The Long War (XCOM: Enemy Within)
A longer, harder, and more gruelling variant on the fight for humanity Firaxis imagined - and one often recommended by its lead designer, Jake Solomon. The Long War makes hundreds of changes, from the large - an extended campaign, overhauled ship interception, new technologies and alien counter-research - to the small - English-accent soldiers voiced by YouTubers like Matt Lees.
Frontiersmanship doesn’t have to mean becoming a total luddite. ComputerCraft allows for the building of machines to automate mining and tree-chopping, control TNT cannons, generate cobblestone, play games and create password doors. And by the time you’ve got the hang of all of it, you’ll have learned a bit of programming to boot.
NeoTokyo (Half-Life 2)
One of the most visually distinctive Half-Life mods ever made, NeoTokyo takes its round-beginning respawn structure from Counter-Strike but has a cinematic flair all of its own. Locations recall the films of the Wachowskis - all moving trains and colourful, glass-filled lobbies. The pacing is slow and tactical, maps are geared towards ambushes and flanking, and death comes quick and easy.
Nehrim: At Fate’s Edge (The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion)
Developed by a German team behind two previous total conversions for Morrowind, Nehrim presents a world in the Oblivion engine that otherwise bears no relation to Tamriel. Disappointed with Bethesda’s Cyrodiilian adventure, Nehrim’s modders set out to build a landmass equal in size but more carefully cultivated than Oblivion’s. Its central plotline comprises 35 quests, and skill grinding is dropped in favour of a levelling and ‘learning point’ system inspired by the Gothic series.
Natural Selection (Half-Life)
This “first-person strategy” game has a standalone sequel on Steam - but the mod is still free and infused with the chunky charm of the Half-Life engine. It’s asymmetrical: one side must infest a spaceship as aliens, while the other works to counter them as marines. There’s a resource management system in play, and the call for real, RTS-style leadership from players on each team.
S.T.A.L.K.E.R. - Lost Alpha (Shadow of Chernobyl)
Lost Alpha is an unusual project - not so much about restoring a game to its former glory or finishing a developer’s work, but rather bringing a Chernobyl imagined in screenshots and previews to reality. S.T.A.L.K.E.R. was in the public eye for a long time - and once it was released, some fans decided they preferred the look of the game they’d seen in screenshots as early as 2002. Lost Alpha’s maps may share names and landmarks with locations in the finished game, but they’re often larger and more intricate.
Star Wars: Galactic Warfare (Call of Duty 4)
It started with a plan to replace Modern Warfare’s existing weaponry with a blaster model - and ended with proper Imperial Forces and Rebel Alliance factions, multiplayer map representations of Mos Eisly, Bespin, Tatooine’s Bestine and the Jundland Wastes, and airstrikes from Y-Wings and Tie Bombers. It’s flipping empire.
Brutal Doom (Doom)
Begun with the aim of making Doom even more visibly violent, it’s had the side effect of leaving id’s classic far more tactile and interactive. You can kick severed limbs and heads at enemies or to activate traps; push explosive barrels into complex arrangements to stage ambushes; and destroy practically every piece of scenery bar the walls.
Desert Combat (Battlefield 1942)
The toast of 2004 in PC gaming, Desert Combat took Iraq and the first Gulf War as its setting a full year before Battlefield 2 relieved the series of its M1 Carbines and marched it into the modern day. Still worth playing for its contorted urban environments and bombing runs through wispy cloud cover.
Third Age: Total War (Medieval II: Total War: Kingdoms)
A total conversion for Medieval II’s only expansion, Third Age rips the names on its campaign map from Tolkein’s pages and populates them with 14 factions, from the obvious likes of Gondor, Rohan and Isengard to the lesser-trod parts of the lore - the Orcs of Gundabad and the Elves of Arnor. Ents, Wargs and even sour old Sauron himself, meanwhile, have been known to tread the turf on the battlefield.