It's been quite some time since Valve released Half-Life way back in 1998, but the game's influence is still felt, not least of all by the more than 70,000 people who are playing Counter-Strike online on any given day. And by some twist of irony, Valve's first new retail product in years is Counter-Strike: Condition Zero, the upcoming single-player game based on what started out as a fan-created multiplayer mod. Condition Zero has had something of a public debut at this week's CPL Counter-Strike tournament in Dallas, Texas. We've seen Condition Zero before, but it's a completely different game now that Ritual has taken the project over from Gearbox.
Condition Zero is now a single-player game to its core. Only some of its new elements, such as its improved visuals and higher quality audio, will carry over to the multiplayer game, and even then, they're designed not to make the slightest impact on the gameplay fans have come to expect. The single-player game is a series of 20 or so unconnected scenarios that put you in the role of unnamed counter-terrorist agents from various elite squads. The scenarios are self-contained vignettes; there's no explanation why the player is a SWAT team member assaulting a drug lab in Modesto, California in one and a Russian Spetsnaz agent trying to clean out a terrorist infested missile silo in the next. Some scenarios start with a briefing, others drop right into the action. In addition to a wide range of national counter-terrorist organizations to play as, there are plenty of different settings in the game, including arctic, desert, jungle and urban settings.
Ritual says Condition Zero is all about gameplay. So that it's not always just run and gun, there are a few different types of scenarios, some pure action, some stealth, and some focused on information-gathering objectives. There are scenarios that take inspiration from Counter-Strike's multiplayer modes, such as one VIP escort mission where a politician you're escorting insists on going on a handshaking tour through the slums, only to be attacked. However, one of Counter-Strike's signature elements--the money-based loadout selection that takes place between matches--isn't in the game. You start out each scenario with a set of weapons appropriate to your counter-terrorist unit's mission.
For some stealth-based missions this will mean you won't start out with any weapon at all, but may find one later after the initial infiltration. By this token, a "mission failed" screen won't pop up immediately if you're detected accidentally, but the game isn't designed to give you the choice between stealth and going through a stealth section with guns blazing. The first-person perspective isn't that conducive to stealth gameplay, but instead of relying on keys to make the character lean around walls, there's a fiber-optic camera to use to see around objects. While there isn't a dynamic stealth meter, some zones are set as safe hiding places, like in dark shadowy areas, so the AI won't bother you unannounced.
Perhaps Ritual emphasized the stealth elements during our demo particularly because the game otherwise seemed to set an incredibly fast pace. The multiplayer weapon speeds and damage model are intact, and the movement is quite fast. In many cases, there seemed to be several enemies on the screen at once, but that will depend on the weapons at your disposal in a given mission. Some half-dozen terrorists might pop up when you have a room-clearing shotgun, and at other times the game will be balanced to make it hard to pick off even a couple of opposing troops. The AI is related to what was used for the marines in Half-Life, so don't expect enemies to act the same way when you reload a saved game. And you'll be thankful that there will be health packs in the fast-action action levels, but Ritual promises that there won't be too many of them.
Counter-Strike isn't the prettiest game around, based as it is on an older engine, but Condition Zero works to raise the level of visual detail for weapons and player models. The polygonal detail has been increased by roughly 66 percent, and as you can see in the screenshots, it does make a big difference. Giving the graphics a professional touch, Ritual has redone the character models so it's easier to distinguish a terrorist from a counter-terrorist at a distance, just by giving them more distinct silhouettes. The single-player game also has key moments in every level that are designed for extra visual punch. It was astonishing to see a tank roll through a wooden fence, with planks breaking apart and flying out realistically. This and other displays of physics, like having enemies fall over balconies and roll down stairs, don't mean Ritual has added dynamic physics to the game, but the team has used the existing animation and scripting systems to nice effect.
The need to maintain multiplayer balance means that new weapons won't be added to the online part of the game, but there's no such restriction for the scenarios. Ritual mentioned that there are 10 new weapons in the works for Condition Zero, but three of those mentioned--the FAMAS assault rifle, the Galil rifle, and the riot shield--are all slated to be released in the upcoming 1.6 Counter-Strike patch. Two other weapons were mentioned by name: the LAW single-use rocket launcher and remote controlled mines. You may also find a terrorist suicide bomber coming at you at some point in the game. The LAW won't even be in the 10 new multiplayer maps, since it's terrifically powerful and unbalancing. However, if you want to play as server admin and tweak game settings even though you don't have the bandwidth to host a real server, Condition Zero will feature bots and let you play matches offline.
There's a fair bit of new content in Condition Zero, so it's pretty surprising that the game is due out in the spring even though Ritual started only four months ago. How can Ritual create a complete single-player game in eight months? There are two reasons. The artists and level designers know the Quake 1 technology inside and out. Another not so insignificant factor is that Ritual has 30 people devoted to Condition Zero, and let's not forget that Ritual has another game in development, Activision's Star Trek: Elite Force II. It so happens that the studio grew to include more than 50 developers this year with the help of EA, which had Ritual working on a PC version of Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.
Counter-Strike may be one game that's getting better with age, and if so the 2003 vintage promises to take the tactical gameplay to a new level of maturity. But it's safe to say that Condition Zero is a single-player adaptation that doesn't mess too much with what Counter-Strike fans have come to expect. In any case, as of Counter-Strike version 1.7, the underlying game will be merged, in terms of the interface and other core enhancements. The new official Condition Zero multiplayer maps are likely to be released to the public over time as well. It's the single-player campaign that will justify a retail price of around $35 to $40, but the high-resolution visuals and audio will also stay exclusive to Condition Zero.