Review by chobe

"Brilliant and infuriating at the same time."

Of all the First Person Shooters that have cropped up over the years, there's one that remains immensely popular with online gamers. Counter-Strike, born as a mod from Half-Life, still amasses some 200,000 players. The key to its enduring popularity more than likely behind the fact it has a simplistic premise, but gives way to so many possibilities. You'll never play two rounds of CS that are exactly the same, which is what's so brilliant about it.

Both a blessing and a burden.

Counter-Strike is a fairly simple team-based game. The Terrorists get dropped into one end of the level, the Counter-Terrorists the other. Each round has a time limit (which varies from server to server) and a level-specific objective. It's possible to win by eliminating the other team, or by completing said objective. The two most popular kinds of levels are bomb defusal and hostage maps. In the former, the onus is on the terrorists to plant a bomb at one of two sites guarded by the CTs and to defend it until it blows, thus winning the round. The latter puts the pressure on the CTs to rescue hostages from a building where the terrorists are located. Winning a round by either method will net the team more money to spend, although completing the level-specific objective usually rewards more than simply annihilating the opposition.

There's some realism involved in CS. For the most part, running or jumping around like a loon will get you killed. Firing most weapons is only really effective when stood still, and burst or single fire is more accurate than letting a whole clip fly, especially at range. Different body parts will take differing amounts of damage, and a shot to the head usually spells death. The weapons use different kinds of ammo which vary in strength.

The players buy guns, armour and accessories at the start of the round. There's some discrepancy between what the CTs and Ts can obtain, the most obvious of which is the difference in assault rifle. AK-47s for the terrorists, and M4A1s for the Counter-Terrorists. Each is considered the most effective weapon for that team, although the AK is without a doubt stronger with the downside of being slightly harder to use for newer players, due to its larger recoil. Some of the guns are considered unbalanced, such as the Magnum sniper rifle. This big bugger can kill people in one hit even with a body shot, and is frequently the subject of arguments in games. The buy system is fairly balanced, and you'll often find yourself debating whether it's worth buying a gun at all if you don't have the money for a decent one or for protectives.

Once you get into CS, you'll generally learn that there isn't much point using some of the less popular weapons (they'd be more popular if there was, no doubt) but now and again you might get bored and see fit to have a go with them. Armour and a helmet are essentials, and will save you frequently. Flashbangs, HE grenades and Smoke Grenades are all extremely useful when used correctly, and there is only one truly redundant item to speak of; the Nightvision Goggles. These things are completely useless, because there are no maps where it's so dark you can't see at all, and all they do is tinge the screen with a filthy green hue which makes it more difficult to see.

This game has a steep learning curve. When you first start playing, it may seem like you're not going to get any better and that there's absolutely no point bothering. Being knocked out for the round doesn't help either, since you'll frequently have to sit and watch two people either run around not bumping into each other or sitting put at opposite ends of the level, which can be a frustrating experience to say the least. It takes a while to get to grips with the recoil of the guns and to a lesser extent the layouts of the maps, and learning not to simply stay put and spray bullets at the enemy. Experience and practice are key.

However, when you start making headshots and learning when to move and not shoot, the game becomes intensely fun. The buzz from taking out several enemies or covering a team mate while they plant the bomb is unrivalled. Knifing someone whose back is turned, or blinding a whole group of people and pushing your team through to the objective, these are the things which will make the player giddy. It's an intense experience, which can sometimes unfortunately be marred by your fellow players.

Although Counter-Strike can be accurately described as a team game, it sure as hell doesn't feel that way sometimes. Public servers can be crappy places, with crappy people. Some of the folks you play with will be asinine, immature little boys who've unfortunately managed to get a microphone and will no doubt abuse you. A touch harsh? Perhaps, given that you can soon mute them and try and get about playing the game your own way. This problem isn't that pervasive, though; once you find a couple of public servers with mostly cool regulars, the enjoyment level ramps up.

All the same, there will sometimes be one or two people who team flash, block (stand behind and restrict your movement) or team kill you. This is usually counterbalanced by the odd person who'll interact with you via radio commands and try and back you up, as well as giving you space to breathe. The public servers don't offer as much of a team experience as closed or LAN games, as your team members will frequently go rogue looking to score kills for themselves. If you do the same, a public game can indeed be enjoyable. Executing movements as a team will always be incredibly fun though, and should be a key part of playing the game.

Old, but not ugly.

This game may look somewhat dated, but most importantly the visuals are functional. The textures, character models and scenery are far from fancy by today's standards, but they're completely clear and serve their purpose well. There are a plethora of maps, ranging from downright silly to well-designed. The seasoned player will have favourites, no doubt about it; but it's always nice to have a change. Despite a general lack of clutter (in the more official maps at least) they're well themed with each giving a distinctive scheme or feel, whether it's eastern, western, indoor or outdoor.

The gun models, firing and reloading animations are excellent. The graphics come without frills and this does nothing but immerse the player. This isn't about impressive water effects or ragdoll physics, and it's better without them. The default menu interface can be somewhat cumbersome, but this can be swiftly remedied by switching to old-style menus, which are much faster to use, and don't intrude on the screen in the same way.

The two teams each have a set of distinct character models. Four kinds of Counter-Terrorist, four kinds of Terrorist. There's little functional difference between them save for their colours which may be suited to different maps, though it's nice to have a choice nonetheless. The animations can be somewhat bizarre, but it's all part of the charm.

Get your headphones on, and get paranoid.

The sound can be described in a similar fashion to the graphics; not spectacular, but decent. The gunfire sounds are varied, and there are a few superflous sounds on some maps. These background noises can sometimes be a touch annoying and unnecessary, but the better maps don't tend to have them anyway. The real beauty of Counter-Strike's sound comes when you plug in some headphones. Learning to work out where sounds are coming from will make one hell of a better player, and there's no rush like being the only man left on your team and knowing that every sound you hear is an enemy.

Using this to its advantage is extremely satisfying, as you wait round a corner for someone stomping around with reckless abandon. More satisfying still is when a skilled player gives themselves up with a slip of the walk key, or by dropping from even a small height with a resolute "thud" which gives away their location. Of course, learning to be quiet yourself is all part of the fun, and focusing on the sounds in this game will frequently put you one step ahead.

Counter-Crack?

This game has limitless replayability, in one sense. As mentioned earlier, no two rounds will ever be exactly the same, and there are a wealth of sillier maps to give a try, as well as in-game mods, such as the Warcraft III mod. To begin with, it requires a relatively large investment of time. As you get better at it, you'll find that you can generally hop on and off less often without losing too much skill. It can be very addictive, but there's no real reason it should occupy one's time in the same way as a MMORPG, for example. There are plenty of clans out there to join, and several tournaments which focus exclusively on proper team play.

Not for everyone, but so cheap.. so, so cheap...

Granted, not everyone who likes FPS games will like CS. But it's that cheap that if you haven't given it a fair go and are a fan of the genre with an acceptable internet connection, you have no reason not to pick it up. It costs approximately 10 dollars (or equivalent) to download via Steam, so do it. Do it.


Reviewer's Score: 9/10 | Originally Posted: 05/17/07, Updated 05/17/07


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