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Remember when buying a game didn't feel like a guarantee of seeing the ending? There are still hard games out there, Dark Souls flying the flag most recently, but increasingly, the challenge has dripped out or at least softened, often leading to sadly wasted opportunities. What would Skyrim be like, for instance, if its ice and snow wasn't simply cosmetic, but actually punished you for going mountain climbing in your underpants?
With a quick mod – Frostfall in this case – you're forced to dress up warm before facing the elements, and things become much more interesting. That's just one example, and over the next couple of pages you'll find plenty more. These aren't mods that just do something cheap like double your enemy's hit-points, they're full rebalances and total conversions. Face their challenge, and they'll reward you with both a whole new experience and the satisfaction of going above and beyond the call of duty.
Game: Stalker: Call of Pripyat
All those weapons scattered around? Gone. Anomalies? Now more dangerous. Magic mini-map? Forget it. Valuable quest rewards? Good luck. Things you do get: thirsty, and factions who send goons after you if you anger them. On the plus side Pripyat is much more active, with a complete sound overhaul, and new NPCs to meet – who all have to play by the rules too, with no more infinite ammo. If you can survive here, you've got a good chance when the actual apocalypse comes.
Fallout: New Vegas
Link: Nexus Mods
Nevada is a good example of making things more difficult without being openly psychotic. Levelling is slower, players and NPCs get less health, and obvious features are now in, such as armour only being a factor in headshots if the target actually has head protection. It's also possible to toggle some extra-hardcore options, such as food no longer healing and taking care of hunger/thirst/ sleep on the move. There's a sack of new content, and an Extra Options mod is also available, offering even more control.
Despite what modern 'old-school' shooters would have you think, Doom was a relatively sedate experience – fast running speed, yes, but lots of skulking in the dark and going slow. Not any more! Brutal Doom cranks everything up to 11, then yawns and goes right for 25.6. We're talking extra shrapnel, execution attacks, tougher and faster monsters, metal music, and blood, blood, blood as far as your exploding eyes can see. It's compatible with just about any level you can throw at it, turning even E1M1 into charnel house devastation. The enemies don't get it all their own way, as Doomguy now starts with an assault rifle rather than simply a pistol, and a whole arsenal of new guns has been added to the Doom collection – including the BFG's big brother.
Game: The Witcher 2
This streamlines the combat and makes the action closer to how Geralt's adventure might have played out in the books. He's more responsive, can automatically parry incoming attacks, begins with his Witcher skills unlocked, and no longer has to spend most fights rolling around like a circus acrobat. But he's in a tougher world, with monsters now figuring out counterattacks much faster, enemies balanced based on equipment rather than levels, and experience only gained from quests, not combat. Be warned this is a 1.5GB file, not the megabyte Hotfix that's claimed.
Elder Scrolls games get ever more streamlined, and further from the classic RPG experience. Requiem drags Skyrim back, kicking and screaming. The world is no longer levelled for your convenience. Bandits deliver one-hit kills from the start. The undead mock arrows, quietly pointing out their lack of internal organs with a quick bonk to your head. Gods hold back their favour from those who displease them. Most importantly, stamina is now practically a curse. Heavy armour and no training can drain it even if you're standing still, and running out in battle is Very Bad News. Combine this with Frostfall, and Skyrim finally becomes the cold, unforgiving place it claims to be.
Total War: Shogun 2
Not only is this one of the most comprehensive mods any Total War game has ever seen, its modular nature makes it easy to pick and choose the changes that work best for the experience you want. Together, the campaign AI is reworked, as are the skills and experience systems, diplomacy and technology trees. There are over 100 new units. Campaigns are also longer, providing more time to play with all this, with easier access to the good stuff early on in the name of variety. There's even a sound module that adds oomph to rifles. Add everything, or only the bits you want. It's as much of a tactical decision as anything else on the road to conquering Japan.
Game: Crusader Kings II
Real history doesn't have enough bite for you? Recast the whole thing with Starks, Lannisters, Freys and the rest and it will. This doesn't simply swap a few names around, but works with the engine to recreate specific scenarios in the war for the Iron Throne. Individual characters' traits are pushed into the foreground, especially when duels break out. Wildlings care little about who your daddy was. It's best to know a fair amount about the world before jumping in, and the scenarios themselves contain spoilers, but you're absolutely not restricted to just following the story laid down in the books.
Game: Grand Theft Auto IV
Guess what this one does. A bowling league for Roman? Cars that drive themselves? A character who appears to tell Niko “You have $30,000 in your pocket, you don't need to goon for assholes” after Act 2? No, of course not. These guns put a little reality back into the cartoon that is GTA. The missions weren't written with that in mind, obviously, but there's nothing stopping you from giving it a shot. Worst case: murdering random civilians on the street is much quicker, easier and more satisfying. At least until the cops show up to spoil the fun. Range, accuracy, damage, ammo and fire rate are all covered, though be warned that you shouldn't expect perfect accuracy from your upgraded hardware. This is GTA after all. Realism is not baked into its combat engine.
Game: XCOM: Enemy Unknown
You're looking at eight soldier classes, many more missions, invaders as focused on upgrades as your own science team, and a much longer path to victory. Research is slow, not least to make early weapon upgrades more useful, while the aliens are constantly getting more powerful. Their ships are better, their terror missions are more regular, and more of them show up for battle. In exchange, you get to field more Interceptors, the council is easier to appease, and the ETs don't cheat as much.
Game: Far Cry 3
Ziggy makes Rook Island a more natural place, removing mission requirements for skills, cutting some of the easier ways to earn XP, increasing spawn rates to make the island busier, and throwing away the magic mini-map in favour of a compass. The second island is also unlocked from the start. Smaller changes include randomised ammo from dropped weapons, being able to climb hills that you should realistically be able to, and wingsuit abilities made available earlier to get more out of them.
Minecraft has a Survival mode, but it's not desperately challenging. Terrafirmacraft takes it seriously, with hunger and thirst that must be dealt with at all times, and key elements added such as the need to construct support beams while mining to prevent cave-ins, and a seasonal cycle that determines whether or not trees will produce fruit. Many more features are to be added, but there's enough here already to make survival about much more than throwing together a Creeper-proof fort.
Game: Torchlight II
Link: Synergies Mod
This adds a new act to the game, over a hundred monsters, new rare bosses, a new class – the Necromancer – more and tougher monsters and the gear to take them on. There are also endgame raids to add challenge once the world is saved yet again, and more on the way – including two new classes (Paladin and Warlock). It's the top-ranked Torchlight II mod on Steam Workshop, and easily the most popular. Be aware that it's still in development, and has a few rough edges.
Game: Civilization V
Link: Steam Workshop
While Brave New World has officially given Civ V a big shake up, for many players Nights remains its most popular add-on. It's a comprehensive upgrade, adding new buildings, wonders, technologies and units, with a heavy focus on policies and making the AI better. The single biggest change is how it calculates happiness, citizens adding cheer simply by existing, but the slow march of war and other miseries detracting from the good times. Annexed a city? Don't expect too many ticker-tape parades. Yet keeping happiness up is crucial, as it's also the core of a strong military. This rebalancing completely changes how you play, while the other additions offer plenty of scope for new tactics and even more carefully designed civilisations.
Link: TTLG Forums
This makes Dishonored's enemies more attentive, faster and able to hear a pin drop from the other side of the map. When you get into a fight, it quickly becomes an all-out street war. The biggest change is to Dishonored's second most abusable ability: the Lean (Blink of course being #1). Corvo can no longer sit behind scenery, lean out into an enemy's face and be politely ignored. He's now much more likely to be spotted – especially in ghost runs, where his advantages are now limited to the Outsider's gifts rather than the Overseers' continued lack of a local Specsavers.
Game: Deus Ex
New augmentations! Altered AI! Randomised inventories! Also a few time-savers: instead of separate keys and multitools for instance, a special keyring has both, while upgrades are used automatically if necessary. Difficulty also changes the balance considerably, from the standard game to 'Realistic' mode where you only get nine inventory slots, to 'Unrealistic', which makes JC Denton the cyborg killing machine he's meant to be, but at the cost of facing opponents who warrant it. In this mode he gets double-jumping powers, and automatically gobbles health items when he gets badly wounded. Good luck though, I still got nowhere.