When it comes to playing older PC games, one of the first things a seasoned gamer will look for is graphics mods for the game. After all, why not? Just about every game that has graphics mods has at least one that brings universal improvement over the original graphics while retaining the original art style. Plus, these older titles are often better in every way besides static graphics compared to their modern counterparts, so often times this is the only thing they are missing.
When a game is heavily moddable, graphics mods are usually some of the less significant mods for said game, with gameplay mods and total conversions being more significant and important, but in this article we are focusing purely on graphics mods. More specifically, we have compiled a list of the top 5 most impressive set of graphics mods we have seen for any game. We are judging the mods not based on their final graphics quality, rather we are judging how far the mods have pushed the graphics compared to the original game.
We are not limiting each selection to just one mod, since typically to achieve the best graphics in a game you will use multiple graphics mods together. With that said, let’s get started with our list. Be sure to click the screenshots for full resolution!
Half-Life 2 was one of the absolute best looking games at the time of its release in 2004, but it’s hard to resist FakeFactory’s Cinematic Mod 2013 once you’ve tried it (especially considering it’s compatible with MMod). It single handedly is one of the utmost impressive graphics mods for any game. The screenshot above shows the unmodded game on top, and Cinematic Mod 2013 on the bottom.
This is a mod that has some controversy, but all the controversy comes from people who never bothered to configure the mod or try it at all. The controversy comes from people mistakenly believing Cinematic Mod forcefully changes all character models, especially Alyx with models based on glamour models like Adriana Lima. This is a silly feature built into the mod, but it is OPTIONAL. Make no mistake, Cinematic Mod 2013 is a universal improvement in every way, and doesn’t have to make any harmful changes to Half-Life 2.
At the bare minimum, Cinematic Mod merely updates the graphics with new post-processing effects which you can configure as shown above, new high resolution consistent textures (the texture work is truly amazing in this mod), new shaders supporting newer technologies such as HBAO, and of course it ports the game to Source Engine 2013 (which still uses a DX9 renderer like the base game) to better support these things and more. It also improves performance. It doesn’t necessarily make any changes to character models, weapon models, soundtrack, or AI, those are all optional but recommended.
Cinematic Mod lets you optionally replace character models with higher quality, lore friendly ones that are artistically consistent with the original game but far superior in quality. You can also sacrifice artistic consistency with the original game in exchange for vastly different models if you prefer. The choice is yours. All the complaints about Cinematic Mod are made because they are unaware of these choices. The funny thing is, by default Cinematic Mod doesn’t even replace character models.
Cinematic Mod does add the ability to aim down the sights, something sorely missing from Half-Life 2, and also it always drastically, universally improves level design. The level design in Half-Life 2 is functionally great; the areas you can actually play in are very well designed, but if you get to a high point where you can overlook the levels (and it’s very easy to get to such places, you will even be forced to visit such altitudes often) you will see the artistic deficiencies of the level design. In fact, these artistic deficiencies are also obvious on the ground where you’re playing. The levels aren’t very detailed when it comes to set decoration; props/objects, decals, and if you look past the playable area you will see blatant lack of completion. Let these screenshots below illustrate the difference.
Where unmodded Half-Life 2 will just feel like you’re playing on video game maps, Cinematic Mod takes you to an actual world. The four screenshot comparisons above (courtesy of FakeFactory) don’t even showcase Cinematic Mod 2013, but an older lesser version (every other screenshot here is the 2013 version on the other hand). Blank areas are filled with detail, scale is made more believable, so is the damage done to this post-apocalyptic world.
But when it comes purely to graphics quality, Cinematic Mod is still very impressive with its new models, shaders, textures, post-processing. It hits on every important area. Newcomers should definitely go ahead and use both MMod 1.3 and Cinematic Mod 2013. Literally the only benefit to playing the game unmodded is to understand how much better these mods are, since they are only objectively better with no drawbacks besides being more performance intensive (but not to the point where it can’t be run smoothly even at high refresh rates).
Deus Ex was a classic Unreal Engine game, which was the best engine for graphical fidelity at this time. The highest DirectX version it supports is still DX8 by default though, but with New Vision mod (which in itself includes Deus Exe) you get both DX9 and even DX10 renderers in a 2000 game. Insane!
Add Project HDTP on top of that and you’ve got some of the most technologically advanced graphics mods of all time. DX9/DX10 renderers add new shaders, multisampling, ambient occlusion, and other impressive effects for an old game. It really seems like every single world/object texture is retextured with these mods, with a resolution that defeats most modern games even.
What these mods don’t change much, which makes them unlike every other pick on this article, is post processing, but you can always use a post-process injector like SweetFX if you want that. A proper remake of Deus Ex would be ideal, but these mods and others are the reason it is not absolutely required.
Despite how impressive these graphics mods are, we do not recommend using them alone. Why? Well, gameplay remains untouched, and there is a lot of room for improvement in the gameplay of Deus Ex. Enter GMDX, a large scale overhaul mod that includes all of the aforementioned mods plus perfect, universally improved gameplay changes, and also higher quality models and textures for guns. Even though the GOG version of Deus Ex lets you download Revision mod through GOG, we recommend GMDX over Revision because GMDX makes zero disagreeable changes to level design (Revision makes unneeded changes to layout on many levels, making it no good for first timers) yet it improves gameplay further. Refer to this spreadsheet comparison of the two mods.
Notice how mirrors actually reflect things as shown in the screenshot above, including your laser sight? Find another game that does that. But I digress; Deus Ex, like other games on this list, is unplayable unmodded on modern day systems. It is extremely resolution limited and the graphics are just so dated that there’s no need to bother, considering these mods. GMDX mod adds level detail where the original game is lacking, it adds vaulting/mantling (the ability to climb any ledge) which is a massive improvement to mobility, it improves AI, its Realistic difficulty mode is by far the best balanced Deus Ex experience (headshots are more realistically lethal all around, armor is very important and has plausible properties), and the changes it makes to augmentations greatly enhance gameplay. Some people will tell you not to use GMDX the first time around, but there is really no good reason not to since GMDX is universally improved.
With these mods, the most outdated looking feature about Deus Ex has to be the character models, which are untouched. In fact, with all the mods we’ve chosen only #5 and #1 make significant improvements to character models (not counting first person arm models where #4 does impressive work).
Thief Gold is a re-release of Thief: The Dark Project from 1998. It is effectively the complete edition of the first Thief game. Thief II: The Metal Age released in 2000 on the same engine with the same graphics. While they are artistically very impressive, the technical graphics of Thief even in 1998 left a lot to be desired, losing handily to the Quake games, Half-Life, and Unreal from the same time period.
But fear not, for these games have some of the most impressive graphics mods of all time. Players need only to install one mod for each. Basically the same mod from the same people, made specifically for each game: Thief Gold HD Texture Mod and Thief 2 HD Texture Mod. The names are deceiving though; they are far more than texture mods, and affect every element of Thief’s graphics just about.
These mods do contain a separate mod that acts as an HD model replacement, and an unofficial patch full of engine updates including a DX9 renderer. These mods retexture just about the entire game, include lots of higher quality models, tons of new post processing effects from the DX9 era such as bloom, multisampling, totally redone water and particles, and more. The end result, as shown above, looks nothing like a 1998 or even a 2000 game, but much newer.
As with every other game on this list, players are advised not to even bother with the unmodded game, especially since most people wouldn’t bother to replay any of these games. No, go straight for these universally improved versions, improvements even the developers would (and in some cases actualy do) agree with.
#2 and #1 was a really tough decision here. Both sets of graphics mods are similarly thorough and impressive. The mods in question are DarkPlaces 64-bit engine replacement (get the latest build here), Rygel’s 2.7GB ultra texture pack which is linked on the DarkPlaces website, and Romi’s rtlights file for Quake which is also on the same site. The brave can also use Quake Retexture/Remodel Project but I don’t, since it’s difficult to install over DarkPlaces.
This new engine replaces the original lighting and shadows with new dynamic systems for both. Quake goes even more overboard here due to its particles; every weapon particle that should be a dynamic light is one. It’s almost like Quake II RTX, it is absolutely insane. That texture pack is also insanely high quality as you can see. With these mods, Quake from 1996 has more dynamic lights/shadows and more impressive particles than most modern day AAA games by far!
The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind is an RPG released in 2002 on Gamebryo engine. It uses a DX9 renderer, so the foundation was at least already laid out for modders to push the graphics to extreme limits. Even though modders didn’t have to add a new graphics renderer to the game (while #2 and #3 do add new renderers), Morrowind’s graphics mods still push boundaries even further. As expected for a Bethesda game, a multitude of mods are included here, all of which listed here.
The mods in question are MGE XE, Morrowind Rebirth (which is more of a huge overhaul mod than a graphics mod, but still affects graphics somewhat on its own), Grass for Morrowind Rebirth since the terrain obviously needs grass, Landscape Retexture, Tyddy’s Retextures, and Westly’s Pluginless Head and Hair Replacer. All of these and more are listed here. And anything else your heart desires but these are what we’re demonstrating, and it surpasses MGSO.
MGE XE is the most significant graphics mod here on its own, and its feature list is provided here. In short, MGE XE is the shader mod as well as the mod that can make Morrowind’s view distance effectively unlimited, although this is the main performance killer so be weary here.
The settings in the screenshot above are mine (well almost; I’ve since disabled windowed mode in favor of fullscreen, since I can now use FreeSync on my NVIDIA GPU unlike when I took that screenshot), and I have an ideal PC setup for this game (Ryzen 9 3900X, RTX 2080 Ti).
In addition to editing distant terrain generation, MGE XE completely overhauls the lighting system. Full dynamic lighting and full dynamic shadows, brand new to Morrowind added by MGE XE. This is a major reason why Morrowind ranks #1. MGE XE has a shader based per-pixel lighting system, replacing the supremely outdated vertex lighting, elevating Morrowind’s graphics from 2002 quality to 2007 quality in this regard.
In fact, Morrowind with these mods has better overall technical graphics than its sequel, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion (2006) with any amount of graphics mods you throw on it. Oblivion will have a few advantages like a not-so-good parallax mapping implementation, but overall Morrowind got more love from fans since it is by far the best game in the series in writing/story.
The aforementioned texture mod retexture just about the entire game, with a resolution that rivals any modern day AAA game. Character meshes and textures are also greatly improved, so every single element of Morrowind’s graphics is greatly improved. MGE XE also fully overhauls water, adding new reflections and caustics and underwater dynamic light beams penetrating the surface. Multisampling and anisotropic filtering are also added.
Skyboxes also received some love; they look truly impressive and far removed from 2002. I don’t think there is any trace of 2002 graphics remaining in Morrowind with these mods.
These mods push Morrowind’s graphics so far that performance does get… ruined unfortunately. You will need to be extremely mindful of the distant land settings, but even then view distance is great. Be conservative with multisampling as well; these screenshots all show 4x MSAA at 3440 x 1440. With this configuration, my frame rate (which I capped to 100 since I have a 100 Hz monitor) varies anywhere from
As with every other game on this list, do not bother playing this one unmodded. I’ll just let screenshots show you why.
The top is unmodded (screenshot courtesy of en.uesp.net), the bottom is modded. Don’t do this to yourself. Morrowind Rebirth mod also greatly overhauls the AI and the entire world, making the level design much more believable and detailed so that it doesn’t feel like a video game map but rather like an actual place instead.
For more comparison screenshots of all of these games and more, showing the unmodded game vs the best graphics mods, see this post. I also made this video below to demonstrate.
So that is our list. We would’ve liked to include more than 5, but the lines become more blurred beyond this point. DOOM 3: BFG Edition would be #6 as it used to be #5, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Call of Pripyat would rank #7, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim #8 perhaps, and S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Shadow of Chernobyl #9, but it’s hard to say what comes after that and even these three are not final picks. What are some of the most impressive displays of graphics modding you’ve seen? Let us know in the comments.