Happy accident or stroke of genius, no one should begrudge the monolithic success of Counter-Strike. Any game that sucks the hours away so relentlessly for so many years deserves our undying gratitude. If it wasn't for the cheating mofos and the spluttering Steam system that has conspired to make it a tiresomely unreliable experience we'd probably spend even more addled hours honing our online skills. The fact that it's merely a free add on for Half-Life truly boggles the mind, and as a package it's probably done more to drive online gaming than any other.
So then, when we heard Microsoft was releasing it for Ł40 on Xbox, we were intrigued and appalled in equal measures. Intrigued on the basis that it would be Xbox Live-enabled, cheat free, would have single-player content, exclusive maps, the great levelling factor of being joypad controlled, and allegedly vastly improved visuals to complement the whole package.
On the other hand, do we really expect people to be excited about an ageing experience that is freely available and about to receive a long-overdue sequel with a cutting edge engine (albeit paid for this time)? With many Xbox titles featuring bonus Xbox Live modes as standard, isn't Microsoft winging it with this one? In a word: yes.
For the benefit of the two of you who've never heard of Counter-Strike, the deal is this: at the beginning of each match you choose to fight on the side of either the Terrorists or the Counter-Terrorists. Victory is guaranteed by wiping out the opposition deathmatch-style, but depending on the map you can also gain victory by exploding/defusing the bomb or rescuing/shielding the hostages before a time limit expires.
Winning each round gains you the cash, the glory and the chance to buy better weapons, armour and ammo, and a better chance of success in the next round. Losing, however is all bad news, bears. Not only is losing humiliating, you won't get rewarded and the chance of buying a better weapon is effectively lost. Worse still, if you die - win or lose - not only do you have to sit in the dead pool as a spectator until the next round commences, but you'll lose your weapons and have to start from scratch with a next-to-useless pistol, so it's definitely in your best interests to stay alive. Essentially the game's over once your team has won a pre-determined number of rounds, and so it goes on and on, with the maps changing and the sides changing into the small hours of the night until you can't take it any more.
Suffice to say that it's simple, gloriously addictive fun that gets better the more you get to know each map, the tactics of the opposition and all the tricks that people pull. If you're lucky you might even find yourself forming or becoming part of a decent clan and at that stage things tend to get a bit crazy. With some in-the-know mates to watch your back it becomes less of the frenzied deathmatch and more of an incredibly tense and strategic team-based FPS [it built up my arsenal of insults more than any other game in living memory -tearful Tom].
It's nothing new to most of the PC crowd of course, and they've probably skipped the last three paragraphs in protest, but being elitist and overlooking the millions of gamers yet to experience the game in any form would be demented. Any non-PC owning FPS fan who wants to find out what all the fuss is about should be grateful that the opportunity to sample one of the most influential online games ever has finally arrived.
Most of the core elements of the PC version have made it unscathed including all 22 weapons, the overall look, feel and sound effects, but just 11 of the PC's 26 maps (and none of the countless community-made alternatives) make it into the package, and there are a few other slightly odd omissions such as the inability to spray your team's logo on the walls, no widescreen mode and doubtlessly other minor elements we've overlooked. You can also no longer select a particular character model once you've chosen a side, but if anything this is an improvement in that it's much easier to identify who's on your side than the slightly confusing multiple skinned PC system - although it is harder to identify loudmouthed wankers masquerading as team-mates and wave your rifle threateningly in their faces.
What a bind
The initial shop menu has been tailored well to the Xbox controller, appearing as soon as a round starts and easily manipulated via a dial style menu that is split into five submenus - Equipment, Heavy Weapons, Sub Machine Guns, Pistols, and Rifles. The left and right triggers tool up primary and secondary ammo, and it's a quick and easy system that would have been improved even more with the option of some shortcut binds to get around the slightly arduous need to go through the same process at the start of each and every round. Surely it wouldn't have been that hard to introduce?
Elsewhere though the controls have been mapped somewhat intelligently, ignoring the glaringly obvious Halo standard of right trigger for fire and left trigger for grenades and promoting the important crouch function to the left trigger. Although this relegates grenade usage to the fiddly black button, which uses a stupidly blurry menu to cycle through them, crouching improves accuracy when firing your main and side arms, while grenades are single-use items that you might not even use during a round. It's good to see that Ritual and Turtle Rock didn't miss some of the more striking subtleties of the CS control scheme, even if they haven't mentioned them in the manual or allowed players to remap the controls...
Our early online experiences were much as we expected - lots of relatively clueless newbies getting themselves shot to pieces and learning the ropes - but that's only to be expected for now. Also the effect of the great leveller that is the joypad ensured that we could last more than 0.2 of a second if an enemy appeared. Accurately targeting on a joypad is, as even veterans will attest, a lottery at the best of times, and on that basis it's not a foregone conclusion that veterans will immediately be able to log on and kick butt. When you're swinging your targeting reticule wildly either side of your online opponent you'll be wishing for the precision of a mouse, but at least no one's cheating eh? And in this game, AWP whores are actually incredibly skilled and not just handy with the mouse.
Who's the man?
The added bonus for real CS nuts is the presence of the Xbox Live ranking system that can finally put an end to all those arguments over who's the king, and may prove to be the major draw for those otherwise balking at the prospect of shelling out for a game that most of us have had for free (via Half-Life) for years. The obligatory leaderboard can be customised to your requirements, so that you can claim bragging rights over just your friends or the entire Xbox community over the last week, month or to date, broken down to each map.
In among the 18 maps (plus more to come via download on Xbox Live) are seven exclusive to Xbox - Vostock, Truth, Tides, Stadium, Miami, Fastline and Corruption. Why 15 maps were hacked out of the final package is anyone's guess, and seems a twisted thing to do when the PC version is available for free, but there you go. Admittedly 18 maps plus maybe another handful of freebies is a fair number of online arenas to get stuck into, but the point remains.
All the new ones are typically focused affairs, but a little disappointing in that they do little to stray from the popular formula that everyone has enjoyed for so long. They serve their purpose and experiencing some unfamiliar environments is enjoyable enough, but ultimately have that more-of-the-same feel that hardly makes the game a worthy purchase for that reason alone, in case you were contemplating it. Completists might be unable to resist the challenge of conquering all new maps and proving their skills in a coherent international ranking system, but try and check them out beforehand if you can, because it seems an awful lot to pay for something that's no better than anything you can pick up from the mod community for nothing.
So what about the majority of you who aren't even signed up to Xbox Live? Does the single-player mode stand up on its own? Have the various teams involved gone to town showing off the power of the Xbox and spent the last few years polishing up the game with a radically enhanced engine that'll have PC and rival console owners frothing with envy at the ultimate online game? If only.
If you're sans-Xbox Live, there's not really an enormous amount for the lone player to look forward to. There we were expecting some kind of structured mission-based single-player campaign - i.e. Condition Zero - with a coherent set of goals that would be worthy of the price of admission on their own, but we've been utterly, hopelessly optimistic. How stupid did we feel when we discovered that all you get are the 18 online maps with AI bots, all unlocked, with nary even a UT-style ladder system as an incentive to play through them all. Shocking.
And what's even more puzzling is the fact you can't even replicate the online experience with an eight vs. eight match as with Xbox Live, and instead you're limited to a relatively lightweight five vs. five affair - and we're pretty sure the PC bots played happily in larger groups before Valve yanked them out of the free release. Yes, that's right, you can't even set up a decent sized bot match, if that sort of thing excites you, although you can choose from four different skill levels and customise the various settings, but if you get killed in the opening minute you have the thrilling prospect of waiting in the deadpool for the AI to play out its dumb little charade. At least you can chat to people online, but as ever there's literally nothing to do except sit there and watch or restart, which grates even harder when it's bots and not people. We were masochistic enough to sit through a few of these as a spectator for research purposes and witnessed the truly disastrous scene of an AI player shooting an enemy in the body a few times, running away, before finally returning to shoot the same enemy (who hadn't budged an inch) and finally killing him off after a few more rounds of drunken firing.
I'm not always so stupid
The AI's not always this cretinous, and for the most part the bots do a reasonable, albeit rather gung ho impersonation of the real thing, but examples of such abject lameness are hardly collector's items and it does neither Valve nor Xbox any favours to be associated with such obviously half-baked nonsense. Sure there's the option of System Link for up to 16 players (which will be great fun for those who can take advantage of this) but that's going out on a Tripod-sized limb. Even split screen's missing for heaven's sake. Someone have a word.
Another disappointing element of this long-awaited conversion is the four-year out of date visuals. Once again we've been pretty much duped into believing the graphics were in for an Xbox makeover to bring them up to the standards that you expect from Microsoft's capable machine. What we actually get is a set of blurry textured environments that surely must have been ported with the minimum of effort from the PC and populated them with some exceptionally dated character models that are rescued from being a total disgrace by virtue of some (literally) face-saving skins. Elsewhere this is pure Half-Life/Quake 1 engine-era stuff ported wholesale to the same console that's about to port Doom III and Half Life II. Compare them in few months time and you'll scarcely believe they exist on the same technology. The final nail in the technical travesties coffin is some ponderous load times that make you wonder what on earth Ritual (and Gearbox, and Turtle Rock) has been playing at for so long. And what of Valve's input? Did they really approve this? Surely Microsoft must be disappointed with the end result given the high standards it has managed to produce from its first parties of late?
We can only assume Microsoft is banking on the public's unquenchable passion for Counter-Strike to see it through (or tolerating this fluff with half an eye fixed on Valve's next release). We know it badly needed a solid addition to its Live portfolio in time for Christmas, especially once Halo 2 moved into 2004, but this rather functional and loveless port deserved a far greater degree of polish than is evident. Sure, it's Counter-Strike on the Xbox, online, and a console first - all the ingredients for a must-have title, but...
Online it's still one of the best multiplayer offerings around and Xbox owners unfamiliar with the PC phenomena will still get a lot out of it if they're flush for cash and spend a lot of their gaming time on Live. But elsewhere it lacks a single-player offering worthy of the name (and simply is not worth buying if you don't have Live), is mystifyingly missing most of the PC maps and has been ported to such a disappointingly low grade standard technically that we can't help but feel like it's a huge missed opportunity and a disservice to hardcore followers of the machine - the very people this game is intended to excite. The final insult is its Ł40 price tag - the biggest two fingers of them all for a freebie mod for crying out loud. If you have the choice, buy Half-Life for a fiver and download the far superior PC version for nothing - it runs on some seriously archaic hardware, too. At this price, Counter-Strike Xbox makes very little sense at all.