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Pyramod: Curse Episodes

Now we've been all introspective with clever HL2 mod Polaris, let's go for another HL2 mod that indulges our more bloodthirsty side. We are nothing if not balanced. The hotly-anticipated Curse is an improbably lavish total conversion, booting the Source engine into a particularly shiny and towering ancient Egypt. There are mummies. There are physics puzzles. There is a floating spectral hammer with spikes. There is a whole lot of Doom.

It's always a happy shock to encounter a mod with presentation values like this. Almost all the visual and sonic elements are bespoke, the menus brand new, and the credits sequence is like the opening to a Bond movie, only with tumbling mummies instead of silhouettes of women covered in baby oil. Oh, and the combat system is all based around physics manipulation.

Your character has two modes - in one, he fires a sort of concussion blast from his hands, which clears a route through debris, smashes health containers, drags mysterious orbs across archaic circuitry and triggers the occasional out-of-reach switch. Unfortunately, it does diddly-squat to the angry mummies who teleport in when you activate certain glyphs. To deal with these shuffling cretins, you hit the right button to switch to your other mode - a hood drops over part of your vision, and your usual blue-tinged right hand switches to a crackling purple lefty and righty.

If there are no enemies around, you can't do anything in this mode. If, however, the dead are walking, an ethereal mace hovers in the air in front of you. When you swing the mouse, you swing the death-club. If you can gesture it in such a way that it collides with a mummy, that mummy will be hurled across the screen and instantly killed. Crunch! Biff! It feels good.

It's a system immediately reminiscent of the Wii, but its integration within a game that otherwise uses traditional FPS controls makes it feel that much more coherent and practical: it truly feels like controlling a floating spectral mace even as you remain in control of your own body. Less happily, the enemies are so few and so easily dispatched that there just isn't an opportunity to either master or truly delight in the hammering. It's tight and it works, but it never goes for it in the way that, say, Zeno Clash did with its similarly unorthodox combat. Obviously, that's a paid game and this is a free mod, but it seems like a bit of a waste to not really let the combat rip, given its impressive structures are all in place.

Gawk like an egyptian

Meantime, there's coloured-key based progression that brings back fond, Doomian memories - but in such an open and unhurried way that it doesn't suffer from the misery of Locked Door Syndrome. The grandiose levels shift and transform as you activate glyphs and switches, so there's a sense of striding through an unearthly land that's unwillingly granting you passage, rather than muddling through backtracking and missed keys. On the other hand, I was never entirely sure what I was doing or why - I just pushed on until I ended up in the next of the three impressively large, lavish levels. It could do with more context.

Still: not for nothing did this win an Editor's Choice trophy in last year's ModDB awards. It's an aesthetic triumph, and slick fusion of the oldest FPS values with those of the newest, physics-heavy upstarts, and as such I can confidently recommend its 60-90 minutes of exploring and smacking to each and every one of you. That it's largely the work of one guy, Gábor Dósa (with sound, music and weapon programming muscle from three other chaps) is flat-out astonishing.

Let's hope it takes off, as I'd love to see its ideas explode into a sequel or retail reworking that tightened the pacing and upped the action. I appreciate that it's very deliberately more of an exploration game than an action game, which is the kind of approach I usually applaud - it's just that in this instance there's a great action mechanic in there, and it'd be great to see it really made the best of. More episodes are due, I believe, and based on this they could achieve wondrous things.

I really should have filled this post with Egyptian gags. I have failed you. I am sorry.

Grab Curse from here, to the tune of 250Mb. While you wait: vidaction.

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