Review by hangedman

"Massive."

''My name is Counter-Strike, and I’ll be feasting on your soul.''

Let's face it: this game is ****ing huge. It's everything that I want in an online game, and most everything I want in a First Person Shooter. It does so much right, and it delivers an experience unlike any other game in FPS history, and to a large extent any FPS promising a realistic combat scenario. I'm a true believer in this game. I play it every week, and have been doing so since it was introduced to me several months ago. If ever a game was to capture the sheer definition of longevity, this game is it.

I'm not even a major player of CS, as people affectionately call it. Some friends and online teammates spend hours playing every day, and are as much a facet of the server I play at as the server itself. To some, CS is more a lifestyle than a game. When newer, ''better'' games show up, CS's true fan base gets no smaller. Again, this is lasting appeal.

Consider that this game, if it deserves to be called that, is actually a free modification for Half-Life, and the only one to date that has actually been so successful to warrant a retail Half-Life add-on-pack containing a free game—in order for it to be released to an even larger audience. What could be considered marketing suicide is actually a successful business venture on company Valve's part: people buy it en mass.

As an add-on for Half-life, it retains HL's graphical engine, capable of displaying semi-realistic environments with quite a few characters, as well as character models with a wide array of detail. Although not as high-poly as many other titles in environments or as high-gloss as competitors, the HL engine has a lot of life in it: rarely ever does it feel like the lurching undead. To sweeten the deal, most of CS is customizable outside of the levels, so if you're unhappy with the look of a particular gun or character, it's out with the old and in with the new. I go through guns like a rich woman goes through shoes.

For the record, Terrorism is bad.

In play mechanics, CS is very similar to Half-Life. The standard configuration is a customizable button setup, usually the WSAD control config working together with the mouse, which most agree to be the most precise and easy control for any first person shooter. CS is no exception here... if you can aim and shoot robots in Quake 2, blast Nazis in Return to Castle Wolfenstein, or shoot terrorists in Rainbow Six, you'll find armed combat a snap.

Then again , the control is tight and responsive when you aren't being made to stop breathing by the other characters in-game. Everyone that interacts in CS is a real live player. Expect to find pseudo-intellectuals to hard-core gangstas to third graders attempting to sneak in some violence, though they’d never admit their real age. The faces of CS are many, indeed. It is ultimately the interaction with other characters that determines how good your chances of survival are.

The beauty of CS is within the simplicity: there are two teams attempting to kill each other, Counter-Terrorists and Terrorists. Depending on the map being played, one team might have the home court advantage: Terrorists must plant a bomb, CTs must rescue hostages. Failing either goal, either team can wipe out the other for an instant win. This game is a team game. It's hard for one man to make a difference unless he's really good. Wins are awarded with large sums of money, with which equipment and guns can be purchased. Losses are given less money, to ensure that the other team is outgunned but not overpowered.

To fight the other team one has access to an arsenal of weapons, no doubt CS's main strength. The beauty is that each type of gun suits a playing style perfectly. If you want distance, buy a sniper rifle. Close-in assaults are best left to sub-machine guns and shotguns. Should you fight as a support-role, several mid-range assault rifles allow a zoomed semi-auto rate of fire for quick and deadly pot-shots. Each weapon has a different rate of fire and heavier recoil, which tends to throw your aim off with constant shooting. All the bases are covered further, as your choice in sidearm can determine your longevity when you need to reload your primary gun. Choose a hand cannon for assault, or a 20-round pea-shooter for scare tactics and cover fire. The weapon selection and use has an amazing attention to detail, but ultimately it will be your coordination with other weapons and their users that leads to victory.

DEPTH.

And coordination is tops. A five-thousand dollar rifle won't save you from an 300 dollar flashbang grenade that can incapacitate you and allow a pistol-user an easy victory. Knowing the safe zones open to you to make a retreat in addition to using your radar to locate teammates can be crucial to survival. Give back-up and surprise a predator of your teammate, and in return you may breathe a sigh of relief when another teammate shoots a guy that had a bead on you. Strategy and surprise are key elements in this game, there's no question about that.

With the newly-implemented voice-communication, willing teammates can pair up to create chillingly effective 2-man hit squads and execute battle-tactics in the midst of a frenetic gunfight. Your level of strategy can be defined by your level of communication, a facet of gameplay unexplainably glossed over until recent years.

Another towering strength of this game is the fact that your playing style can be refined and adapted to situations at hand. Many online players choose to rush as fast as possible to choke-points in the map to gain the offensive upper hand. Personally, I choose to move without making a sound and prey on the lone-gunmen of the other team, checking the radar often to see where my teammates are and extrapolating where I can plan a flank given their positions. It is because both styles are welcome that CS is an experience.

The problem is that CS has a tendency to do as much harm in the bad as it does with the beauty in the good. For starters, CS is based on rounds which can last up to four minutes. Assuming you die before the round ends, you're stuck watching the round play out as a dead spectator. Should your skill be less than adequate, or should you be attempting to learn the game, don't be surprised to find that you're dead more than you are alive.

''I had a magazine to read when I was dead.'' – a friend.

Assuming the ''stuck-in-limbo'' mode wasn't enough for a new player to deal with, the CS community can be shockingly xenophobic, as everyone is expected to know where to go and what to do. Should you slip up your aim, kill someone with the wrong gun, or gain the advantage by hiding, the other server patrons may end up disliking you and voicing this dislike in the middle of the game, spoken or otherwise.

Finally, what CS lacks in user-unfriendliness and the occasional inability to avoid death, it lacks even more in weapon imbalance. It seems that the CS team has fallen asleep at certain areas during the evolution of this game. The best example is a one-hit-kill rifle (banned on many servers for precisely this reason) which is about the same cost as a semi-auto rifle which has a downright buggy shot-grouping. It's left to the intelligence of the player whether to buy a laser-accurate howitzer or an inferior weapon that can't hit the broad side of a barn for the same price. Even the most devout of pokemon fanboys could see that this is a problem, and the imbalance it creates is mind-boggling.

Although less extreme of an example, there are many weapons that simply ''don't cut it'' against virtually every other weapon, and realistically there are about 14 weapons out of the 20 or so offered that stand no chance of putting down your opponent: pistols with no pop-pop, submachine guns with low rates of fire, and an albatross of a machine gun that couldn't hit a fish in a barrel with a full magazine. More weapons are a fine inclusion, but more weapons that aren't nearly as good as what is currently offered is a very different story. What is the use of putting in new guns if the team knows damn well that they aren't up to par?

Fortunately for CS, the savvy player can minimize the downsides. If you don't like the bulky models, download new ones. If you want more teamwork in the game, use the voice-com. If you don't like the one-hit-wonder gun, go to a server that doesn't allow it. If you hate dying, mask your position and play silently. Your experience with CS can be highly variable. For the most part, I have a blast playing it, but that's a result of finding a good server with good, friendly players, not to mention a good anti-cheat program running behind the scenes. It’s also largely because I’m very good at the game.

When the experience is a welcome one, CS delivers an unmatched gaming high that practically guarantees that you'll continue to return to the game like an addict. When things turn sour, you'll be amazed at the lack of gameplay balance, the unwillingness of some people to work as a team, and the sickening depths to which people take this game seriously. True, most of the bad can be minimized, but when things turn ugly in CS, they turn really ugly.

As it stands, if you have a cable modem, a computer that can run 3d games, and a copy of Half-life, CS is a free modification. Free is a big word to throw around, and it's an especially big word to use to describe a game that a majority of people find to be the best FPS ever made. Though not without its share of problems, it's easy to see how people can enslave themselves into playing this game for hours and days on end. Conversely, it's easy to see how some people hate this game with a passion.

I was skeptical at first. I wondered to myself how a game could captivate people for such a long period of time without growing old. Here I am, two years later, and I don't have an explanation. There's something alluring about CS, be it the constant challenge, difference in play style, learning new areas and tricks with every game, or turning into a tactical zombie for hours at a time.

CS does more harm than it does good, bottom line, and has the most longevity of any game I've played to date. This game is like crack, and you are a crack whore.

OVERALL: 8 / 10
Addiction. Even if it’s bad for you on occasion, you’ll return like the junkie you are.


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*Yeah, I’m one of them.


Reviewer's Score: 8/10 | Originally Posted: 10/14/02, Updated 10/14/02


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