They Hunger

Rean­i­mat­ing Half-Life’s sham­bling to­tal con­ver­sion. By Rick Lane


Iwas con­vinced They Hunger would hold to­gether about as well as a skele­ton in a hur­ri­cane. Not only is it a 20-year-old Half-Life mod. It’s a 20-year-old zom­bie Half-Life mod. Given how gam­ing scraped the bot­tom of that brain cav­ity seven or eight years ago, I strug­gled to see how They Hunger could shine through two decades’ worth of de­riv­a­tive un­dead-fests.

Less than two hours in, They Hunger had proved me wrong. I re­al­ized this af­ter it tried to crush me be­tween two zom­bie-driven trains, then let me drive one of those trains through a se­quence of tun­nels filled with walk­ing corpses. I’m not sure what the best way to rekin­dle an old friend­ship is, but I think shout­ing “Choo-choo moth­er­fuck­ers!” as you splat­ter a sham­bling horde with your cow­catcher is pretty hard to beat.

Re­leased in three parts be­tween 1999 and 2001, They Hunger is a sin­gle­player, story-fo­cussed to­tal con­ver­sion for Half-Life. Cre­ated by a team of mod­ders led by Neil Menke, it charts a zom­bie out­break in the fic­tional town of Rock­well, which you’re thrown right into the mid­dle of af­ter your car falls into a lake af­ter be­ing struck by light­ning.

Un­like mods such as Coun­terStrike, which used Half-Life’s tech to cre­ate a very dif­fer­ent ex­pe­ri­ence, They Hunger fol­lows the de­sign ideas of Valve’s sem­i­nal shooter closely. It tells a lin­ear story us­ing en­vi­ron­men­tal sto­ry­telling and scripted set­pieces, with lev­els built to con­vey a co­her­ent, be­liev­able world. Even most of its weapons and en­e­mies are re­skins of those used in Half-Life. The crow­bar, for ex­am­ple, be­comes a lethal um­brella. John Steed would be proud.

Dead good

What made They Hunger stand out, and what makes it stand out to­day, is how the qual­ity of its level and set­piece de­sign ri­vals that of the game it’s based upon. The mod starts out with an in­dul­gent cutscene that in­cludes a ra­dio re­port dis­cussing “at­mo­spheric dis­tur­bances”, fol­lowed by long shots of your car’s fate­ful jour­ney into a ravine. Once you es­cape the wa­ter, you must cut through a church­yard where zom­bies burst out of coffins, be­fore nav­i­gat­ing a pump­ing sta­tion and an un­sta­ble vol­canic crater as you at­tempt to reach the site of that broad­cast.

Chap­ters two and three are more am­bi­tious still. The sec­ond episode has you es­cape from an in­fested po­lice sta­tion, be­fore mak­ing your way to a sprawl­ing men­tal asy­lum where the source of the out­break is lo­cated. In­side, you de­scend into a se­cret un­der­ground lab­o­ra­tory, be­fore es­cap­ing in a lengthy scripted se­quence wherein the asy­lum slowly and bril­liantly burns to the ground.

As you’d ex­pect given its her­itage, They Hunger is a whip-smart shooter. But it also stands up as a hor­ror

game. Like Look­ing Glass’ Thief, the dark and cloy­ing at­mos­phere is aided by its lumpen lo-fi graph­ics, while the sound de­sign is suit­ably eerie. The way its scut­tling skele­tons (which are re­skinned vor­ti­gaunts) whis­per “flesh crea­ture” be­fore they at­tack is pro­foundly un­set­tling.

While creepy. They Hunger knows how to bal­ance its hor­ror with more light­hearted mo­ments. The third chap­ter com­mences with a tense se­quence in a hospi­tal, fol­lowed by a more tongue-in-cheek sec­tion in which you bat­tle through a farm­yard pop­u­lated by zom­bie an­i­mals.

As I said, They Hunger works fine vis­ually, but if you strug­gle with its de­fault pre­sen­ta­tion, help is at hand. The mod is so old now that it has its own suite of mods, most of which are ded­i­cated to im­prov­ing the vi­su­als. The two main mods of in­ter­est are They Hunger-Re­mod by Zik­shadow, which makes up­dates to most of the game’s char­ac­ter models, and My Weapons Pack, which im­proves the models on weapons and your char­ac­ter’s hands. To­gether they help fend off some of the rav­ages of time.

It lives

Get­ting They Hunger up and run­ning to­day isn’t too chal­leng­ing. There are sev­eral ver­sions on ModDB which are com­pat­i­ble with Steam. Com­plet­ing it is a lit­tle trick­ier. I en­coun­tered sev­eral points where the mod would crash to menu or crash to desk­top. Some of these ap­peared to be caused by cer­tain en­emy sound ef­fects, and could be by­passed with a lit­tle luck. Oth­ers were linked to bro­ken script trig­gers, and could only be avoided by no­clip­ping through the map to the end of that area.

Hav­ing to re­sort to work­arounds is not ideal, but it’s worth it to ex­pe­ri­ence a bril­liant zom­bie ad­ven­ture. They Hunger crams more in­ven­tive­ness into its cam­paign than most bona fide zom­bie games, while bal­anc­ing silli­ness with ten­sion well. It may look a lit­tle des­ic­cated and moan when it gets up, but there’s life in They Hunger yet.


fol­lows the de­sign ideas of Valve’s sem­i­nal shooter closely

TheyHunger’s story is full of fun B-movie twists and turns.

Like Half-Life, the game com­mences with a lengthy introducti­on.

The tone swings be­tween hor­ri­fy­ing and hi­lar­i­ous.

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