Blockbuster games like DOTA, Counter-Strike and DayZ have are all connected by the fact that they started off as total conversion mods. These are labours of love created by code-savvy fans who one day thought ‘What would ARMA be like with zombies?’ or ‘How would Warcraft III play if I controlled just the one hero?’
From these little kernels of inspiration, a phenomena were born.
But we’re going to put aside those success stories for now, and look at the best total conversion mods that are still completely free. After years of work and hundreds of hours of development, these mods are so well crafted that if you squint just a little, you may just mistake them for full standalone games.
The ability to completely transform your existing game into an entirely new one using total conversion mods is yet another reason why gaming on PC is so good. So, as part of our PC Gaming Week 2018, here's our pick of the best total conversion mods you can install and play right now for free.
1. A Game of Thrones - Crusader Kings II
Released not long after Crusader Kings 2 itself, A Game of Thrones (opens in new tab) is not only a perfect fit for the mechanics of Paradox’s feudal grand strategy game, but hands down the best video-game set in George R.R. Martin’s blockbuster fantasy world.
A Game of Thrones may sometimes appear to be all battles and dragons and bad language, but really it’s a saga of political intrigue, scheming and Machiavellian plotting; who should be married off to whom, and for what gain? What would assassinating a certain lord do to your claim on their land? How do you clamber your way up the feudal ladder to get to the Iron Throne?
Its themes meld perfectly with Crusader Kings II (opens in new tab), and this mod realises George R.R. Martin’s world right down to the writing and the topographical lay of the land.
And yes, of course there are dragons...
2. Enderal - The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
One of the most polished total conversion mods ever made, Enderal (opens in new tab) could just about pass off as its own triple-A game.
German developer SureAI (who also made stunning Oblivion mod Nehrim (opens in new tab)) pulled out all stops, writing and voicing tens of hours of dialogue (that arguably outdoes Skyrim (opens in new tab)’s oft-risible script), and painstakingly building a beautiful new world that offers around 100 hours of content.
Within Skyrim’s rather action-orientated engine, Enderal manages to find its own identity, and in many ways harks back to old-school RPGs; it’s tough, with a traditional levelling system, no fast travel, and slow pacing, while offering a powerful story that often ventures into darker, more mature territory than Skyrim’s mass-market take on high fantasy.
3. Gekokujo - Mount & Blade: Warband
Mount & Blade: Warband (opens in new tab) is the quintessential feudal sandbox, letting you create a character in a central-European kingdom and build them up into a roving mercenary, a heroic commander or, ultimately, a lord who answers to no one. You go about this through a messy, delightful mix of direct combat, RTS-like strategising, and RPG-like decision-making.
Gekokujo (opens in new tab) takes all that, and whisks it off to Sengoku-era Japan. The world map spans the entire Land of the Rising Sun, complete with major kingdoms, villages, cities, holdings, and lords for you to saddle up with (before, inevitably, betraying them).
Weapons, armour, clothing and architecture are faithful to the setting, and a whole world of dialogue and events has been written to convincingly migrate the inimitable Warband formula to the Far East.
4. X-COM/UFO: Enemy Unknown - X-Piratez
The original 1994 turn-based squaddie alien shooter X-COM UFO: Enemy Unknown has been kept alive thanks to the OpenXcom Extended (opens in new tab) open-source project. Based on this, X-Piratez (opens in new tab) is a fascinating piece of punky fan-fiction set in the same universe, borrowing ideas and mechanics from the whole gamut of X-COM games.
Set in a future where the X-COM resistance was crushed by the alien invaders, X-Piratez casts you as a buccaneering crew of space-pirates, robbing settlers and plundering ships until the intriguing plot inevitably brings you into contact with greater threats.
With its unique arsenal of makeshift weaponry, fresh tech tree and lowlife factions, it all feels refreshingly scrappy compared to the high-tech shenanigans of the mainline series.
5. Underhell - Half-life 2
From Black Mesa to Garry’s Mod, by way of Natural Selection, Half-life 2 (opens in new tab) has been the launchpad for several successful mods that went on to become fully fledged games. One of the ones that never made the jump, however, was Underhell (opens in new tab).
Following a psychologically-spiraling S.W.A.T. operative who’s struggling to deal with his wife’s death, Underhell is part puzzler, part horror, part bullet-time shooter that’s thick in atmosphere and experimental storytelling.
The action flows like a fever dream between a dreamworld, spooky home and vicious action, making Underhell stand alongside The Stanley Parable as one of the more artful Half-life 2 mods.
Sadly, only one of the intended six episodes of Underhell was ever made, with developer We Create Stuff’s priorities shifting to other projects in recent years.
6. The Dark Mod (Thief) - Doom 3
The Thief IP, once revered for its revolutionary stealth mechanics and level design, was run into the ground with the facile 2014 reboot. Luckily, The Dark Mod (opens in new tab), a total conversion mod for Doom 3 (opens in new tab), is as fine a spiritual successor to the original games as you could ask for.
The Dark Mod eschews combat and action in favour of good old-fashioned stealth.
Stick to the rafters, extinguish candles with water arrows, and loot the rich and wealthy of a brooding steampunk city that’s somewhere between the worlds of Thief and Dishonored. The base mod (now standalone) is just the tip of the arrow, as it’s bolstered by hundreds of excellent community-made levels.
7. The Lord of the Rings: The Third Age - Medieval II: Total War
There’s no shortage of Middle-Earth-themed mods out there, but, like Gandalf at a Hobbiton pipeweed convention, this one stands tall among them.
So complete and detailed is The Third Age - from Rohirrim shield crests to the city layout of Osgiliath - that seven years on, it remains the most popular LoTR mod for Total War (opens in new tab).
It’s spawned a slew of sub-mods too, including the relatively-recent The Third Age: Reforged (opens in new tab), which adds new factions, animations and units.
As a sidenote, if you’re on the Total War: Warhammer (opens in new tab) battlewagon, check out the recently-released The Lord of the Rings: Rise of Mordor (opens in new tab). It’s far from complete yet, but looks promising and could yet become the true successor to The Third Age.
8. Fall from Heaven 2 - Civilization IV
Staying on the theme of historical strategy games with a fantasy makeover, Fall from Heaven 2 (opens in new tab) is a superbly imagined swords-and-sorcery overhaul of Civilization IV (opens in new tab).
It transports the history-spanning formula to a lore-rich fantasy world brimming with magic spells, Hero units (complete with properly designed models), demonic religions and its own arcane tech tree.
It’s not always easy for a total conversion mod to evoke a powerful atmosphere that really sets it apart from its base game, but Fall from Heaven 2 pulls it off with aplomb, thanks to an encyclopaedic amount of lore, and a soundtrack that immerses you in its faraway world of werewolves and wizards.
9. Fallout 1.5: Resurrection - Fallout 2
This one’s for the retro PC gamers for whom Fallout is a game of taking turns and isometric cameras - none of this pseudo-FPS nonsense.
Released in 2016, Fallout 1.5 (opens in new tab) is a total conversion mod for Fallout 2 (opens in new tab) which crams a 25-or-so-hour chapter between the events of the first and second games, taking you to the post-apocalyptic wastes of Albuquerque, New Mexico (no signs of a drug-lab camper van out in the scrublands, sadly).
Fallout 1.5 is well-written and old-school relentless, which you’ll learn from the off as you’re beset by sizeable mobs of ghouls and rats. True to the spirit of the original game, Fallout 1.5 also throws some dark questlines and morally murky quandaries at you, so be prepared to have your Karma sternly tested.
10. The Nameless Mod - Deus Ex
Another option for gamers of a certain vintage, the Nameless Mod takes Deus Ex (opens in new tab)’s cyber-noir tone of gravelly voices and shady conspiracies, and amplifies it.
Set in a city that’s a manifestation of tribal internet forum culture, it’s a strangely apt game given the make-up of society today.
Forum City is a place of lonely neon lights and zeal-maddened characters, weighed down by an air of constant paranoia that you must stop from spilling over into self-destruction.
What’s impressive about The Nameless Mod (opens in new tab) is how it manages to build on certain areas of the original Deus Ex; the AI is more responsive to your actions, and the story can pretty much split into two depending on your decisions, coming good on that bold promise that ‘Every Choice Matters’.
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