an atmospheric ghost story set on a barren Hebridean island. It's haunting in its emptiness, outstanding in its audio (both music and voice acting) and commendable in its focus. It's about walking where someone else did before and it does so in a very classic horror story way.

Dear Esther was created by Dan Pinchbeck, an interactive media professor at the University of Portsmouth. His next project, Korsakovia, is currently scheduled for release this month. I was introduced to Dear Esther by Lewis Denby's excellent piece on RPS and shortly after, Gamasutra ran a great interview with the creator. Both are very spoiler-y, so I'd finish the mod first.

Lewis comments about the game being mod-characteristically broken are unfortunately quite accurate. The first version I downloaded was actually impossible to finish due to a bug and even patched, it has some usability issues. The audio voiceovers will play on top of each other if encountered too quickly. Paradoxically, there are other areas of the mod that are far too long and involve staring at the same ground texture wishing you had a sprint ability.

But despite these few issues, Dear Esther nailed an atmosphere that supports the game's core themes in a way far too few big-budget commercial games have. I highly suggest you give it a patient look, because there's something very outstanding going on with Dear Esther if you take the time to find it.

Dear Esther can be downloaded here.

Research and Development

Released in mid July, Research and Development is a mod overflowing with terrifically clever physics puzzles. Readability problems that make a puzzle seem unfair are few and far between. Over the two-ish hours it took me to finish, I only had to pull up their walkthrough videos twice. And one was just because a door was very poorly illuminated and I completely failed to notice it. It's got a bit of a sense of humour to it, especially with the microwave interactions and the final sequence in the game.

Again, RPS writes about it here and while their "FPS adventure game" description feels a bit inaccurate to me, they're also all over R&D.

All in all, it's a brilliant use of the physics-heavy Source engine. It's all the great environment action of Half-Life without any of the gunplay.

Research and Development can be downloaded here.


NeoTokyo is the Source remake of an old Half-Life of the same name. I remember playing the original mod, and maybe it's just memory fog, but I remember the original being a bit more fast-paced. This version of NeoTokyo definitely has the pacing and dynamics of Counter-Strike. If you enjoy the latter, you'll likely enjoy the former.

I'm wishing I could enjoy NeoTokyo more than I do, but I'm just not that fond of Counter-Strike's dynamics. There's a lot of camping, and by extension, a lot of waiting when you do die. I suppose it's a testament to Team Fortress 2's Arena mode, where I never feel like I'm waiting for an inordinate amount of time. But playing NeoTokyo makes me wish I had a book or my DS while waiting to respawn.

The aesthetics are fantastic, clearly heavily inspired by Ghost in the Shell and Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex. For a community mod, the environments are great to look at (character models don't read very well though). The soundtrack is amazing and a steal at only $10. I really like the abilities, including the thermoptic camouflage (e.g. cloaking) and heavy emphasis on squad-based play.

I imagine I would enjoy NeoTokyo a lot more if I was playing with a group of friends rather than random Internet strangers. But if you're at all a fan of Counter-Strike/Rainbow Six style shooters, I'd highly suggest giving it a look.

NeoTokyo can be downloaded here.


Radiator is an intentionally artsy and symbolic mod. The creator's plan is to release a series of volumes, each of which will contain three issues. So far, two issues of the first volume have been released, Polaris and Handle With Care. They are both excellent, but I must confess I prefer Polaris.

Polaris is striking in its simplicity. It isn't overly simple. Rather it focuses on a single (and very unusual) interaction. I was born and raised in Wyoming and literally the only thing I miss about living there is the night sky. Living in Vancouver, the stars are minimal and muted. We had a big trampoline at my house growing up and I remember one summer myself and several friends all slept on it one night, under the stars. Enough being wistful, but suffice to say, I've got a soft spot for the night sky and Polaris hit it dead centre. But it's also so very, very effective. It knows exactly what it wants to do and does it, without getting diluted as so many other games (even small projects) do.

Handle with Care also has a fantastic premise. The interaction is an increasingly devilish puzzle, with one aggravating fault. There's a vocal track that loops continually and it becomes *very* annoying very quickly. Nails-on-a-chalkboard bad. I realize there's an intended effect with that, but I wish the author had done something more interesting with it. And it stands, it's an awful accompaniment to some puzzles that themselves are a little fidgety and frustrating.

Handle with Care is fantastic, don't get me wrong. The presentation is great and the intertwining of the gameplay and metaphor works really well. And it isn't pretentious from end to end (take a look at the Id magazine cover).

Of all these mods, I'd suggest playing Radiator above all the others. There are at least two ends to each of the Radiator issues, perhaps more, and Handle with Care really makes you work for one of them.

Radiator can be downloaded here (includes Polaris and Handle with Care).

If last year was the summer of downloadable indie games, might this year be the summer of mods? If Pinchbeck manages to get out Korsakovia, I don't see how it couldn't be.

Are there any other fantastic mods absent that I should know about? If so, let me know post-haste.

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