The They Hunger trilogy is a very complete conversion of Half-Life loosely based on the Night of the Living Dead movies. It features a host of new textures, new weapons. new monsters, and new sounds. The whole experience is totally new, and perfectly captured the look and feel of a good "B" horror movie.
Mapping was spectacular throughout, with excellent textures and plenty of eye-candy. Architecture was consistent and mostly believable, yet well laid out for interesting game-play. Monster Placement was excellent and lead to some truly intense combat scenarios. Game play was well paced, and the story was well developed. Most of the new monsters were basically reskinnings of the regular Half-Life monsters, but there were a few truly new ones too, and all of them were very well done.
The thing I liked best though, was the way They Hunger built up a mood using downright cinematic techniques. The scene when you first leave the mortuary to find a graveyard full of zombies clawing their way up out of their graves was had me ready to run and hide. The beginning of They Hunger 3 was something straight out of nightmare that had me totally creeped out before I encountered a single enemy. I wish I could describe these and many other scenes in more detail, but I wouldn't want to ruin the impact for you. Neil used anticipation, foreshadowing, and tension like a master storyteller.
Now lest they take away my reviewer's license, I have to do a little nit-picking. First, some of the architecture was a little more labyrinthine than was really believable - parts of the insane asylum looked as if the inmates had designed it. Finally, the ending sequence is one of the toughest I've ever played, and if you play it on difficult I'm not sure you have enough ammo to ever win.
There, I feel more like a jaded and cynical reviewer again.
The They Hunger Trilogy is definitely one of the best single-player mods available. It is on a par with the original game, and sets a standard all mappers should strive for. This is a mod no Half-Life fan should miss.
Azure Sheep takes place at the Black Mesa complex during the events of the original game. This time though, the story is seen from Barney's point of view. Essentially the plot is that Barney must rescue the girl (a female guard named Kate, aka Azure Sheep) and escape from Black Mesa. As such it sticks pretty much to the look and feel of the original game, but it does introduce quite a few new weapons and monsters that really add to the whole experience.
Mapping was well done overall. Although the architecture was sometimes a bit convoluted, the environments were always interesting and did a good job of reproducing the Black Mesa look. Monster placement was fairly good and led to some satisfying combat sequences, but the "monsters suddenly teleport all around you" technique was overused a bit. Puzzles were straight forward (mostly "find-the-button" types) and did not interfere with gameplay. The variety and quality new monsters and weapons was truly outstanding.
There are two serious bugs in the game. The first causes Kate to get squished in an elevator she must use (there is a work-around involving console commands). The second is at the end, when the game fails to recognize that you have indeed killed all the enemies, and the only solution is to replay the last map over and over until the game thinks the grunts have been killed enough.
The best feature of Azure Sheep is the story line - definitely one of the best I've played after the original game. There are a number of fun little bits where they interwove their story with that of the original Half-Life, and even included sequences based on Opposing Force. There's an entertaining sequence at the beginning where we get a glimpse of what everyday life was like for the Black Mesa guards. The primary mission of protecting Kate proved to be very challenging (like all guards, she likes to charge at enemies), especially during a brief sequence where you have no weapons. Finally, unlike many other mods, your efforts are rewarded with a fairly happy ending (at least once the game agrees that you've killed enough grunts).
I highly recommend Azure Sheep for all Half-Life fans.
Project Quantum Leap is not your ordinary Half-Life mod. It began on the Valve ERC forum as an idea - get a group of mappers to each submit one or more maps and combine them together into a single mod. Story? None! They would each do their own thing independent of everyone else. The disorienting effect of going from one level to the next totally unrelated level reminded the team of the old "Quantum Leap" TV program, hence the name. In the end 15 different mappers submitted their work, totaling 20 different levels.
Writing a review of this project is a difficult task. With no unifying story or theme you can't really review it as you would most mods - it simply wouldn't be fair to do so. It really should be looked at as 20 separate mini-levels, but that would take way too much time. Now to be fair I have to admit that I myself am part of the Valve ERC community, and consider many of these folks to be friends (well sort of - I haven't actually met any of them). None-the-less I will try to be as ruthlessly objective as a reviewer should be.
The contributing mappers were of many different levels of skill and radically different styles. This format allows them to be compared side-by-side to an extent not normally possible - which does not work to the advantage of the less skilled mappers. A few of the levels suffered from poorly thought out architecture, unimaginative enemy placement, and uninspired gameplay (sorry guys). Not that any of them were all that bad (well okay, maybe a couple were), but they definitely were short of the standard set by the rest of team. The rest of the levels were fairly good, even excellent, however. There was generally a high standard of technical mapping ability, and competent design. The architecture and map environments were well done, and combat was challenging (sometimes VERY challenging).
Three levels in particular stood out as really first rate. Loc's "Blow Up" level impressed me with it's overall quality and consistently excellent gameplay. Who?Me?'s "Someplace Else" was beautifully mapped with some cool special effects, and also provided excellent combat and gameplay but without a single crate or grunt (except dead ones) in sight. Finally, Manoid's "A.R.C. Novus-4" had a very open, non-linear layout that allows the player to approach the mission in several different ways - requiring far more player strategic thinking than almost any other level I've played. A.R.C. Novus-4 also features some excellent eye-candy. I'd love to see any of these three levels developed into stand-alone mods in their own rights.
Project Quantum Leap is a fascinating collection of levels, some really good, and most better than average. All of them were definitely worth playing. It is an excellent showcase for the talents of currently active Half-Life mappers, both good and bad.
By the way, they're already talking about Project Quantum Leap 2.
Oh, and Delete_Me, who the hell DID eat all the dough-nuts anyway?