Review by Derek Zoolander

"Terribly addicting. Will ruin your life, but worth it."

Counter-Strike (CS) reigned atop the online gaming charts from late 2000 through to 2005, its Olympian profile relegating countless other shoot-em-ups – Quake 3, Unreal Tournament, Rainbow Six, Soldier of Fortune – to the fringes of the online competitive scene. That this humble Half-Life mod, almost primitive by today's standards, could rule for so long is testament to its almost-flawless design. What separated CS from its lesser brethren wasn't just the intense action and satisfying frags, but also CS's unique ability to be friendly to the rawest of newbies, yet solid enough in its mechanics to provide sheer replay value and competitive material for the veterans. Which is why at its peak it was ten times as popular as its nearest competitor.

The hallmark of Counter-Strike, and the foundation of its empire, is the division of players into two opposing teams - Terrorists and Counter-terrorists. There's plenty of blood to be shed, but it's bereft of the frenetic free-for-alls of individual-based shooters. The team-play element allows for strategy, tactics and ever-so-gratifying set plays. Although both sides have set objectives (terrorists plant bombs, CTs defuse them, and either side can win by elimination – hardly brain surgery), the real brilliance of CS emerges through its mixing of team and individual glory. Die for the team as you decoy the opposition while the others plant the bomb; or wield a silenced automatic rifle and flank the enemy while they're confused by concussive grenades. The action is intense, and unrelenting: once one round is decided, another one starts, offering redemption for the losers and another challenge for the victors. Rounds typically last two minutes or so, long enough to use sound tactics each round but short enough to maintain momentum over several rounds.

Many other games have some teamplay element, but few achieve it as efficiently as Counter-Strike. Instead of bogging players down with intricate waypoints systems, CS lets you plan on the run. Teammates and important objectives show up neatly as dots on your radar, and you can communicate with allies in real time via a mic, or through in-game radio commands such as ‘cover me', ‘hold this position' and ‘need backup!' With only one life – and often a fleeting one at that – per round for each player, stealth and reconnaissance are needed as much as all-out attack if you and your team are to emerge with pride and head intact.

Navigating the Aztec ruins, open-air Italian markets (Pavarotti operas and all!), abandoned warehouses and nuclear storage facilities emblematic of CS's diverse environments (‘maps') would be hazardous to the extreme if it weren't for the team solidarity element, where each watches not just his own arse but those of all his mates. It's in these rugged maps where skill and tactics are tested, and flaws harshly exposed. Open lanes lead to shady back alleys. Sniper decks and dark little nooks litter overlook otherwise serene areas. Who knows what evil lurks in the heart of these maps? One well-placed flashbang, or a silenced rifle barrel poking from a dark alcove, can be the ruin of an entire team.

You'll have to look for these ambushes, listen closely to the staccato beat of nearby gunfire and decide – often by intuition, such is the pace of the game – whether to make a move; whether to break your cover to help your team, or stay hidden at their expense. And though Counter-Strike might be a team game, there will come nerve-wracking moments where a round comes to hinge upon individual play. Watching your teammates die and knowing that four enemies have your name etched on their remaining bullets is not a pleasant experience. But this tension only increases the sheer, primal rush that one experiences after a successful shootout.

Winning and losing are inevitabilities in CS, the brisk, mercurial nature of each round making it hard for one team to stay on top for long. Aiding the game's balance is the ‘money system'. Individuals' weapons and equipment have to be purchased, unless your team likes to graverob them from the less fortunate. Cash for buying your stuff is acquired through frags and team bonuses for meeting objectives. Keep winning and you'll have enough cash to buy the powerful rifles – although you can only carry one rifle/primary weapon, one pistol and a few grenades at any one time. The losing team often has to conserve money, going without armour or perhaps buying weaker weapons. An extended losing streak will see more cash going to the losers, so they won't remain submissive for too long. The money system may not be realistic – surely we wouldn't be filching $300 from each fallen enemy's wallet – but it works.

The only issue with Counter-Strike's money-based rounds is the repetition. The action is lively enough to never become boring (at most, only fatiguing!) but you'll inevitably find yourself buying the same three or four weapons, mostly rifles, each round. But just as any RPG will have its stand-out spells, and any fighter its dominant characters, having several dominant weapons isn't the downfall of CS as some would whine. As long as a gun is effective, and satisfying, you'll keep buying it.

Here again CS finds the right middle ground between no-frills realism and no-thought death-matching. The guns are modelled and animated admirably well. Each weapon has a distinctive report, and all of them recoil forcefully as they're fired, sending shell casings cascading groundward. Different ranges, accuracies and recoil patterns make one think twice before using a shotgun at long range, or putting a rifle on full-auto fire.

At the same time, CS shuns the over-realism that turns games into chess matches. Controlling weapons and their recoil can be difficult, but it's never a chore in itself, and routine actions like reloading are accomplished without undue fuss. Counter-Strike's realism aspect merely glazes over its gameplay, prettying it up. It's hard not be impressed the first time you fire an automatic and watch it romp about in your arms. Even now I derive guilty pleasure from seeing the globular spurts of blood that emerge from an enemy's head to signal a textbook headshot. And that death rale, and the post-mortem twitch…no, I'm not a sicko. It's just the allure of CS.

One can only enjoy the at-once instinctual but deathly calculated nature of Counter-Strike. Watching the red dot at the centre of your sniper rifle's crosshairs make its way onto an opponent's head, or alternatively seeing a reflexive jerk of your gun hit an opponent face-on, is undeniably satisfying. And nothing trumps the anticipation of hiding guerrilla-like in the shadows, cradling an AK-47 and waiting for the enemy to show his face. Any novice player can join a game and have fun, yet Counter-Strike's action becomes tangibly sharper – its nuances more and more ingrained – as you improve and become the gnarled veteran whom the newbies despise.

Many games like CS are initially popular because they appeal to our base instinct to KILL in GORY fashion with COOL weapons, but Counter-Strike -- like no game before or after – transcends that shallow appeal and brings us genuinely addicting and rewarding gameplay. The brain's dopamine centres go crazy for CS, and it's hard not to become addicted. A game which forces players to adapt or die has itself defeated all rivals.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.0 - Great

Originally Posted: 07/11/03, Updated 02/18/05

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