Born to kill.
Editor's note: Half-Life: Counter-strike was originally designed as a free downloadable Half-Life mod, requiring a retail version of Half-Life to run. Its success, however, prompted Sierra to offer two retail versions. For 30 bucks you can get CS, Team Fortress Classic, and multi-player versions of Opposing Force and Half-Life. You can also grab the Platinum edition for 60 bucks, containing all of the above as well as the full single player versions of Op Force and Half-Life.
The is a review of Counter-strike itself, not a specific retail product. And with that...
In the dark, swirling sea of multi-player mania swims a goliath. This man-eating leviathan lurks at the depths of imagination and skill, luring hapless gamers to their certain demise with its innocuous title, Counter-strike. "Ooh, another Half-Life mod," they think as they plug in. But this is no normal spawn of any normal birth. This is the Rosemary's Baby of video games, a video-offspring of demonic potential.
The original Half-Life marked the pinnacle of single-player gaming. It comes as little surprise, then, that this downloadable mod marks the pinnacle of the multi-player experience. Counter-strike is the best multi-player game of 2000, bar none.
The game is essentially a team-based first-person shooter. Action takes place in matches between Terrorists and Counter-terrorists. While there are several maps, the missions are limited to killescort a very important person to a helipad, prevent/cause destruction of a bombsite, and prevent/rescue hostages. And, of course, any match ends with the death of everyone on a given team.
Three mission types may seem like very few, but the variety of highly-realistic settings gives the game greater weight and teases the imagination. As opposed to a flag mongering spaceman, you're a terrorist bent on assassinating an American as he bolts across a rooftop - or you're an agent out to stop the murder. Did I mention this wasn't a kid's game?
Counter-strike's missions are set in dynamic, intuitively engineered environments. Imagine roaming the streets of Italy or the back alleys of a middle eastern villa. It's incredibly absorbing and detailed. Thanks to such dedicated level design, strategy is a huge part of the game. A team who hopes to win must have a deep understanding of each level and its strategic strong and weak points.
This brings me to teamwork, which is the most important aspect of the game. By using a money system, the designers have tried to take the emphasis off of individual accomplishment (you only get 300 bucks per kill) and place it on team gains (4,000 dollars per win). I guess the idea is that this will force people to figure out and fulfill the true potential of the game; namely, the awesome squad-based warfare.
Unlike other team-based shooters, every player in CS is fundamentally the same and can fill any role. In a sense, the weapons dictate the role; when equipped with a sniper rifle, a player's ability to launch an up-close assault vanishes in place of the ability to accurately cover huge expanses of terrain and deal death to any poor sod who dares a long range challenge. However, if said sniper should suddenly need lightning assault capabilities, he could easily throw down his rifle for any other gun he could find, as players drop their weapons when they die.
Nothing can beat a coordinated, experienced team in CS, except an even more coordinated and experienced team. Unless you're in a clan (this game may be the first good reason to join a clan, ever), the chances that you and your team will be able to perfectly coordinate are slight. Most teams in Counter-strike are more 'mob' than 'team', and usually accomplish little more than collective death. Games often come down to the 3 or 4 extremely skilled players on each server.
However, team talk allows you to pull together a bit. Chatting is the only medium of communication (other than shooting each other) between teammates, and the only way to bring other team-members in on a plan. Live players can't communicate with dead players, so much of the planning must be done early on in the match. The best teams, of course, don't need to talk.
While the potential for team play is definitely astounding, the expertise to be attained by yourself is nothing short of mind-blowing. I've never played a game in which there was such room to grow and evolve as a player. I've been playing this game for 6 months and I'm still getting better.
The only danger here is that Counter-strike might be hard to get into for gamers who are frustrated by starting off at square one. You'll get blown off the map a few times before scoring some kills. Trust me.
However, rookie players have more opportunity than ever to learn quickly, since Counter-strike only allows a single death per round. Once you die, that's it until everyone on one team has screamed their last. Upon your demise you enter "Free mode," a spectator mode that allows you to watch the remainder of the battle unfold. This is the perfect opportunity to study the tactics of those better than you, so even though you aren't necessarily playing, you're still learning and still involved in the game.
Unique to Counter-strike is the complexity of the guns. At first the gun selection seems boring - there's no plasma launcher or fire spewer. It's just gun after gun after gun. However, the guns are much more complicated than your usual point and click operation. If used carelessly, most guns are useless and inaccurate. Only through practice and experimentation can gamers hope to unlock the murderous potential behind each gun's trigger.
The guns are also balanced in a way as to ensure that the player always has enough money for a fairly lethal instrument. While the Arctic Wolf sniper rifle is undoubtedly the most powerful, destructive weapon in the game, it costs $4,600 dollars. The MP5 Navy SMG costs only $1500 and is excellent for almost all normal fighting. You'll never feel unequipped.
On the other end of the barrel, damage is taken extremely quickly. Most guns have the potential to score a one shot kill (direct Arctic Wolf hits are always fatal, even if you take a hit in the foot), and the average run-ins with bullets take off at least half your health. Dying is extremely easy in Counter-strike, but so is killing.
The graphics are decent, identical in most every way to Half-Life. The animations are a bit dated, but it's nothing to scoff at. Oh well. There can always be new maps.
Finding good servers is always a concern when it comes to online play. As perhaps the most popular multi-player game in town, CS features literally thousands of servers at any one time. You'll almost always find guys to play with.
The only real flaw with CS is a ridiculous one. Apparently, the designers wanted gamers to be able to really customize their skins, so they left most of that portion of the game open-ended. The result is that anyone with a decent knowledge of scripts or the tenacity to download them can cheat pretty mercilessly. With the right scripts, players can turn invisible, make enemies appear brighter, make themselves look like their enemies, and even crash servers! This blows. Fortunately, it doesn't happen often and it doesn't take admins long to boot cheaters when they pop up, but every once in awhile it can ruin a really good game. Such is the life of online play.
I couldn't possibly cover all the techniques to be learned in Counter-strike. Suffice to say that they all come together to make a serious life taker/heart breaker. The more you play CS, the more you'll know and the better you'll do. I love a game that rewards being played, and CS rewards patience and practice like none other.
Quick word about the pricing. As mentioned at the top of this review, for 30 bucks you can get CS, Team Fortress Classic, and multi-player versions of Opposing Force and Half-Life. Alternately, you can likely find a copy of Half-Life for around 20 bucks, then download CS for free. Either way, this is well worth the money.
Half-Life: Counter-strike has redefined online play. This game has more potential and more online gaming goodness than any other game I've ever played. While better things surely await us in the future, Counter-strike is a video game revolution you can take part in right now.