Ask any hardcore first-person-shooter fan what they think of Half-Life: Counter-strike and you're bound to witness one of two responses. You'll see either a look of reverence that implies far too many consecutive hours perfecting headshots and figuring out the virtual accuracy of a Colt M4A1 Carbine with its silencer taken off or the look of a person who has just lost a loved one.
That's the crux of the Half-Life: Counter-strike dilemma. Indeed, the game attracts just as many people as it angers, an aspect that makes the official release all that more puzzling since it encompasses the very rise and fall of one of the most respected and beloved multiplayer modifications of all-time. And, let's be honest, this might be the collective fault of the many gamers tuned into the genre.
The facts of the case are clear. Half-Life: Counter-strike didn't start like most games; there were no professional developers or publishing deals, no standard methods of distribution and it didn't even cost a cent. Counterstrike is, and has always been, a fan-created modification for Half-Life that implements real-world intent in firearms, accuracy and terrorist/counter-terrorist situations.
All this was created from essentially two college students, Minh Le and "Cliffe", who just wanted to make some more team play oriented changes to one of their favorite games. After building up a growing base of loyalists with each beta release of their mod, Counterstrike began to look like something every professional game company would stare at in disbelief. If two students could make a free game that is more popular than most anything on the store shelf, where did that leave them?
Well, at least Valve is one company prudent enough to first support and then simply buy the rights to Counterstrike, which explains this official boxed "version 1.0" turn of events. But, where does this leave the original Counterstrike community? Does this first official release mean fans can finally do away with all those older beta versions? Not exactly.
While the Counterstrike mod is still free for owners of Half-Life (the boxed version is for people who solely want to play it without having to buy the commercial Half-Life), version 1.0 highlights the disappointing decline that has occurred during the game's slow development. This helps explain why our two aforementioned fans - let's call them The Addict and The Lapsed Veteran - both exist in force.
What calls for such a fervent fan-base? Why has this one game attracted more simultaneous players than Quake III, Unreal Tournament and Starsiege: Tribes combined? There are a hefty number of reasons which is why a game like Half-Life: Counter-strike should not be underestimated. For starters, take a gander at Defense Exhibit A: a complete dismissal of the Half-Life universe surely feels refreshing, especially amidst the other "Capture The Backpack," "Capture the Blue Skull" and "Capture the Guy Who Glows Like Pac-Man" themes of other modifications.
Gordon Freeman doesn't exist. Nothing in the original Half-Life exists here apart from the game's engine. What you get is a series of multiplayer maps with basic premises such as rescue/guard hostages or detonate/defuse a bomb among others and have players slug it out the best way they can. And, slug it out they do, too.
Immediately, you notice something else wonderful - let's call it Defense Exhibit B. It's a completely new collection of weapons including Arctic Warfare Magnum sniper rifles, AK-47s, flash-bangs, Desert Eagles and other weapons of similar destructive power. While Half-Life: Counter-strike is far from a stodgy simulation, the level of detail in the look and behavior of each of these choices demands a lot of practice and experimentation before proper tactics and favorites can develop. For example, choosing the G-3 sniper rifle without learning how to lead targets will make you poor and penniless in no time while using an AK-47 without mastering burst fire techniques leaves you shooting at the rafters.
Even weapons from Half-Life itself such as the shotgun or an Mp5 are entirely rebuilt from scrap to maintain this "new world" goal of realism, fun and accuracy. Remember that middle word, fun, because we'll come back to it later. In any case, just learning (and re-learning) each of these weapons helps explain why so many people can't seem to get enough of changing personal techniques and feuding over which gun works the best - which leads us to the next aspect.
Exhibit C: the money system. This one's simple. More expensive weaponry and items become available depending on how well you or your team performs. Want that nice sniper rifle? You have to earn it first. Just bought that sniper rifle? You're going to be even more careful to not get killed and waste that $4750. We'll call the tweaked damage system Exhibit D - it ties into team play and the game's round-based setup.
Unlike most other games, staying alive is extremely difficult. Besides trying to get acquainted with all of the new weapons and map layouts, the damage system is the most alarming. Most guns kill you with a few bullets. Almost any gun will kill you with a single bullet if it hits your uncovered head. There are no power ups or health canisters either which wouldn't be so intimidating if the game didn't have a round-based setup. Instead of the instant respawn aspect of just about every multiplayer game existing in the post-Quake landscape, Half-Life: Counter-strike keeps you dead until one side wins.
So, if you die in the first few seconds of a round due to the fine art of embracing your own pulled grenades, odds are you'll have to wait in spectator mode for between 30 seconds to seven minutes before one team succeeds in their mission goals or is eliminated. It's obvious that this setup's inherent "live longer = more fun" philosophy not only rewards better gamers with more playtime but also demands that every attack be taken seriously.
In light of the above sentiment, one can see why team play is so vital to the game. The more you and your team stick together, the better you can fare against rogue enemies; the more strategies you try to get your team to follow, the more devastating your attacks will be against a disorganized enemy. Ideally, such team play demands also lead to a more social, interactive multiplayer experience instead of a solo deathmatch ego-stroke fest.
Fellow gamer, with such weighty pieces of evidence, even a layman can understand why Half-Life: Counter-strike has become such an addiction for such a huge number of players. It's realistic but rich in adrenaline. It's dangerous yet an outright blast to play when you cobble together a working team. Many times you'll turn down offers to go to the movies because the game offers a more potent brand of action.
However, along with every addiction come side effects. Let's be honest, no one likes a whiner and no one especially likes the elitist mantra: "I prefer the earlier stuff". With that said, where Half-Life: Counter-strike should be criticized is not in the execution of any of the above elements but for losing sight of its original success. After about a year and a half of betas, you'd expect a boxed release with "version 1.0" wrapped around it like an enticing Christmas bow to have everything worked out by now.
It doesn't. Despite some graphical improvements and wider accessibility, version 1.0 isn't even half as good as some of the betas released the previous year. Instead of smoothing out the kinks, the Half-Life: Counter-strike team has made a lot of them worse.
Time for the prosecution. First a look at how badly the designers bungled the maps. While these user-created maps are still ripe with intelligence, flair and textured creativity, the deletion of fantastic maps to make room for some strangely awful ones is the first sign that all is not right. Old favorites like the claustrophobic Facility (test of narrow halls and patience), the sprawling Hideout (large buildings encircled by canyon walls but surprisingly easy to navigate) or the ominous Bunker (dark lurker's paradise) are gone.
Instead, there is the odd placement of other maps such as the terminally incomprehensible Final Option (no flow between rooms - a horrible security measure that CT's can use to cheat). Or, how about the heavily terrorist-biased Highrise (set up a simple sniper crossfire on the lone escape pad and no VIP will ever leave alive)! Even map standards such as Siege are left with bizarre changes such as an open building in the middle of the map that makes the underground elevator useless.
There's a buggy APC available for the CT's even though it's more comedic than effective; the only modification that makes sense is the addition of more cover for both CT's and T's in the main garage. True, Half-Life: Counter-strike is a game made out of love, not dollar signs, so perhaps no one should nit-pick - but, one has to think that common sense should have ensured that these unusually bad decisions would never come to pass.
Of course, if maps were the only problem the game would still be innocent. There are much worse problems and, to be fair to the defense, most of them seem to have been caused by Valve's interference on the project. The easiest to point out is the new animation scheme for the game. The Half-Life: Counter-strike team spent quite a lot of effort tweaking the running/flinching/dying model animations and got it just about right shortly before version 1.0 was released. Then, Valve introduced their Team Fortress 2 animations and there was much comedy.
No doubt, the animations in this version are unintentionally hilarious. Flinching makes enemies appear as if they are covering their eyes from the sun. The top half of the body looks completely unconnected to the bottom half so people run like they're controlled by a puppeteer John Malkovich-style. Reloading, especially when crouching, looks as if people are yanking ammo clips from the depths of their collective butts.
The other enhancement Valve introduces is their much-hyped net-code. After months of development, Valve unveiled their new net-code to the public for all of their multiplayer venues and modifications and it is a squirrelly affair. Modem players adore it because it gives the illusion of smoother play (the new net-code essentially lets the client figure out most of the engine information) but it runs into trouble when the varying connection speeds of players don't agree with each other.
The worst example is of the "magic bullet" event. This gets a bit confusing, so scan ahead if you get antsy: if a slower player sees an enemy in the middle of his screen and he shoots at him, the server accepts the event. However, on the faster player's end, he could have already run past the slow danger and into a safe hallway nearby. But, by the time the slower player's "hit enemy" information is transmitted to the server, the faster guy will suddenly die in the hallway without a single player nearby. The bullet "follows" the enemy even if the faster player is hiding in safety. This is bad.
Tweaks help but not enough, especially when it comes to how the net-code affects the accuracy of the different firearms. Before the net-code changes, the accuracy with each gun was unique - consistently difficult. But with the new net-code, any reliable randomness is out the window. This is not a contradiction. Guns were randomized before but now they seem to behave differently inside each game and even from bullet to bullet.
Finding that fine line between firearm control and fun was more or less improving throughout Counterstrike's development but Valve's net-code has created a game of arbitrariness. Yes, perfecting skills over particular guns is a moot goal now that shooting blindly in a spray-and-pray tactic provides more consistent results. Instead of creating a more aware and tactical game, this random gun behavior has led to more Rambo-like charges and less strategic team play. Indeed, the "fun" factor has been crippled.
Unfortunately, this doesn't even touch on the handicapping of certain guns (Colt, G3), the absurd click-fest of pistols (click faster, fire faster) or the fact that smoke grenades only work well on extremely high-end systems (which can then be used as "lag grenades" against people with slower computers/connections). There's also the alarming rise of cheating that has run rampant on the majority of public servers to consider (not a coincidence that the cheating has risen exponentially with the game's popularity).
It all boils down to the idea that Half-Life: Counter-strike is a game of two passionate forces: the defense might have proved why there are so many Addicts around but it's also clear why The Lapsed Veterans are so despondent over the changes made to their favorite game. Both cases are strong and both are correct. Where does this leave the average gamer? That depends: one must realize that despite the box claim of "version 1.0," Half-Life: Counter-strike is still in development. Thus, there will most likely be a handful of more updates before the creators' of the game call it quits.
The best version might or might not be one made after this official store-release. It doesn't help matters that the more popular the game becomes, the bigger the avalanche of advice (good and bad) fans throw at the designers until their heads whirl (brings to mind the old adage about the road to hell being paved with good intentions). In any case, one must applaud the Half-Life: Counter-strike team for making it this far.
Even if version 1.0 was completely unplayable (which it's not), the creators deserve admiration for just making a game that is so addictive, popular and so damnably good. It's just a shame that, by most standards, version 1.0 shows a game past its prime. This is not easy to accept for either Addicts or Lapsed Veterans.
Maybe Half-Life: Counter-strike should be judged by what it once was - not necessarily by the odd changes made to it along the way. Even at its worst, the game is an unbridled hiss of realistic action, managing to find that "fun" factor in even the most clinical of circumstances (does anybody really care how a Colt is supposed to reload as long as the game is still enjoyable?).
The game behaves just as much like a tense, white-hot action fest as does a John McTiernan six-pack action movie. While the middle ground has been mutilated from beta to beta, the core of the game is remarkable. The old Counterstrike - perfect. Version 1.0 - just good. Which may or may not be a fatal blow in the long run - the jury's still out on that one.
Graphics: Even though the engine is almost two years old (at the time of release), the quality of the maps, textures and firearm modeling is exceptional.
Sound: Half-Life's ambient effects are still here but one is most impressed by the different and unique sounds of each and every piece of weaponry.
Enjoyment: Veteran players will be increasingly annoyed by all the negative changes made to the game but anyone can have a tremendously good time when playing with the right people.
Replay Value: Mastering all the weapons, items and maps is just the start, as nearly every multiplayer experience is different than the one that came before.
People who downloaded Counter-Strike 1.6 have also downloaded:
Counter-Strike: Condition Zero, Counter-Strike: Source, Half-Life, Call of Duty, Conspiracy: Weapons of Mass Destruction, Contract J.A.C.K., Battlefield 1942, Call of Duty 2
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