Condition Zero has long been a millstone around Valve's neck. It was always going to be a difficult project to get right - a single-player adventure infused with the spirit of the world's most popular online game - but over the course of its creation the game has fallen victim to countless delays and reshuffles that saw the project tossed around no less than four different developers. It also suffered thanks to pre-release review versions that felt like cheap knock-off copies, seemingly designed with no first hand knowledge of what made the original such an epoch-defining multiplayer experience in the first place. With middling scores and harsh conclusions in the can, Condition Zero looked set to limp into the wider world without much fanfare, and succeed only in giving the Half-Life-was-a-fluke crowd a slogan to replace "Whatever happened to Team Fortress 2?"
But, all credit to Valve, the Seattle-based first-person shooter developer knew Condition Zero wasn't up to scratch and hauled it back into development. And while handing the project to young and little known Turtle Rock Studios might have seemed like a sign of desperation, the result is actually a game with new legs and ideas. Valve, Gearbox and Ritual's mistake seems to have been trying to make Counter-Strike into something it isn't. What Turtle Rock has delivered is actually just plain old multiplayer Counter-Strike with bots, and a few faintly incongruous objectives that force you to do more than just pick your way through with your favourite weapons and tactics. It's a bit of a cop-out compared to what we were promised, but it's a darn sight better than what you would have wound up playing, believe you me...
Teams & Conditions
Condition Zero's roots in the multiplayer community mean that some of you will need a quick refresher. Here goes. Counter-Strike, which we've been playing on and off for about four years, is a simple team-based FPS in which opposing teams of Terrorists and Counter-Terrorists have to try and wipe each other out whilst managing map-specific objectives, like rescuing or protecting hostages and planting or defusing bombs. Each round is slightly more strategic than something like Capture The Flag though, because whenever you die you actually remain dead - until one team is wiped out completely, or until one team completes its objective.
Throw in instant headshot kills, a carefully balanced arsenal and weapon limits, monetary rewards and punishments for kills, hostage rescues, hostage kills, etc, and consistently ingenious map design, and its not too hard to understand Counter-Strike's popularity. It demands proper teamwork and less gung ho Schwarzenegger antics than its rivals, and although not quite perfect it is extremely well balanced and finely tuned, and arguably represents the pinnacle of team-based multiplayer even now. Regularly threatened by an insurgent flavour of the month FPS, it still remains the most popular game in its genre, and is fervently supported all over the Internet.
What Condition Zero does is augment the existing multiplayer game - which is available for free online and included here too - with a series of 18 missions on existing maps (unlocked in groups of three), in which the player has to juggle traditional Counter-Strike with the need to achieve certain sub-objectives and win by two clear rounds. Depending on the difficulty level you opt for, these objectives can range from simply having to kill a handful of enemies, to having to kill a handful of enemies using a pistol and riot shield, having to single-handedly rescue four hostages, or having to win a round in less than 75 seconds.
Play Counter-Strike while standing on one leg
It sounds like a daft idea. Counter-Strike is a game about teamwork, so why encourage the player to perform all these Rambo-esque feats of individual bravery? We agree with that to a certain extent, but what it does do is encourage you to think outside the bounds of what you're comfortable with, and forces you to get to grips with weapons and tactics you're not used to. If you generally provide support and wave a big assault rifle around, having to use a riot shield and pistol to kill several enemies is quite engaging; having to kill two enemies with a shotgun without dying in the same round and avoid slipping more than a round off the pace is a gripping experience; and trying to coax your team into a round-winning display whilst wielding a Magnum sniper rifle is quite an undertaking, and gives you a real lift when you manage it.
Condition Zero also allows you to play plain-old multiplayer Counter-Strike with bots and no objective-based restrictions, and whatever you think of the structure of the main campaign, a pair of tutorials that press on lesser known subtleties - like the way crouching affects accuracy - provide a decent enough grounding for newcomers. What's more, Condition Zero's bots arguably offer something that's long been missing from the freebie version; a decent advanced training ground. Even ardent followers of the game will have trouble keeping up with the tougher bots, who not only know the layouts and work as a team, but understand things like the way Magnum rounds can go through walls, where the best hiding spots are located and how to move slightly faster by running with a knife or grenade equipped.
The human Condition
The bots are by no means perfect, but they make surprisingly human mistakes, and surprisingly fleetingly; firing wildly in a panic and missing enemies; running to the wrong bomb site when they hear it's been planted; or bouncing a flashbang grenade into their team-mates by accident. All in all you don't generally get angry with them for being bots, and they provide far more challenge than any freely available alternative. They even use radio commands accurately, work together to clear areas, take shortcuts when time is a factor (even if they incur a bit of falling damage in the process), guard the bomb when the Terrorists fail to transport it the whole way to the bombsite, and let you take point if you're racing around like you have a purpose. In short, they act like real people and have more than enough field knowledge to put you through your paces.
As a result, Condition Zero is a bit of a surprise mix. The single-player game is eminently enjoyable, the bot AI is commendably human, and the careful refinement of the Counter-Strike experience over the past half-decade means that everything else about the game is about as good as it's going to get. Weapon models, map designs (including some previously only found in the Xbox version), control interfaces - all far better than anything in Half-Life, upon which CS was originally based. The only obvious issues are that you have to play the single-player game from the Counter-Terrorist perspective, and that Turtle Rock didn't use this opportunity to put together a basic scripting tool to speed up the buying process during the critical first few seconds of each round. As it is, you'll still have to develop a knack for hammering the right number keys in the right order if you want to make it to each map's choke points before your opposition.
From Zero to almost-hero
You can take a swing at it for being little more than Counter-Strike with bots - and four years too late - and the graphics and sound effects all pale in comparison to the calibre of technology we've come to expect at this stage in 2004, but Condition Zero is still a friendly package for newcomers, offering the perfect training course for the marvellous multiplayer game. It also includes a "Deleted Scenes" extra that lets you play through the discarded, almost-complete single-player adventure that Ritual constructed earlier on in the game's protracted development, and ships to stores with a third disc compendium of the various Half-Life 2 movies released on the web to date.
It's still a bit of an albatross, but this is by no means the turkey that everyone expected. Instead, it's a strong package that suffers partly because we were promised so much in the first place, partly because so much of it is available online for free, and partly because the new stuff is exactly the sort of thing Valve would have released for free in times gone past (and arguably did, given that bots made it into one of the beta versions of Counter-Strike before going AWOL when Condition Zero threatened to ship). Buy it if you live in a modem-shaped cave, if you're planning to move to an Antarctic research station for 12 months, or if you need a Rocky-style training montage to get you up to twitch killing standard. Just make sure you haggle.