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E3 2003: Counter-Strike

Once upon a trade show, Rob played Counter-Strike on an Xbox.

First person shooters, so the received wisdom of PC gaming goes, simply don't work on consoles. Take away the keyboard and mouse from a PC FPS ninja, shove a joypad into his hands, and you're left with a player who may not be able to stop staring at the ground and walking off cliffs, but could certainly moan about the rubbish controls to Olympic standards. To a certain degree, they have a point. If you're dealing with a "twitch" FPS game where reaction times and accuracy are vital, then the joypad is a cumbersome interface, and those rare FPS games which really work on consoles (GoldenEye, Halo, Metroid Prime) all work so well because they significantly rethink the weapon and interface conventions of the genre.

It's not surprising, then, that we approach Counter-Strike on the Xbox with a certain level of healthy suspicion. For those of you who aren't aware of it, Counter-Strike is the most popular online FPS game of all time, played by hundreds of thousands of people every night - and as hardcore FPS games go, they don't come much more hardcore. It's a far cry from the bouncy rocket-launcher approach of Quake-style games, favouring realistic weapons, fast kills and sneaky tactics - but when it comes down to it, it's the twitchiest of twitch games, requiring incredible accuracy and reaction times to place bullets exactly where they need to go - namely in the heads of your opposition, from about 200 yards away.

Tango Down

Translating that sort of game faithfully to the Xbox is, needless to say, a somewhat fraught proposition. There are other questions in our minds as well - for example, how will the complex purchasing system work on a console? In Counter-Strike, players receive money for their achievements and the achievements of their team - that money can then be used to buy guns, armour, ammunition and accessories such as grenades and bomb defusing kits at the start of the next round. The game is also unusual in that when you die, that's it - you're dead until the round ends (either because one of the teams is completely wiped out, or because an objective is achieved), and can only watch the rest of your teammates play. It works on the PC, but are console gamers so forgiving of tedium?

Let's answer the easy question first - namely, the purchasing system. Money in the game works exactly as it does in the PC version, with cash being allocated for kills, with a fat pot of cash for your team if you win a round, and a smaller pot for losing. You then buy weapons and other kit using a cunning circular menu system - push the analogue stick in the direction of the category of item you want, and press a button, then push towards the exact item you require and click to buy it. To speed matters up (so that you're not standing around forever buying guns at the start of a round), you can buy rifle and pistol ammunition with the triggers. It works very well, and we found that within a few rounds we could navigate to personal favourites like the Desert Eagle, MP5 and AK47 without even thinking about it.

The range of weapons available is broadly similar to the line-up of the PC game, but sports a number of additions. Some of these are weapons which will be seen in version 1.6 of Counter-Strike (coming any day now, honest!), but we're pretty sure there were some entirely new weapons in there as well, which is a nice addition. The balance of the weapons (in terms of firepower and accuracy) seems to be broadly similar to PC Counter-Strike as well - but the joypad control makes a definite difference to the weapons of choice. High-accuracy weapons become infinitely more difficult to score kills with, and we found ourselves switching from the likes of our beloved Colt M4A1s to weapons with a high rate of fire and decent spread such as the P90 or the Steyr Aug.

Fire in the Hole!

As you'd rather hope for a game based on a five-year-old engine, the graphics of Counter-Strike have been tarted up somewhat for its console debut. Many of the maps will be familiar to PC gamers (and contrary to some rumours, the vertical axis of play has not been removed from the game, or even toned down particularly, so you'll definitely need to be aware of what's above and below you) but they boast better texturing and we'd swear that the actual map geometry is more detailed in places. The weapon and player models are also significantly enhanced over the PC version, and the overall impression is not dissimilar to playing Counter-Strike with one of the third-party high-resolution model packs installed.

Bizarrely, however, the team appears to have stuck with the existing animations for the game - which don't look terrible, but the new high-resolution models do show up a lot of the inadequacy of these old animations. Players appear to skate along the ground rather than running in places, climbing steps is simply a matter of popping up each one in turn, and sometimes animations skip between each other without a proper transition. It's something we're used to in the PC version of the game, but somehow on a next-generation console it grates terribly.

The only other graphical enhancement which we noticed was a change to the way the Flashbang grenades in the game work. Whereas on the PC these simply make your screen white out for a few seconds and then gradually fade back to normal, on the Xbox version they actually fade back down until the screen is too dark for a while before returning to normal - a small touch, but quite a cool one nonetheless. Framerate wise, the whole thing runs very smoothly - we'd imagine it's all managing a nice steady 60 frames per second. Stop gasping down there at the back, PC using fanboys - that's the top framerate for a console (because televisions do 30 frames per second interlaced), and the game will have been balanced around that.

Get out of there, it's gonna blow!

With the cold hard facts out of the way, the key questions remain unanswered - namely, is it playable, and is it fun? The answer to both of those questions, perhaps surprisingly, is a resounding "yes". Perhaps because of the joypad control, the game plays very differently to CS on the PC, and we found ourselves being soundly whupped by less experienced players when we tried to use the basic tactics which have served us well in so many clan matches. The game on the Xbox is, strangely, both far faster and far sneakier than on the PC - mostly due to the fact that you can't simply wait for someone to come around a corner and then kill them, as the joypad doesn't track fast enough for that sort of play. Firefights take a little longer, and long-range kills are much rarer.

The game is also certainly a lot of fun. We played over an Xbox LAN against a full complement of other players, and the game was every bit as addictive as it is on the PC. Waiting out rounds is a suitable punishment for being killed, and even on a console the same instincts take over - watching your teammates, and thinking about what you'll do next round to avoid the same fate. It's slower than a big deathmatch style ruck, certainly, but it's a very intense gaming experience and one which translates surprisingly well to the console.

The real question is, who is this aimed at? PC Counter-Strike players are, frankly, going to turn their noses up at it - and as a CS addict myself, I can't imagine that I'll play it much on the Xbox, much as I'm fond of the console version of the game. However, there is a huge audience out there of console gamers who have never had a chance to try CS, and perhaps even more importantly, there's a vast array of people who like the game but are put off playing it on the PC because of what is perceived as rampant cheating and general muppetry on public online servers. Xbox Live is the perfect antidote to that - it makes CS into a cheat-free zone and a level playing field, and maintains all of the tension and addictive qualities that make it so popular on the PC. We'd never have believed it ourselves until we tried the game first-hand, but it's true - Counter-Strike on Xbox is shaping up to be a fantastic game.