Gaming Highs #7: Total Conversions and other Types of Top Tier Mods

Updated: Feb 15

The Babylon Project for FreeSpace Open
The Babylon Project for FreeSpace Open

Welcome back, everyone. Thus far in Gaming Highs, we have covered mods ranging from the humble Unofficial Patch to the highly ambitious Source Ports (the topic of the last article). In this, the seventh and final episode of our mini-series on mods we will investigate the other top-tier mod categories; Total Conversions, Overhaul Mods, Unofficial Expansions, and Mega Mix Sandboxes. Let’s dive in.

What is a Total Conversion?

A Total Conversion (TC) is a mod that uses an existing game and its engine to create something new.

Original Intellectual Properties

Some modders use TC’s to bring their original Intellectual Properties (IPs) to life in a way that would otherwise be prohibitively expensive, time-consuming, or difficult to create.

Using an existing free-to-use (for non-commercial products) game engine is generally far easier, quicker, and more affordable than creating one from scratch. What’s more, it will allow the modder to concentrate on telling their stories and designing their TC’s gameplay, instead of having to spend valuable time coding an engine from scratch first. (Which they might not possess the required programming knowledge to do anyway.)

By using an existing engine and its developer tools, a TC can allow a lone modder to create a game that would otherwise require a whole team to create from scratch. Several members of the FreeSpace 2 Source Code Project community – Hard Light Productions – have used the FreeSpace 2 Open engine to create original IPs. These are as diverse in tone and gameplay as the semi-realistic hard-sci-fi themed Solaris, and the anime-inspired Space Combat Sim / Visual Novel hybrid Wings of Dawn.

Freespace Open - Solaris

Video by Min あーみん

Freespace Open - Wings of Dawn

Video by Suomi Yuak

Existing Intellectual Properties

More commonly, however, a TC will involve re-creating and implementing an existing IP in a new engine. These existing IPs can be anything from video games, films, TV shows, graphic novels, books, and even other mods. These TCs may make use of the said IP’s assets, such as; music, sound, dialogue, artwork and characters, etc.

Notable TCs that do this include two Lord of the Rings TCs, Third Age – Total War, a Lord of the Rings TC for the turn-based strategy game Medieval Total War, and Last Days of the Third Age for the third-person RPG Mount and Blade Warband.

The Last Days Of The Third Age Warband (URUK Gameplay) (LoTR Mod)

Video by ReformistTM

Recreating Older Games

Some Total Conversions aim to bring older games up-to-date via newer game engines - similar to the previously discussed source ports. The main difference between the two being that a Source Port will usually attempt to recreate a specific game (for example Black Mesa recreating Half-Life) whereas a Total Conversion may attempt to recreate a franchise as a whole.

A notable example of this is Wing Commander Saga (WCS). WCS uses the FreeSpace 2 Open engine to recreate the Wing Commander universe. The Wing Commander franchise was arguably the first mission-based Space Combat Sim, and FreeSpace 1 and 2 were no doubt heavily inspired by it.

It is perhaps fitting then that the grand-daddy of SCSs has been brought up-to-date in the more advanced engine of the game it inspired. To quote a certain Sith Lord “The Circle is Now Complete”. Oh, and if you are wondering, yes, there are Star Wars Total Conversions too – lots of them.

Wing Commander Saga

Video by Wing Commander Saga

Real World Events

Some TCs are themed after real-world events, such as WW2 and Vietnam. These may make use of real-world assets to enhance immersion and authenticity. These might include period appropriate music, photographs, images of newspapers, and clips from propaganda films, news footage and radio broadcasts.

VietDOOM Alpha v0.1 (2019)

Video by Kills Alone

What Was the First Total Conversion?

I’m not 100% sure on which TC was the first, but Aliens TC for Doom ’93 is a likely candidate. Why? Because Doom ’93 was the first major release that was designed to be moddable and had an extensive modding community.

Aliens TC, as its name suggest, is a Total Conversion for Doom ’93 based on the 1986 sci-fi action horror film Aliens. It made liberal use of the film’s iconic sound effects, music and dialogue.

Aliens TC predated the officially licenced retail game Aliens Trilogy. Therefore, Aliens TC was the first opportunity most gamers had to experience the horrors of LV426 from a true FPS perspective. (Not counting the 8-bit Aliens ’86 game or Aliens vs Predator on the largely unsuccessful Atari Jaguar console.)

Aliens TC for Doom

“I like to keep this handy…for close encounters”

Video by pagb666

“There’s No Other way…”

In some cases, a TC may remain the only way to experience an IP in a specific genre. Two standout examples of this are based on the FreeSpace 2 Open engine. These are the Battlestar Galactica (BSG 2004) TC Diaspora: Shattered Armistice and the Babylon 5 themed TC The Babylon Project. These arguably remain the best Space Combat Sims in these universes. In the case of Babylon 5, The Babylon Project is likely the only Space Combat Sim devoted to the franchise, as the retail game Babylon 5: Into the Fire was cancelled before it was released.

Diaspora Release Trailer

Take that, toasters!

Video by DiasporaGame