How fans are keeping great old games alive
30th Oct 2009 | 14:20
Remakes, reworkings and downright copies of old favourites
The PC's got a phenomenal, unparalled history as a gaming platform – a good two decades of wonder and weirdness.
The trouble is half it a) looks like ass on high-res displays b) plays like ass due to ancient interfaces c) flat-out won't work on our fancy modern operating systems. Crazy fans to the rescue!
Pretty much any game with even a trace element of cult status retains a fiercely dedicated community striving to keep it alive into infinity.
From the silent devotion of artists making sharp new textures to the modern world-sucks, hyper-defensiveness of oldschool Fallout fans, there's a vast world of tech-curates keeping their cause celebre in perfect working order.
Here's just a few of the most fascinating and/or accomplished attempts to do the Lazarus thing on your favourite games…
Bold/insane attempts to rebuild classic games from scratch
UFO: Enemy Unknown (aka X-COM: UFO Defense) is basically the greatest game ever made, and if you don't agree you're a big dumb poohead. Many others do agree, and are working on a bunch of projects to bring the old strategy/roleplaying/management/alien-shooter kicking and screaming into the 21st century.
UFO 2000 is the current leading light, though unlike its noble forebear, it's solely a multiplayer game. There's also no Geoscape/base mode at present, but the team are actively looking for help creating one – fancy a crack yourself?
On the other hand – online multiplayer in X-COM! This is dream come true territory. It's also worth keeping an eye on another (but as yet unreleased) remake project, Cydonia's Fall.
Sid Meier's turn-based strategy babies Civilization and Colonization have both enjoyed official sequels, but a certain degree of feature creep for the former and compromise for the latter have understandably irked the purists.
Freeciv and Freecol intend to recreate the original games to a tee, only augmented by modern interface values and online multiplayer. While the community-made graphics might lack the cartoony charm of their DOSian predecessors, the remakes are impressively slick and otherwise complete, and both enjoy regular updates. Also: free. It's hard to overstate the importance of that.
Rumours of an official Syndicate remake by Starbreeze, the Chronicles of Riddick chaps, continue to swirl, but let's be honest – given their FPS tendencies, it's highly unlikely it'll be a top-down squad-strategy game like its parent.
Step forward Freesynd, an early but hugely promising attempt to recreate the original satirical, sadistic, dystopic squad game. It's only a couple of levels for now, but it does include almost all the sound effects of the original game, as well as the intro and nostalgia-inducing Bullfrog logos.
Thief: The Dark Mod
Half remake and half sequel, this aims to bring the values of the original two Thief stealth games into the e'erimpressive spooks 'n' shadows of the still robust Doom 3 engine. The team are very careful to avoid copyright infringement, so don't expect to see master tea-leaf Garrett namechecked as such, or any borrowed assets, but it's definitely Thief.
A whole new Thief game, which is probably more exciting than a mere remake. It's very early days for it, but a beta release is due soon (there's a small alpha one already available) and it's already impressively unrecognisable as being Doom 3-based. (Thief: The Dark Mod homepage)
The firm-chinned granddaddy of real-time strategy has never been bested in terms of out and out thematic appeal (three intergalactic houses warring over spice, on a planet infested with giant worms and crazy nomads who drink their own wee. Come on!) but its interface has aged horribly. No group select, no hotkeys, no building rotation…
It's genuinely, tragically a chore to play now. In a strange piece of ironic resonance, three fan remakes are vying for the right to be its heir.
Choose from Dune Legacy, which uses some of the original game's art and sound assets, Dune II: The Sleeper Has Awakened, a ground-up attempt to incorporate modern RTS interface/UI values, and Dune II: The Maker, eight years in the making but still in demo stage.
If you prefer your strategy a little more galactic, then you'll doubtless dig this free open-source space trading/colonisation and combat game 'inspired' (yeah, right) by the venerated Master of Orion series.
Its current v.03 release is deemed "essentially complete", but there are a ton of fixes, polishes and incidental features yet to come. Keep an eye on its progress at freeorion.org.
Railroad management games are thin on the ground in these days of hi-def manshoots, but this java-based remake of Railroad Tycoon might just scratch that itch of yours. It's even got online multiplayer built-in. Give it a whirl.
Original code playing nice with Windows XP and beyond
The Doomsday Engine
The original Doom's a curious game. At the time it was released, it was scary and pacey, but at some point in the last 15 years, as graphics have improved, it has became a high-speed, cartoon action game that feels endlessly fresh.
There's good reason why its community aren't prepared to let it fade away. Doomsday is huge, ambitious project that a) ensures it runs just dandy on modern operating systems and with modern controls b) optionally sparkles up the graphics into hardware accelerated, sharp edged 3D, dynamic lighting and, optionally, replacement character models and c) makes online multiplayer easy-peasy.
That said, the current king of deathmatch Doom is Skulltag. Doomsday has the added benefit of supporting Heretic, Hexen and Doom 2.
A virtual machine that's probably a little worried about itself now that Lucasarts has gradually begun remaking and re-releasing its classic early 90s adventure games, but until the likes of Sam & Max, Day of The Tentacle and the later Monkey Islands get an official spit 'n' polish, this is hands-down the best way to revisit them.
It's the beloved comedypuzzlers as they originally were, but with zero-compatibility problems and a raft of upscaling options for our gigantic contemporary monitors. ScummVM has lately expanded to support non-Lucasarts games of the era too – the likes of Beneath A Steel Sky, Gobliiins and Simon The Sorcerer are very much at home in it.
There are also ports for PDA, iPhone, DS et al, get it here.
Exult: Ultima VII
1992's seventh in Richard Garriot's high-fantasy Ultima series is still considered one of the role playing genre's highest watermarks, so its fans are resolute that it not be lost to history.
Exult doesn't do anything flashy, it simply gets this olden DOS game running as well as possible on today's PCs. It also fixes up a few bugs and back-ports new features from Ultima VII Part 2 to the first part, as well as introducing support for mods. You'll need the original Ultima VII date files to use it, but it's well worth an eBay-scour to discover quite how phenomenal a game it was. Get it here.
This is essentially a catch-all generalist project for any and every old DOS game that grumbles at modern Windows operating systems.
Unlike the new engines above, it doesn't do anything to the games bar run them well (most of 'em, anyway. it has a few blind spots, which are gradually being fixed), but that's enough to keep PC gaming's vast archive alive and playable to this day.
It does require a spot of command line action, but worry not - graphical frontends are available if you're an idiothole. Anyone with a genuine interest in PC gaming absolutely has to have this installed.
Slightly underwhelming sequel to beloved first-person-shooter series? No problem! Modders have addressed almost every annoyance of Doom 3, from the ridiculous inability to use a light at the same time as a weapon, to sorting out textures that have aged pretty terribly to adding the co-op mode that was so mysteriously absent from here and here.
Fake factory's Cinematic Mod performs wonders on the old Source engine. It manages to improve the lighting, bump up the visual detail and, a little controversially, replaces the Alyx character model with a more a realistic version, based on a choice of real-life models.
Rather tragically though, one of these does appear to have a see-through top. Simply leave that option off and enjoy a far more believable City 17.
Oh how we've waited for this one. Just a few weeks ago, our prayers came true: a mod that allows the definitive hack 'n' slash RPG to be played at resolutions above blocky, blurry 800 x 600. It looks crisp and lovely at high resolutions, but if the expanded world (and the limited light your character's sight radius casts over it) feels a bit too at odds with Diablo II's nature for you, what you will enjoy is being able to play the game in a window at last.
The bad news is that Blizzard's Battle.net system currently sees it as tampering with the game code and forbids online play while it's running. For single player fun though, it's perfect. Grab it from here.
Old games overhauled
Nips, tucks and retextures for gaming's recent past
A far more expansive, imaginative and, frankly, batshit-crazy RPG than its sequel Oblivion, but its spindly puppet-men and myopic draw distance have not aged well.
The modding community has done incredible things for it; replacing almost every texture in the game, new character models, the option to run it any resolution, add HDR and draw essentially the entire world at once. With a bit of legwork, Morrowind can be made to look as good as Oblivion in most ways, and even better in others.
It may not be quite as mad as its prequel, but Oblivion is still one of those games that can draw people back in time and again. The big problem for most people though was the levelling system.
Possibly designed to appeal to everyone, the system of levelling everything in the game to match your level meant that at the same time as being able to complete any quest or dungeon at any point in your character development it also meant that if you reached a high level, then so did all the little bandits, goblins and guardsmen.
Oscuro's Oblivion Overhaul though takes care of this by going through every NPC in the game and giving them a specific level cap. At the beginning this makes things double-hard, and you'll find yourself having to run away a lot, but it makes you pay more attention to the minutae of your avatar.
There's a whole host of other third-party mods built into the latest version of OOO, including a full worldwide economics system as well as a raft of cosmetic enhancements. Check it out here.
System Shock 2
Two complementary mods have kept the spiritual precursor to Bioshock alive and well. System Shock 2 Rebirthreplaces the blocky character models with smooth modern version – including, controversially, a monster with oversized ladylumps – while the Shock Texture Upgrade Project repaints walls and items with pin-sharp new textures.
Shock 2 remains an astonishing game, and these mods mean its peerlessly creepy atmosphere is relatively undiminished by the march of technological progress.
Also worth a look is System Shock Portable, which gets the first Shock to play nice with XP et al, and can even run from a flash drive – ideal for netbooks.
One of the finest single player role playing games ever made, at least in terms of narrative and emotional clout. What can change the nature of a man, it asks? Well, staring at pixels the size of baby's heads will probably drive any man to violence.
Fortunately the curiously understated Widescreen Mod changes all that. When this 2D game's hand-painted backdrops are stitched into hi-def versions, what its artists created becomes jawdropping.
The interface suffers a little at monster resolutions, but it scarcely matters when the landscapes are quite this imaginative and beautifully created. This mod also supports Baldur's Gate 1 and 2 and as well as both Icewind Dales.
Similar projects also exist for the original Fallout and Arcanum: of Steamworks and Magic Obscura.
Deus Ex: Invisible War/Thief 3
Some might claim that Deus Ex 2's graphics are the least of the immersive sim/FPS' problems. They might have a point. However, there's no denying that freeing the troubled sequel's visual technology from the constraints that were imposed on it by the original Xbox (the system it was primarily made for) helps make its world a whole lot more palatable.
John-P's vast collection of new textures comes to around 790 in total, and the effect upon the game is startling.
Thief: Deadly Shadows was perhaps in less need of a visual overhaul than most of these games (you spend most of the time in the dark, after all), but it definitely makes for a better-looking game overall, and will keep you busy until the Dark Mod is finished.
Protagonist Garrett in particular looks much more realistic, and the scarring around his false eye is impressively horrific. Grab both upgrade packs from here.
First published in PC Format Issue 231
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